2004 - Middle management malaise
Does the UK have the managers
it needs to compete with the rest of the world?
Or has something gone badly wrong with the way
managers are selected and developed? The evidence
from a series of recent reports and discussions
is pointing to a serious malaise in British middle
management that needs some urgent intervention.
In fact the problems appear to
be growing so acute in some companies that human
resources managers will need to reappraise their
training and development priorities to address
deteriorating relationships between rank and file
employees and their immediate supervisors.
While bosses and soon-to-be bosses
have been benefiting from a fashionable obsession
with leadership programmes and talent management
schemes, the ranks of junior and middle managers
appear to be under strain from years of under-investment
in solid people management skills.
Two recent pieces of research
have shed some light, not only on just how neglected
UK middle managers are feeling, but why their
morale may have fallen to an all-time low.
The first piece is based on a
survey released today by Accenture, the management
consultant. Its research among 1,300 middle managers
in the UK, US, France, Spain Germany, Austria
and Switzerland found a much lower rate of job
satisfaction among UK middle managers than their
counterparts in the US and the rest of Europe.
Just over a third of UK middle managers in the
survey reported a high degree of satisfaction
with their job, compared with two-thirds among
the US sample and just under a half of the other
Unlike their counterparts elsewhere,
the UK managers were uniquely gloomy about their
working conditions and had comparatively little
that was positive to say about their training
and development opportunities.
This might help to explain why
four out of 10 of them said they were looking
for another job, partly because they could see
few prospects for advancement and partly to find
better paid work elsewhere.
There is evidence in other research
to suggest that one reason for this malaise is
that the skills of the British middle manager
are no longer respected at either end of the employment
spectrum. A survey carried out among 570 customer-facing
employees in the UK on behalf of Prosell, a training
and development company, found that three out
of five of the employees in the sample blamed
their immediate managers for poor customer services
and a failure to capitalise on sales opportunities.
Too few managers, they said,
were prepared to spend much time speaking with
their teams, leading to complaints that managers
were sparing with their praise. Less than half
of those questioned said they drew inspiration
from their managers.
"The incompetence of managers
to interact and guide their teams in their day-to-day
roles must be costing UK business millions, if
not billions, of pounds in lost sales," says
Simon Morden, the chairman of Prosell.
British businesses used to pride
themselves in having some of the best managers
in the world. So what has gone wrong?
Chris Bones, group organisation
effectiveness and development director at Cadbury
Schweppes, shortly to take up a new appointment
as principal of Henley Management College, believes
that at least part of the problem lies in the
emphasis that companies and the management education
community has been placing on leadership rather
than management. The result, he said, to put it
bluntly, is too many "crap managers".
"It's time to go back to
people management," he told HR managers at
a London based HR conference held by Human Resources
magazine last month. "Your ambition in the
next 12 months should be about improving management
rather than leadership.
"If I was going to invest
in a whole set of skills and abilities I think
that great management is more important than great
leadership. Leadership is terrific if you are
going to set a vision and a strategy. But it doesn't
actually deliver anything."
Too many companies, said Mr Bones,
are experiencing a serious gap in management skills
in the late-20s to 30 age group because management
training has been neglected. "It's the big
insight that has hit us and it's an insight that
has hit a lot of other organisations," he
Good managers, he argued, can
get people to put in the discretionary effort
that is the hallmark of a high performing company.
Employees willing to apply themselves and capable
of applying themselves in this way, he said, are
those who understand what is expected of them
because a manager has taken time to explain the
job, to recognise the efforts of those who are
working well and to deal with those who are not.
While agreeing with most of his
sentiments, I wonder if the existing unrest in
UK middle management has an earlier origin than
the current obsession with leadership development
and talent management?
Does it not go back to the fashion
in the 1990s for slicing away layers of management
and throwing thousands of experienced managers
on to the scrap heap? How many highly skilled
managers are sitting at home kicking their heels
in frustration when they still have so much to
It is true that not all managers
were prepared to abandon "command and control"
approaches that, it should be accepted, did little
to encourage discretionary behaviour either. But
good managers lost out with the poor ones, often
simply because of the greying of their hair.
The irony in today's workplace
is that while many employees have been given much
more responsibility over their work, they are
receiving too little guidance and feedback from
their so-called team leaders who are either unwilling,
or ill-equipped, to manage properly.
Ian Brinkley, chief economist
and head of the economic and social affairs department
at the Trades Union Council, points to recent
findings by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Its workplace research revealed that, although
workers had been given more responsibilities in
the past 10 years, their opportunities to exercise
discretion had been reduced. "This is because
they now have more people looking over their shoulder,"
Mr Brinkley was speaking at the
launch last week of a Microsoft-sponsored report
on the future role of trust in work by Carsten
Sorensen, senior lecturer in Information Systems
at the London School of Economics.
Mr Sorensen hinted at what may
be another underlying cause of distrust among
office workers and their supervisors a creeping
dissatisfaction today with much white collar work.
"We are going through a phase now,"
he said, "where white collar workers will
have to realise that they are the blue collar
workers of the 21st century."
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