Line managers have fallen foul of criticism, but they have an unique ability to create organisational value, write Nicolas Arnaud and Thibaut Bardon

Numerous consultants, management gurus or academics are announcing the end of management and pleading with companies to allow employees to become their own managers.

Contrary to this myth of the end of management, our research shows that intermediary managers (also known as line managers) can be the drivers of managerial innovation when they use their unique position to create value. More specifically, we have observed that they can contribute to the social and economic performance of companies by helping to manage and reconcile five major issues within organisations:

1. Strategy and operational activity

Intermediate managers create value, especially when they help to reconcile strategic and operational stakes within their organisation. This does not mean merely relaying the strategy decided upon by management teams at the operational level – it also involves helping to create the strategy on a daily basis. Intermediate managers must therefore be involved in the design of the business strategy. They must create operational strategies for the unit they are responsible that are related to the company’s overarching strategy, and also contribute directly to enriching it with their own understanding of the issues involved.

So they have a major role to play here, but, in some organisations, managers are overwhelmed by the weight of operational responsibilities while in others they are completely disconnected from the day-to-day running of the business.

2. Management of individuals and the collective

Intermediate managers can also contribute to improving the performance of the organisation by striving to strike a balance between the need for collective management and the increasing demands of the teams for individualised management. 

It appears that the new generation of employees increasingly expects an individualised management that takes into account their personal situation. They want to evolve quickly and in a specific way, because they not only seek to maximise their job satisfaction now, but also to develop the employability that they see themselves requiring in the future. 

This individualised management must be part of a collective management that takes into account economic constraints and operational needs such as ethical issues, in particular a human, fair and transparent treatment of employees. These trade-offs constitute daily dilemmas that intermediary managers can help to solve.

3. Control and autonomy

Reconciling overall control and individuals’ autonomy is a major challenge. While control is necessary for collective action, too much can curb individual initiative and create a feeling of ‘policing’, which often results in a disengagement of the teams.

Too much autonomy can lead to a lack of coordination, and a feeling of insecurity both for the manager and the employee. Managers must strike the right balance between control and autonomy on a daily basis. The closeness they have with their team allows them to adjust this balance according to the profiles of each employee. In addition, they can put in place forms of control that are not seen as coercive, but rather as a support for action.

4. Stability and change

The balance between stability and change is one of the major challenges of modern organisations. In the past, the aim was to identify the most effective operational modes, formalise them and standardise their implementation to maximise value creation – in other words, productivity. Stability was therefore thought of as the main source of value creation. 

Companies must now constantly adapt their operating modes to an extremely variable and uncertain environment. But some stability is always needed, and should not necessarily be perceived as hindering the dynamics of change.

In many cases, organisational routines can prove to be highly creative when they incorporate individual and collective learning to increase efficiency. In the same way, the values ​​that make up a corporate culture can be key to cohesion, motivation and, therefore, value creation. In this context, intermediate managers can contribute to the renewal of companies’ operating modes while helping to maintain the forms of stability necessary to avoid the loss of important benchmarks.

5. The demand for success and the right to failure

Intermediate managers can also help to reconcile the ‘demand for success’ and ‘right to failure’, which are two conditions of organisational performance today. They can embody this requirement of success on a daily basis with their teams through setting ambitious goals, encouraging their teams to transcend individuality, and offering the support needed to succeed.

But succeeding also means creating, daring, testing and risking failure. Innovation depends on an organisation’s ability to create an atmosphere of ‘psychological security’ that encourages its members to dare to innovate. Intermediate managers can help foster such conditions by valuing creativity, identifying innovative projects with potential, and supporting such projects. It also implies that we can accept, or even value, a certain measure of honest failure, benefitting collectively from the difficulties encountered.

In the end, and contrary to the theory of the ‘end of management’, intermediate managers can in fact be formidable drivers of managerial innovation. This requires reflection on at least two levels. For intermediate managers, it is a matter of examining their own practices. For general directors, it is important to think about ways of creating the conditions that would enable intermediate management to really act as a motor of managerial innovations.

Nicolas Arnaud and Thibaut Bardon are holders of the chair in managerial innovations at Audencia Business School, France

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  • Wow I am not sure what this article is all about as it does not fit in with current reality in the workplace and the aims of all governments to extend your working life of the increasing reality of precious working for all workers. However it has some nice soundbites....