Four Approaches to Supporting First Line Managers

A serious responsibility of senior leaders is developing new leaders. Mentoring goes beyond the practical benefits of succession planning, to be a moral responsibility through which professionals demonstrate their commitment to a long term mission.

A few surveys I’ve conducted over recent years have shown that this kind of support is lacking, especially in public sector organizations. The responses from first line managers, even those with positive regard from their direct reports, express distress.

The exhaustion from intense demands and weak worklife boundaries is not surprising. It’s tough to maintain a balanced, sustainable lifestyle when undertaking new challenges.

What’s striking to me is widespread disaffection with organizational initiatives. So much of organizational change in today’s public sector means cuts. Addressing more demands with diminishing resources is celebrated as increased productivity. While an admirable goal at first glance, efforts towards increased productivity often meet resistance.

First line managers are at the cutting edge of putting those changes into action. They receive the immediate pushback from employees who felt overwhelmed already. Any well considered change strategy would have first line managers on side with new initiatives. Their positive attitude can be a beacon in leading employees to finding the benefits of a well-considered plan for action.

Survey responses often convey that these leaders are not with the program. They don’t recall participating in planning these initiatives. They see little recognition of the strains and creativity needed to put ideas into action. They lack emotional and logistic support for change.

As a result, first line managers often have a more negative attitude towards organizational change initiatives than do their direct reports. This state of things reflects poor leadership from the executive level. It also dooms many initiatives.

Enthusiastic support from first line managers is a precious resource; their skepticism builds a serious barrier to change.

Addressing this gap is certainly feasible, but it requires making the effort to support first line managers and having the openness to consider seriously their ideas for change.

  1. Involve first line managers early in the planning process.
  2. Clarify their role in developing buy-in within their units.
  3. Respond seriously to their concerns about implementing change within their units.
  4. Maintain ongoing mentoring relationships focused on developing solutions to emerging challenges.

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