Businesses need to devolve more responsibility to line managers in order to realise the organisation’s full potential, even if it means that sometimes things go wrong, senior HR professionals have warned.

Leading practitioners shared the successes, and pitfalls, of devolving responsibilities to the line with a conference of HRM MA and MBA students at Westminster Business School last week.

Penny Davis, people and talent director at construction and support services firm Balfour Beatty, told the conference about the growth strategy in the firm’s support services business, called Freedom to Perform, which gave local line managers more accountability both in terms of managing people and in terms of profit and loss.

Davis explained that the key to this strategy is “to trust people and let them get on with it”.

“It’s a bit like being a parent, you want your child to grow up and be successful but actually letting go of them knowing that they are going to make mistakes is very hard,” she told the conference. “A lot of HR and managers like control because we are very risk averse, but letting go is where the real power is.”

She said there still needed to be a prescriptive framework to identify and communicate the correct behaviours to managers, and it was important to have ‘zero tolerance for behaviours that were counter-culture.’ She cited the example of an employee fraud case that had occurred soon after the reform which had given the company pause for thought.

“It was a really disappointing piece of behaviour, and we did think maybe things had gone too far,” said Davis. “But then I was on site and saw an example where a line manager had set up a new way of delivering a service for a client with outstanding results.

She added: “Don’t pull things back centrally [if things go wrong], that’s the easy answer. There is a risk with letting go and we have to balance that against the gains. It depends on your organisational context.