Google the phrase “people leave managers, not companies” and you’ll find plenty of research that flags up the vital link between employees’ performance and engagement and the relationships they have with their managers. Some line managers seem to instinctively “get” what it takes to keep their teams working well. Others struggle. In a busy working environment, line managers often regard the ‘HR stuff’ as yet another job that’s been added to their already loaded plate. They see their priority as meeting targets and delivering to customers, not dealing with the softer skills of motivation and retention, or even tackling unacceptable absence levels, performance issues or flexible working requests.
Mentoring is a great way for HR to support line managers with their people management responsibilities – particularly for managers who feel they’ve been thrown in the deep end or are struggling to see the value of devoting time to the task. It’s a win-win situation. It can help keep the business out of trouble by making sure managers understand and follow procedures. It’s also a great way for HR people to build their own knowledge of the real challenges managers face on the front line.
So, as an HR practitioner, what do you need to do to give a mentoring relationship with a line manager the best chance of success?
1. Be curious
It’s not uncommon for line managers to see HR as the ‘enemy’. Past experience may have led them to believe that HR managers – with all their policies and processes – are the people most likely to put barriers in their way and generally make it difficult to manage people in the way they want to. If a mentoring relationship is to get off to a good start, HR may first need to get their mentee ‘on side’ and help them see that the relationship could be a positive force which will help them get the best out of their people.
By engaging with line managers – and finding out about their issues and how you can support them – you’ll build that essential connection. Try to move away from any preconceived notions you may have about the way line managers operate. Show that you empathise with their concerns, are willing to listen openly to what they have to say and are keen to support them in finding solutions.
2. Provide support and challenge
When the solution to a problem seems obvious to you, it can be tempting to leap in and provide the answer. Although mentoring should be about sharing your knowledge and expertise, it shouldn’t be about simply telling people what to do. The key is to find an appropriate balance between supporting managers when they have an issue while also challenging them to think and come up with creative solutions for themselves. Don’t fall into the trap of making people reliant on you for answers. If they can’t do anything without your involvement or approval, it defeats the object of devolving HR responsibility to them in the first place.
3. Don’t let people off the hook
HR software systems have the potential to make life easier for managers – but they don’t always see it that way. Often, managers are resistant to using new systems. Not because they are incapable of getting to grips with them, but because in a rush, it’s easier to revert to the way things have always been done. If you are mentoring someone who is reluctant to embrace a new system, don’t let them off the hook by offering to do it for them. Hand-hold them through the process and help them see how engaging with the system will help them manage their people more effectively and efficiently in the long run.
4. Be a good listener
Acting as a sounding board is a key part of the mentoring process. Give managers an opportunity to talk openly about any issues they may be having with their teams. Sometimes, just giving managers a forum where they can discuss their concerns will be enough in itself to help them see the light and find a solution. Be prepared to ask probing questions if necessary. Often, issues are not always what they seem. Dig beneath the surface, for example, and you may be able to help your mentee see that an issue with an under-performing employee may really be to do with lack of resources or a training need.
5. Encourage reflection
In a busy environment, it’s easy to make snap judgements – about people or about the right way to tackle an issue. Mentoring provides a space where you can encourage managers to reflect on their situation rather than rushing in with all guns blazing. Encourage your mentee to think about what’s gone well in the past, and how they might build on that, rather than constantly trying to ‘fix’ things. Share your own examples of how similar situations have been handled in the past, to give managers some options to think about and to help them make a considered decision.