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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Make It Happen

Simon Woolley explains why strategy execution is being hampered by mutual frustration between HR and line management. He takes a look at what can be done to rebuild bridges.

Businesses spend significant time and energy developing strategies. Many hours are devoted to analysing research, discussing objectives and creating presentations with smart-looking graphs, bold mission statements and impressive targets. So, why then, do so many organisations fail to convert strategy into reality? What is the missing element? The answer is not what, but how you do it.

We tend to decide if a strategy is a success or a failure by looking at the strategy itself. Was it the right or wrong path to follow? We should also examine how successfully we implemented the strategy. Regardless of how well-conceived or successful a business strategy looks on paper, the difference between success and failure is always in the implementation.

Conflicting priorities and old-fashioned protocols often hamper the progress for even the soundest of strategies. Often it comes down to not having the right people doing the right things at the right time.

Does this sound familiar? Strategy execution is easy to say, but not easy to do. This is because companies don’t implement strategy, people do. There is no autopilot. If people are not driving it, or driving it well, it will inevitably go off the rails.

Then the blame game starts. When initiatives are thwarted by poor execution, it often has long-ranging effects on the stakeholders involved. Given the worlds of HR and line management are constantly on the front line of strategy implementation, they are not immune to these potentially damaging undercurrents. Communication may break down on both sides, tensions take their toll and frustrations rise all too easily.


The HR team plays a crucial role in delivering successful strategies by creating workable frameworks and garnering company-wide acceptance and support. An HR team has the challenge of translating the strategic vision of the company into the various plans, processes and policies that will guide employees to strategically-aligned actions. Policies may cover strategies on reward, performance measurement, company culture and leadership development. All of these “ingredients” influence how employees will focus their efforts and how the company will perform.

Getting this right can have a profound effect on organisational performance, long-term sustainability and profitability.

However, it is not an easy task. Many companies struggle to go beyond defining smart, strategic HR policies, to translating those policies where it really has an impact on business performance—the day-to-day behaviour of employees. The challenge is to create HR policies that “stick”, that permeate people’s behaviour, that influence employees’ perceptions, in short, that effectively turn employees “on”.

HR needs to have a close working relationship with line managers to effectively fulfil the broad strategic vision of the company. After all, line managers maintain day-to-day contact and direct influence on employee behaviour and contribution. Likewise, line managers rely on HR to provide support and guidance to encourage behaviours, improve employee performance and achieve business targets.

The relationship between HR and line management is not always smooth sailing. Difficulties often arise because each side lacks a clear understanding of what the other does. Some line managers still think that HR is unnecessary or that “anyone can do the HR stuff”. While HR may be concerned with compliance, consistency and fairness, operations managers are more concerned with profitability and getting the job done. Given their divergent objectives, it’s not hard to see how conflicting priorities emerge.

The two camps often lack insight beyond the surface. They may “know” what each other’s role is, but they don’t actually “get it” entirely. They often arrive at their assumptions from very different starting points. It’s quite common for companies to fill operation manager roles with technically skilled people who may have considerable operational experience, but limited management experience. These candidates know how to get the job done, but they lack, or simply don’t value, the importance of “soft skills” and the emotional intelligence required in managing people and bringing out their best. Similarly, HR directors may have virtually no experience in operations, or limited insight into the many challenges that line managers have to grapple with every day to deliver technically demanding projects.

Hay Group wanted to understand what aspects of the relationship between the two camps caused the most grief and needed urgent action, so it conducted research among them in an attempt to quantify opinion.

The poll of 750 HR directors and line managers in the US, UK and China provided some strong views on why things aren’t working. But while they can make uncomfortable reading, the findings also offer clear pointers towards a far more constructive, cooperative future for HR and line managers alike.


In its report, Bringing the line to life, Hay Group looks at improving the HR-line management relationship and takes a “warts and all” view of the current situation.

One of the most obvious factors to emerge from the research is that HR teams are feeling the strain. As cost-saving cuts bite, many HR departments are losing headcount, budgets or both. The ratio of HR people to total employees is steadily decreasing.

At the same time, HR can feel over-burdened by everyday requests and queries from line managers. One-third of HR directors estimate that their team spends up to a third of its time dealing with such matters, fighting the spot fires as they spark. Nearly half (43 percent) agree or strongly agree that too much time is spent doing this and that this prevents them from taking a strategic view and creating the conditions to empower line managers. Adding to their woes, as 71 percent of HR directors see it, line managers expect immediate responses to queries and are unforgiving if the process takes longer.

Line managers take a somewhat different view. Around half of them (42 percent) feel that HR teams are slow to respond, with more than one-third (39 percent) of them even stating that Google is a better source of information and support. Even higher numbers (76 percent) consider that HR keeps information and data close to its chest.

Many HR directors (58 percent) think that the procedures for hiring, promoting and resource planning are convoluted and inefficient. Some line managers (30 percent) feel that HR actively obstructs them from making these decisions themselves.

How do we overcome the impasse? The relationship must be rebuilt so that HR teams and line management can work more closely and achieve mutual goals in a symbiotic relationship.

The solution requires something that will “activate” the relationship between HR and line managers. Line managers need to be enabled to act autonomously within the framework of company HR policy in order to have an impact on organisational performance and execute strategy effectively.

Activating line managers means empowering them to make the decisions that are important for them, without creating additional burden and headaches. They need training, development and ongoing support throughout the process. HR should relinquish some of its control to help alleviate the responsibility for people management decisions. The majority of HR managers (88 percent) believed that empowering line managers to make people management decisions should be a key goal. In the line management camp, 51 percent admitted they don’t feel empowered to do so.

One tool that can help is technology. It is both one of the major factors driving change, and also creating the need for change. Newly-developed business apps are increasingly becoming recognised as less of a fad and more of a serious business tool to support strategy execution and bring HR policies alive. Business apps will radically change the way we work, especially how cross-functional teams (such as HR and line managers) are activated by providing a platform for collaboration and communication.

Using technology can help HR transition from a largely tactical focus on “day-to-day stuff” to a more strategic contributor. It can ensure policies are implemented and executed in an effective way to achieve the strategic vision. Technology can help achieve the goal of redistributing some of the control and accountability, but it’s only part of the solution.

Technology can transform the workplace and solve many problems. Yet there will be times when a face-to-face conversation will deliver the best result.

The solution requires the company to examine its corporate culture and the relationship between HR and line management. A healthy, productive and cooperative working relationship is no longer a “nice to have”, but an essential ingredient in success.

To break down the barriers, HR needs to get coal-face business experience, harness the equalising power and efficiencies of technology, and continue to invest in training and development to empower the front line. Activating line managers will drive individual, team and ultimately organisational performance.

SIMON WOOLLEY is business unit manager at Hay Group.

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