Line managers and the learning conundrum

Years (read decades) ago, we lived in a world where our line managers were the be all and end all of all things progression / promotion / development / that extra thing for us. If you wanted a promotion, a pay rise, to go on training, pretty much anything that exceeded the job description, it was your line manager that held the key to any of those doors. We learned, as time progressed, that actually, as individuals we had far more control of our own destiny than we thought possible. At the same time, we learned that our managers are woefully under-equipped to manage others in ways other than command and control.

Coaching became a thing. Asking questions that helped people arrive at their own solutions. Challenging people to test their own assumptions as well as others. Encouraging and motivating people to achieve their own results in their own way.

Emotional Intelligence became a thing. Understanding more about human emotions and how they drive relationships. That you can develop your ability to empathise, to listen well and to respond with kindness and compassion.

Situational Leadership became a thing. That you might have to adapt your management style with each individual and not treat everyone in the same way. To understand their development need and use a style appropriate for that need.

Learning and development became a thing. That people could purposefully and strategically plan their formal development. That they could apply for funding for external courses.

And slowly, and steadily, we became more and more sophisticated in our understanding of the human condition. We understood more and more how to help people learn, what their natural processes are for learning, and how we can support people to learn and develop using modern learning techniques and adult learning principles.

At some point, the responsibility of the line manager to support the learning and development of their team members became less and less relevant.

I see many L&D practitioners who staunchly advocate that in order for L&D to be successful, you must have the support of the line manager. So in the year 2016 – when we’ve pretty much understood that the old command and control methods of management are ineffective – we’re trying to give the line managers back their control so they can command their team members once again?

Consider it. A person today has far more self-control and self-determination of what they do and how they do it. The role of the line manager has become less about controlling what information their team members have access to and more about how to help facilitate their thinking, their learning and their development. If they’re not capable of doing that, they’re ineffective managers. That’s not the responsibility of the team member to rectify, nor should they wait for their line manager to suddenly improve their skills.

I don’t doubt, for one moment, that if your line manager can have a helpful conversation with you about your personal and professional development that we should support and encourage that to happen.

The reality is that many people these days are seeking out their own knowledge and information to get on with their day jobs, and often independently of their line manager. Additionally, more and more L&D departments are learning how to facilitate learning at work using techniques and tools like communities of practice, online collaboration tools and webinars (amongst many many others). Nearly all of the modern ways of working and learning require little input from the line manager – so I’m confused why so many L&D practitioners keep trying to insist they’re a core component, when that stopped being true a long time ago.

What do you think?

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “Line managers and the learning conundrum”

  1. Don’t disagree: however, as humans, we are deeply wired to seek support and reassurance from others, particularly others who could have influence over our destinies – in a work context, that tends to be the line manager, or better, the line manager’s manager. I would argue it depends how hierarchical the organisation is as to how key they are in L & D….

  2. I would not disagree with any of the above either, except to say that in an organisational or work context, I think learning should be focused. Where learning is a mature activity in an organisation and individuals are expert at identifying the best learning activity to meet their need (work-related), there is often evidence of effective learning resulting in good and improving work practices. However, the line manager is still responsible for how team members use their time, whether it is effectively used and produces good work outcomes. In learning communities of practice such as this it can be too easy to think the basic issues are solved everywhere and move on to higher things. But we should be aware that not all organisations are mature at organising their learning. Time and learning activities involve critical resources which, in a team environment, managers remain responsible for, as they are for the business rationale and expected outcomes of the learning. It is wonderful if learners take responsibility for their own learning, invest time in it and are creative learners. However, in my view, the overall focus, expected outcomes and decisions on how much work-time is spent on learning still revolves around the resources that line managers remain responsible for.

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