Frontline Manager: Building Organisational Heart


By Jennie Walker


Jennie Walker is organisational leadership faculty at University of the Rockies and an executive education professional at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Her research and work focus on methods to develop individuals and teams for success in complex, diverse and increasingly global environments. Jennie has designed and delivered corporate leadership development programs for Fortune 500 companies and co-authored Developing Your Global Mindset: The Handbook for Successful Global Leaders.

Managers play a critical role in creating the organisational climate through their interpersonal relationships with employees.

How do your managers view their professional relationship with employees? This foundational viewpoint could be making or breaking your employee engagement. A manager recently expressed frustration about his employee engagement scores, saying that he didn’t understand why employees were complaining about the organisational climate. He said that they needed to realise that they should be grateful for what the company provided for them, because they were not entitled to anything. He went on to say that he reminded employees of that whenever they questioned their benefits. In that conversation, it occurred to me that no amount of employee engagement activities could compensate for his fundamental belief that the organisation was doing employees “a favour” by employing them.

Instead of viewing employees as partners, he saw them merely as worker bees to be managed. His employees keenly felt his lack of interest and respect for them. Some openly resented him; others were apathetic. He was genuinely unaware of his own attitude towards employees and the effect it was having until we discussed it. Before embarking on a full-scale effort to engage employees, HR leaders may want to first explore the messaging and beliefs around the manager–employee relationship within the organisation. Does it perpetuate the age-old divide between the manager and employee levels, or does it promote partnership? Maybe it’s time to have that conversation and to push the reset button in your organisation.

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“Before embarking on a full-scale effort to engage employees, HR leaders may want to first explore the messaging and beliefs around the manager–employee relationship within the organisation.”

As the 20th century came to a close, research revealed compelling links between organisational performance and employee engagement. Engaged employees tended to produce and sell more, be more innovative, stay longer, and inspire other employees to be their best too. Many of the factors that influence engagement traditionally come from managers. For example, the Gallup organisation has now surveyed more than 25 million employees in 189 countries and has found that engaged employees say that their managers provide them with clear expectations, the tools to do their jobs, and professional development.  Organisations can readily help new managers develop the skills to provide these three things.  But research also reveals a critical factor that is harder to influence. According to Gallup, engaged employees believe that their managers care about them as people.

At Najafi Global Mindset Institute, we have researched managers’ ability to emotionally connect with others, especially people who are very different from them, and we have found many effective approaches that help managers foster a more empathetic professional relationship with their employees. The first and most important step is for the organisation to clearly articulate the vision of the manager–employee relationship to all leaders, especially new ones. That communication should answer several important questions for front-line managers, including:

  • How is employee engagement defined and measured in this organisation?
  • What is a manager’s expected role in employee engagement?
  • What should a productive and healthy relationship look and feel like between managers and their employees?
  • What are the desired leadership behaviours for managers in this organisation with respect to employee engagement, and how are they measured?

The expectation must be set that all managers, like the one I was working with, have a critical and active role in creating the organisational climate by building strong interpersonal relationships with each of their employees. They benefit from guidance on the behaviours that will make them successful in that role, and ongoing coaching on these. If the organisation really wants to proactively create an engaged culture, performance measures for desired leadership behaviours that drive employee engagement should also be put into place.

Managers are on the front line of employee engagement. They are not just the face of the organisation to the employees, they are also the heart.

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Tips for HR leaders to help managers create genuine connections with their employees.  

Provide guidance to new managers and those who need some coaching on ways to create connections, such as:

  • meeting with employees individually to get to know each other
  • creating social time and group activities for the team on an ongoing basis
  • discussing hobbies and interests outside of the workplace
  • showing interest in a person’s family, and being willing to share information about yours
  • asking questions to better understand others’ points of view
  • actively soliciting employee opinions and feedback
  • encouraging storytelling, where people feel comfortable discussing their experiences with you and their team members
  • sharing your own stories to help employees get to know you as a person.

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