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Published: 3 month

A new concept in HR: cross-frontier managers

There is a layer of management in the industry who, if we don't recognise that they need to be treated very differently from other managers, can cause a lot of frustration. We have collectively called them "boundary leaders" because they are the ones who are in direct contact with workers. As a result, they have very different problems from their managers. Why is their situation unique and difficult? Why is it sometimes so difficult to work with them? Conflict of roles and loyalties of borderline managers. What can HR and management do if they want truly professional interface managers? In our article, András Ujváry, supervisor and trainer at Exline, looks for answers to these questions.

Ujváry András, szupervízor, tréner-

Who are the border leaders? What are the reasons that make their situation unique?

In his book Chemistry, Gábor Náray-Szabó writes the following about interfaces:The structure and chemical behaviour of interfaces is very different from the behaviour of the interior of the material (the block phase), and classical structural models and chemical rules are generally not applicable here. New phenomena occur that are not observed elsewhere, mainly because of the different types and strengths of interactions between molecules in the two adjacent phases."

Relationships are quite different between the management team and the staff. And those leaders who are right on the edge are in a special position and need special care.


They are usually appointed from within the workforce and their social network ties them there. Resistance to managerial decisions is felt directly by them, but for the above reasons they empathise and identify more easily with the working class. For example, they have to call people in for overtime, or if the expected bonus or pay rise is not forthcoming, they are called upon to explain why. Unfortunately, it is also often the case that senior management hold them directly responsible for staff turnover or failure to meet plans.

So often, borderline managers feel trapped between the two layers, which results in very high internal tensions for them.

The other factor: they feel the disadvantages of labour shortages first hand. They often feel ill-equipped or have to work with a workforce that is not suited to the task. If only because they come from a different industry and lack the basic routine for the new job. This is easily remedied, but it requires extra training, which is an extra task for managers. But it is also the case that the psychosocial situation of the worker is so difficult that special treatment is required.

One might sneer: why is this so important? Because, as mentioned above, it is because the interface managers are in direct contact with the workers. How these managers behave with the workers they manage fundamentally determines the culture of the company and, through that, its results. Employees form their opinion of the company mainly on the basis of their impressions of their immediate supervisor. There is truth in the saying: we choose the company and leave the manager. Even the most serious corporate branding activity can be thwarted by a poor boundary manager.

Because his or her employees in their micro-environment will not project what the company wants them to see, but what they have experienced from their direct manager.

And blue-collar workers typically choose their jobs not based on posters or advertisements, but on the personal experience of people they know who work for the company.

The role and loyalty conflict of borderline managers. Why are they sometimes so difficult to work with?

The closest way to understanding the difficulties of interface managers is perhaps to understand that they are very easily caught up in role conflict: they have conflicting perceptions of their role in the organisation. In my experience, when I ask them what their role is, 70-80% of them answer that they are a bridge between management and employees. That may sound nice, but in fact that is the root of the problem: they don't really feel part of the management, their own identity is floating somewhere between management and workers. This is a huge problem, the importance of which should not be underestimated. On the one hand, it is a problem from their own point of view, because they are constantly searching for their place in the 'floating' between management and workers, and feel completely insecure.

They have a constant conflict of loyalties: they don't know where to be loyal to, as both layers expect loyalty from them.

Workers expect to be their advocate to management, management expects to represent them to workers. Frontier managers try to live up to both expectations, which causes them great frustration not only because it is inherently impossible, but also because everyone ends up dissatisfied with them.

They feel alone; they don't belong to their old colleagues and they don't want to belong to the management. Many of them regret taking up the post long after their appointment.

But there is also a lot of danger for management in this situation, as they are dealing with employees on a surface that is insecure about their position and not entirely loyal to them. As a result, management finds that its intentions and goals are somehow hijacked by the time it reaches out to employees. They do not understand what the problem is, they complain that the interface managers do not represent them, and they are right to do so. But the problem is not caused by the border managers, nor is it their responsibility to solve it. Only the leadership can solve it - and the next part will show how.

What HR and management can do to have truly professional and committed interface managers?

As strange as it may sound, the solution to the problem raised above is basically extremely simple. However, it is undoubtedly difficult to implement on a day-to-day basis.

The challenge is simply to put the minds of the borderline leaders straight and say that they are not a "bridge" - they are part of the leadership team! To do this, you have to flip the switch in their minds, but also - and this is the hard part - you have to treat them accordingly, and constantly.

This requires considerable effort on their part, which can and should be supported by training. A new appointee needs to really arrive in a leadership role, understanding what the job is all about. He or she must realise that he or she can no longer maintain the previous relationship with staff and that they can no longer look upon him or her as a "mere colleague". Training must give them tools to cope with their new job, because constant failures can discourage them and make them frustrated.

And there's the other task that needs to be done not by them, but by senior managers.

If they are not seen and treated as leaders by the top layer, they are stuck between two worlds.

In this case, they will not even behave as leaders, which is a confirmation that they are "untrustworthy", and therefore they will be treated even less as leaders. So the circle is closed and everything stays the same. "I'm not a manager, I'm a well-paid stock boy who gets picked on for everything", a shop manager once told me bitterly. And knowing his work, I ended up agreeing with him.

This cycle can be broken and a positive spiral can be started - I have seen many good examples of this. There are two key areas to look out for.

One: they need to be very seriously informed about the background to all decisions, from the top. Unfortunately, information cannot be trusted to flow through the hierarchy, and is very often corrupted or even lost. If top management communicates directly and personally with the boundary leaders at certain intervals, it not only clarifies misunderstandings, but also reinforces their perception of their role in an extraordinary way. It sends the message: you are with us, we as leaders are colleagues, we are a team.

Another key area is the alignment of decision-making power and responsibility. In many places I find that the two are not in sync. The decision-making power is almost non-existent, but the responsibility is greater. Responsibility is a key issue in strengthening leadership; taking responsibility is an integral part of leadership. But if responsibility is not accompanied by measured decision-making power, the leader cannot fulfil his role and will not feel like a leader. To develop this, to synchronise responsibility and decision-making competence, requires a continuous iteration across the whole vertical of leadership. The best way to do this is for the management team to meet regularly at dedicated times in case meetings across the entire depth of the production unit. In other words, production unit managers, shift managers, line managers attend together. They can discuss in detail the problems of the past period and work out how to avoid them in the future. It is important that they attend these events as a team, i.e. hierarchy is put on the back burner. As well as being an effective problem-solving tool, the main benefit is that it makes it clear to borderline leaders which team they are actually playing football for...

The importance of having a team of people who are not on the same team as the borderline leaders is important.

András Ujváry

Exline Ltd. owner-manager

Supervisor and trainer

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