Bad news, boss: clear your desk …

Simon Caulkin is a writer who is, notwithstanding a career that has embraced The Observer, The FT, The Economist, and many others, not afraid to manoeuvre his pen into controversial areas. I was surprised to see that one of his own blog articles took its title from one of the nouns of the well-known Sex Pistols album, especially when the noun wasn’t “Mind”, but I could only agree with him that a more recent article – publishing in the FT Business Education supplement – shouldn’t be as ‘shocking’ as its subheading might entice some of us into thinking. The sub-heading? “It makes business sense for companies to give employees a say in how they are managed.”

As he points out, the best companies to work for outperform those where the workforce aren’t chuffed as deeply or as frequently; OECD figures show no correlation “between low employment protection and high economic performance”; trust, engagement and commitment – the latter two of which “are the nearest things to a management silver bullet” – are mainly brought about by excellence of first-line management. Yet, as he points out, while sales and marketing functions have grasped that insight into a customer’s perspective is more easily aquired by trying to see things from their viewpoint, the art of management still insists that managing must been seen only through the eyes of managers.

His article was written partly into a London Business School research report into employee-centred management. One of the report’s authors, Julian Birkinshaw, highlighted some of the main findings in a recent article for HR Magazine:

Employees have a pretty clear sense of what makes their work engaging: they want responsibility for doing something worthwhile; they want a high level of freedom in how they achieve their results; they crave the opportunity to extend themselves and to develop expertise and to work with good colleagues; and they want recognition from those around them for doing a good job.

None of this is surprising – they are all things we can instantly recognise as important and valuable. The surprise, rather, is so many people, in very different working environments, find themselves doing work that does not have these attributes.”

While some organisations have taken the radical step of ‘electing’ managers or allowing people to choose their line manager, Caulkin accepts that this may be a move too far for most, even if ‘leading’ must by definition include the abilities to attract and retain followers. (Where it doesn’t, the alternatives are alienation or tyrant – two experiences that we don’t need to see become any more widespread in workplaces.) But his argument is clearly that we persist in a particular top-down, manager-centric model despite the fact that, were we to look, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the model doesn’t work.

So how might we change? Persuading organisations to implement management elections doesn’t seem to hold out a great deal of hope. The idea made me think, perhaps oddly, of Alex Salmond: whether or not there’s a ‘devo-max’ question on the ballot paper, it’s still like convincing turkeys to sanction a referendum on the concept of voting for Christmas. Although it’s arguable that the likely rejection of the idea (this time without the comparison to ‘the Scottish question’) springs from the same source as the problem itself: a manager-centric vision of management can all too easily lose sight of what ‘managing’ is supposed to achieve. The point shouldn’t be to control those further down, but to develop their ability to perform in the interest of the organisation. To adopt a very different parable, it’s the difference between giving someone a fish or giving them a fishing rod: Giving people abilities and the freedom to act achieves more. As Julian Birkinshaw put this point in his HR Magazine article:

So one useful way of approaching a management job is to imagine the role won’t exist in, say, two years’ time, and that your job is to train everyone up so they can do your job as well as their own.

[…]We realise this approach has its risks. If your enlightened approach to management is not shared by your boss, it is possible the goal of ‘working yourself out of a job’ may end up with you having no job. But in our experience, this discipline of pushing down the structure as much work as possible has the effect of changing the nature of the work you do as a manager – it forces you to spend more time on the mentoring and supporting activities and it results in better performance all round.”

Another better approach would require buy-in from those at higher levels, but is one all too rarely seen (although we’ve proposed it before) – revising the reward and recognition model for managers, and actively reward, recognise – and promote – those who invest most in the mentoring, coaching, empowerment and development of those they manage. Performance Management should be a positive activity, geared towards optimising both behaviours and productivity: ‘positively managing the performance of others’ should, by extension, be exactly the kind of performance any organisation would want to see. Where line managers aren’t providing the development directly, their support and encouragement (or lack of it) is a critical factor in effective transfer of workplace learning however it’s provided.

It’s not a question of directly electing line managers, but a revised and remodelled appraisal approach for line managers would either give employees and reports an indirect voice (by supporting the promotion of those most likely to continue to be not just effective but responsible managers, and also promoting the concept of developmental line management) or improve the line management of those who might hitherto be wishing there was a ballot paper – and that there was more than one name on it.

Like Caulkin, Birkinshaw believes our model of ‘management’ needs reinventing (as his most recent book title makes clear). In one online extract, he argues that our tendency to contract it with ‘leadership’ is one of the factors that are to blame. Promotion of the dynamic, inspirational, motivational concept of ‘leadership’ has left the model of ‘management’ seen as its dull cousin, concerned with bureaucratic functions, controlling tendencies, planning and budgeting. Its like a status game that management has lost, when the more constructive, inspiring and effective response might well be to ask why managing shouldn’t be just as motivational and inspirational as leading further up the organisational tree. High performing organisation don’t after all, consist of a small group of engaged, committed senior staff, sitting in splendid isolation a floor or two above a building full of plodding drones.

The LBS Employee-Centred Management Report (which you can download as a PDF here) acknowledges that ‘hard times’ are not the most auspicious in which to launch suggestions that call on managers to make behavioural changes that are, for most of them, counter-intuitive, no matter how significant the gains to be achieved. Present conditions are in the range that encourage most of us instinctively to withdraw into the comfort of the familiar and into situations that afford us the greatest sense of being in control. (Thankfully for Mr Caulkin’s blood pressure, they avoided the phrase ‘tried and tested’.)

That in itself is probably cause for sadness. The sadness is greater when you read the authors reporting that:

The list of things good bosses do is not surprising as such. The surprise, rather, is that so few managers actually do these things.”

My sadness as a reader is the authors were finding the same results as The Work Foundation in their Exceeding Expectations research report, published in January 2010 (and commented on here a few weeks later). Sadder still, despite our all talk of management being geared towards results, a growing stockpile of evidence of ways in which it could achieve greater results doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact.

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