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Undercover Manager Activities

Chapter 1: The Non-HR Manager

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1.1 Kitchen Cabinet

1.2 The Buck Stops Here

Undercover Manager 

Activity 1.1 

Kitchen Cabinet

In Chapter 1, we introduce the L-E-S-S is more acronym and describe employees as a manager’s most important stakeholder group. This activity is designed to help you recognize the aspects of your Local Context that will constrain, facilitate and support your people management activities. The resources we’ve included in this activity suggest that line managers receive little training and few resources from employers, so you will need to be proactive in identifying the people inside and outside your organization who can provide advice and support. In particular, you can develop a “kitchen cabinet” – an informal and unofficial group of people who can give you advice on people management activities.

Grab a notepad and jot down the features of your organization: size, industry sector, single/multiple workplaces, centralized/dispersed workforce, key stakeholders. This will help you recognize the unique elements of your local context. For example, managers in large well-established organizations usually have more policies that direct (and limit) their people management activities than managers in small startups. And, while reputation may be important to many organizations, the people management activities of public sector employers are usually under greater scrutiny from community members than private sector ones. And there are inevitable tradeoffs. In a flexible organization with few formal policies, a line manager has considerable discretion in people management but also receives less formal training. In an organization with multiple dispersed workplaces, a line manager can create customized people management practices but may be unable to leverage a strong centralized organizational identity.

Then you can start to populate your kitchen cabinet. Maybe you already have a senior manager who serves as a mentor and provides career advice. But people management challenges often benefit from a wider range of perspectives. You might want to befriend a manager working in your employer’s HR unit. Or you might reach out to line managers working in other parts of your organization. The goal is to assemble the kitchen cabinet now – before you have a pressing people management problem that needs advice fast.

You can return to this kitchen cabinet idea later when you read Chapter 7 (Managing Employee Performance) – that’s where we discuss using peer managers to calibrate performance evaluations and increase accountability.


Line manager challenges:

Garr, S., & Mehrotra, P. (2023, January 11). What’s holding back manager effectiveness, and how to fix it. MIT Sloan Management Review.‌it/?social_token=39a692f93e25f1bb8f3171bfa6c9938f&utm_source=twitt‌er&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sm-direct

Keswin, E. (2022, December 1). To retain your best employees, invest in your best managers. Harvard Business Review.  


Managers’ kitchen cabinets:

Yoon, L. (2004, April 2). Building your “Kitchen Cabinet”. CFO.

Undercover Manager 

Activity 1.2 

The Buck Stops Here

In Chapter 1 (The Non-HR Manager), we describe the ongoing trend toward devolution, in which line managers assume greater responsibility for people management in their organizations. Increasingly, HR managers are responsible for strategic planning, leaving the day-to-day people management to line managers. This activity is designed to help you recognize your employer’s position on the devolution continuum and identify the “hot potato” people management challenges you are most likely to encounter.

The activity is loosely based on a survey conducted by Kulik and Bainbridge (2006). That source reference is included in this activity’s resources, and additional references to the devolution literature can be found in the Chapter 1 Notes. Kulik and Bainbridge conducted their survey in Australia, but the issues they raise are applicable worldwide.

Have a look at Table 1 in the Kulik and Bainbridge article. Thinking about your own organization, decide whether each people management topic is the primary responsibility of HR managers or line managers in your organization. Most topics involve both HR managers and line managers to varying degrees. HR managers may initiate people management activities and support line managers even when line managers are primarily responsible. Therefore, you should apply a decision rule of “the buck stops here.” In your organization, who (HR vs line) has primary responsibility for ensuring that a particular people management activity is performed, and performed effectively? And when that people management activity is performed poorly, who (HR vs line) is held accountable?

This activity can help you to identify the unique challenges of your local work environment. Across organizations, some topics (e.g., HR planning) are usually consistently allocated to HR, and others (e.g., promotion decisions) are consistently allocated to line managers. But responsibility for other topics will vary across organizations. Smaller organizations with few HR staff usually exhibit more devolution than larger organizations with many HR staff. And decentralized organizations will usually exhibit more devolution than centralized ones.

Then identify the people management topics for which you have high responsibility but low confidence. Managers often include culture, performance management, and employee coaching among those low-confidence topics. Kulik and Bainbridge describe these topics as “hot potatoes” because their effectiveness influences organizational performance (and even organizational survival) but they are difficult for any manager (both HR and line) to perform well. So those topics are the ones where you might need to devote the most time and attention to developing your people management skills.



Kulik, C. T., & Bainbridge, H. T. J. (2006). HR and the line: The distribution of HR activities in Australian organisations. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 44, 240-256.

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