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The purpose of line management

As well as it being that time of year again (i.e. annual appraisal rounds), I am just returning to a role with line management responsibilities, so the function of line management was very much on my mind when I ran across a blogpost on Medium (@Medium) about how they run their review processes: MadLibs. Okay, that sounds at first like an off-the-wall, ‘only in California’ approach, but Gabe Kleinman makes a persuasive case.

I think almost every organisation that surveys its employees regularly will find that complaints such as ‘better line management’ and ‘more focus on learning and development’ crop up routinely and persistently. It sounds like Medium has come up with a way to break the cycle of complaint –> HR ‘innovation’ –> patchy implementation –> complaint. Rather than laborious soul-searching assessments or ‘off-the-peg’ feedback, their approach sets out some key issues that should be addressed in any feedback process and makes it easy. Those feeding back (including as part of ‘360’ appraisal) answer questions like:

  1. I can count on [x] to ___
  2. When things are going badly, [x] does/is ___ and ___
  3. Some areas for growth include ___ and ___
Gage’s post describes in more detail how Medium implement their approach in practice, but what I think is key is the values that are implicit in this approach: that the heart of line management is developing staff. On a day-to-day basis, there is the assignment of work, and there’s always management by exception, being able and willing to intervene when things within the team or with an individual’s work is going poorly, but these are really the manager fulfilling their responsibilities to the company or organisation; where managers can really add value is in how they fulfil their responsibility to direct-reports: facilitating learning and development. An appraisal system like the one Gabe describes puts this front-and-centre, instead of systems that focus on how well the direct-report has done in serving the company, ticking off objectives, which essentially opts the manager out of the most challenging but important element of the line-management relationship.
I am definitely going to be giving some thought to how the principles and ideas behind Medium’s approach could be integrated in my organisation, and in my own line management!
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