How to connect line managers with learning

How do we get to grips with learning while working? How do we get better at learning transfer? How do we build a learning culture that works?

These questions are being asked with increasing frequency by learning professionals around the globe. With significant resources, both budget and time, invested in our increasingly digital learning and development projects, the impact of those is critical for either moving the organisation forward or to keep it safe. The key to success in all these areas often isn’t the quality of our L&D initiatives but the extent to which the line manager is involved.

Line managers create permission to try something new. They create safety to learn through failure. They create priorities that influence how their team works and learns together.

Yet in 2022, 3 of the top 5 barriers to progress reported by learning professionals point to the managers as the culprits! 42% say that line managers do not make time for learning. 35% say leaders have traditional expectations of L&D that are tough to change and 31% say employees just don’t have time to share.

During my first benchmarking research project two decades ago, a staggering 90% of the learners were able to apply skills learnt from learning on the job. A staggering 55% claimed that their managers were the influencing factor of engaging with the learning!

Yet most of our L&D effort is spent on engaging users and senior board members, and rarely targets strategies that support line managers directly.

Competing priorities

It always makes life easier when we work with line managers who have time for learning and consider it a priority for achieving team results. However, we can’t rely on their commitment or even understanding.

At best, it is probably safe to assume that the majority of managers feel that learning is a necessary evil. Ok I might be talking about compliance training here, but you know what I mean! At worst some may believe that it is a total waste of time, effort and resources and that L&D interventions are just getting in the way of real business issues.

What is important to line managers? A manager’s day to day life involves planning to deliver to deadline or target, implementing company strategy, controlling resources and troubleshooting on a daily basis. Their day-to-day vocabulary includes words such as deadline, target, customer satisfaction, cost control and probably a number of others that cannot be printed.

What is important to us when we implement a new L&D initiative?

There is an increasing focus for L&D professionals on aligning learning to business priorities. Design and delivery methods are also a critical consideration, combining instructional design and technology to deliver the most compelling and accessible learning experience within the budget available. We’re increasingly spending time on effective implementation involving marketing and communications programmes and working with local champions. We measure engagement, completion and hours spent on learning as indicators of a great experience.

If we are to work with managers more proactively within the process, we need to identify where our priorities overlap – focussing on mutual objectives for mutual gain will deliver the maximum return on our efforts in this area.

So how do we start to address the issue of line management engagement?

 Here are 4 strategies that work for high performing learning teams:

  1. Go to Gemba! – there is no substitute for time spent on the ground
    Building credibility and respect whilst challenging preconceived ideas takes time and persistent visibility – most of which needs to be face to face. It is unrealistic to assume that quality time can be spent with all line managers. But regularly attending their team meetings, communicating business results, and taking time out to understand the current business issues with influential managers all has an impact. More specifically, many managers are quick to point out when they have not seen you in over a year and, in my experience, will happily use that as an excuse not to get involved.
  2. Listen up – there are no short cuts to good communication
    The questions we ask, how we listen and respond, the vocabulary we use – all need to be thought through carefully. ‘What’s in it for me?’ will be the main question that most busy managers will ask and we need to have an answer that makes sense to them.
    Understanding manager motivation is also important – across the board, league tables between departments had a significant impact on manager involvement as they appeal to the competitive streak within managers – no-one likes to be at the bottom! Be careful of other motivational techniques, such as games and competitions, e.g., ‘win some fancy headphones when your department completes its listening skills course’. Gimmicks like this are just as likely to fall on deaf ears with this audience.
  3. Leading by example – there is nothing more powerful than learning through experience
    One of the best ways to support managers is to model effective practices in their own experiences. Most of high performing learning teams in the benchmark studies over the past 20 years all have strategies to linking new ways of learning within line managers own learning programmes. The more managers have opportunity to see how great combinations of digital content, community, space practice and action learning impact their own performance, the more they will be inclined to support their teams with the same.
  4. Tool up – there’s nothing more compelling than someone who can make your life easier
    Like it or not, research with line managers show that they love great online resources – books and toolkits offering pertinent and timely pieces of advice that are easy to find and apply. Put the right tools into the manager’s hand to do their job (not yours!) and you’ll have a friend for life!

As part of the Emerging Stronger project, we have developed some new tools that help to connect line managers with the learning process within their own teams.

One  is the Power Hour tool – a meeting in a box that makes it easy for line managers to release the POWER in their teams. You can download it below – try it and let me know how it goes!

Ultimately when their role is easy, line managers are more likely to get involved and support the learning process.

In conclusion

There is no doubt about it, line managers are probably the toughest business community to tackle when it comes to engaging them with the learning. So, it is not surprising that they are often ignored in the process. However, a little success in this area can have a significant impact on the holy grail of learning impact.

Engaging line managers is like painting the Forth Bridge – it has to be done for the structure (learning) to deliver its promise. It’s a mammoth task that is will never be completed with its success constantly dependent on the climate (in our case the business climate). It takes vision, tenacity and courage from those seeking to make a difference.

You can download the Power Hour tool over in Research and white papers.

Laura Overton, Learning Analyst continually curious about learning innovation and business impact. Founder of Learning Changemakers.

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