When we started the Skilled Managers research project in 2020, we wanted to see whether a training programme for line managers could boost conflict confidence and competence and have an impact on engagement and productivity. In the last three years, we’ve worked with 70 different organisations and trained around 1,000 managers and we’re still going. Doing this type of research in ‘real world’ environments is challenging for the researchers and also for the organisations – and we have been very lucky to find a group of participants with a real desire to develop their managers.

Three years down the line, it seems like a good point to reflect on what we have learnt so far. The lessons, which my colleague Professor Paul Latreille shared in a recent Propel Hub webinar, are these:

1) There is a real thirst for training aimed at line managers – getting interest in participating in research projects can be really tough but we were completely overwhelmed with the number of organisations who wanted to train their managers. Two webinars we hosted to recruit participants were hugely oversubscribed within hours of being publicised.

2) Line managers want recognition and support – as part of the training programme we’ve developed we have talked to 100s of managers in one-to-ones and workshops. We’ve also had detailed feedback from all the managers completing the Skilled Managers course. One clear message from this is that they desperately need the skills, support and the space to be able to have quality conversations with their team, build positive relationships and resolve problems when they arise. However, often managers are thrown in at the deep end, faced with ever expanding expectations and not enough hours in the working day. We really need to recognise that good management is a strategic issue for organisations and for the UK as a whole.

3) We need to think about different ways of providing training and advice – it would clearly be fantastic if every line manager was given a structured training programme covering all the main elements of people management. However, it is clear that this is not happening and is simply not realistic. Managers don’t have the time, or the space and many organisations don’t have the resources to provide ‘gold standard’ development. The model used in the Skilled Managers possibly points to a way forward. This involves:

  • Breaking down training to core messages and micro processes
  • Making training flexible, accessible and interactive
  • Using new technology to make training more mobile and give managers access to subject experts.

4) Training of this type can shift managerial approaches – one of the aims of the Skilled Managers intervention was to give managers the confidence to address workplace problems and to use more collaborative approaches to finding solutions. When we assessed the management styles of participants before they undertook the training, we found that collaborative approaches were dominant but that there were also quite high levels of avoidance. When we repeated this assessment at the end of the training, we discovered statistically significant changes pointing towards more collaborative and particularly less avoidant styles.

5) Developing conflict confidence can boost engagement – we also asked the reports of the managers engaged in the study to complete pulse surveys to measure their engagement.  This is a complex issue – as we were prompting managers to address problems in their team which may otherwise be avoided, there is a possibility that this could trigger negative reactions from staff. In fact, so far, we have found positive impacts on survey results across key questions. It would also appear that this impact is greater in some organisations than others. It is important to treat this finding with some caution as the research is ongoing, and the analysis is still in its early stages.

6) There are still challenges – while the emerging data from the Skilled Managers project is very promising, the research has also revealed a number of success factors and challenges which are important in informing our design of similar initiatives in the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly impact is dependent on managerial engagement with the intervention. However, this is driven by the buy-in of key stakeholders – HR and senior leaders. For this reason, it appears that the intervention is most effective in smaller organisations or those organisations with centralised structures making communication easier. In larger organisations with more fragmented structures, strong support from the centre is crucial. It is also clear that building managerial capability is much more challenging in environments where there are high levels of pressure and stress. Here, there is insufficient space even for a short sharp intervention like Skilled Managers.

The Skilled Managers research programme is providing vital insights into the development of people management capability. While it represents one potential way of building managerial confidence, however this doesn’t mean that it represents a good fit in every context. However, it does underline the pressures facing managers in the UK and the need to provide them with the space, support and skills to create better workplaces.