Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Bad Managers - a hangover from the past?

An interesting article I read today, has sparked a number of thoughts. The article concerned, written by a management consultant, Peter Hunter, is titled "Leadership: Management failures of the 20th Century" and the author makes some good points. However, I find I can't agree with everything he says, primarily because, while he's focussed on the 'Class' differences in the early 20th Century in Britain, they don't translate readily to other countries where similar bad management practices show up. It is very easy to suggest that 'management' is run along the lines of the traditional landowner/mill owner lines of "I own it, therefore you will do as I say," and in some instances that is certainly the impression one gets, but it isn't the sole reason, in my view, for this type of attitude.

In my view one of the major distinguishing features between the style of senior management that used to be found in commerce and industry (and it must be said, in many public services) is that the modern 'manager' is far less likely to know or understand what the people he or she 'manages' actually do. All to often, especially at points in a hierarchy above 'middle' manager, you find people who have come into an organisation at that level. Frequently either directly as a 'graduate' entry or from an unrelated activity at a similar level. The 'knowledge gap' that exists between them and the staff they manage is often unbridgeable and results in almost instant conflict. The 'manager' is forced to hide behind 'authority' and so you revert to the type of management the author of the article describes as being 'wedded to the past, the style of owner imposing his will.'

Yes, I can identify with that management style, I've suffered under it for the last few years of my career. However, a worse situation arises when the manager does have the knowledge and the skills, but kowtows to the dictats of those above him who don't. Now you really have a situation fraught with potential conflicts. The 'workers' are telling their 'manager' that what the people above him want/say/demand can't be delivered or will generate a problem and he/she says, "I know, but I can't tell them that ... I've promised we'll make it work." The workers aren't idiots and they instantly spot the fact that the inclusive plural doesn't include the manager if things don't go the way he/she has said it will. As Mr. Hunt says, the workforce is now better educated, better skilled and doesn't fall for this sort of cop-out.

In any activity one always finds that things go well when the workers and the 'managers' are working to the same agenda and as a team. It falls apart as soon as there is a second agenda. The classic example is the Union Shop Steward who runs a personal agenda 'on principle' against the 'management.' By constantly throwing in objections, valid or not, to any proposal or change in operations, he (or she) drives a wedge between the workers and the managers. Again, personal experience showed me that a single individual on a Watch was the root cause of all the disquiet. This barrack room 'lawyer' was stirring up the rest of the crew with small out of context 'facts' and suggestions as to what was intended. Thus he was able to constantly confront the 'managers' with a long list of gripes and complaints from the men. In this case it backfired, when one of the men decided to bypass him and go for a direct interview with the Divisional Commander. I'll say only that the very same officers he'd been so determined to undermine actually had to step in and prevent the rest of the crew from lynching him.

But, sadly, bad management is what fuels Union/employer bad relations. As some readers know, I have a very low opinion of Trade Unions and Trade Unionists in general. Many in the UK are now multi-million pound corporate operations in themselves and behave in the same manner as the 'corporate bosses' they purport to oppose. I do believe they have a purpose, but it is not to set 'national' or 'international' policy for governments or even to determine who should rule or who should manage and control the sources of employment. As Marx wrote, if I am a skilled worker and I don't like the way my current employer is treating me, I should get on my bicycle and find another! What the current crop of Trades Unions do, if they bother to represent the worker members properly, is try to maintain an unworkable socialistic 'status quo.' Unfortunately, inept and downright incompetent 'managers' play straight into their hands.

Mr. Hunter suggests that the problem is that 'managers' are still thinking like 19th Century Mill Owners and Landowners, but I would suggest that the problem is twofold - the heavily unionsised workers are also thinking that way. They don't want to negotiate, often they simply want to table demands and compel the other side to comply. Listen to the rhetoric - it comes straight from the 19th Century and they are still fighting battles that, in many other countries, have long since been laid to rest. Indeed, they've been laid to rest in the UK, but it is now in the interests of the Unions to keep the fear of a return to such conditions high among the workers. It is equally unfortunate that there is a degree of what I shall call the 'politics of envy' at work in some of this. A few years ago I listened to a group of students discussing how much better the world would be if everyone, from the cleaner to the CEO earned exactly the same. They really couldn't see that there would be no incentive for anyone to strive to do anything well under that regime.

Currently we do have some bad management in commerce and industry. I would suggest that it is a result of far to great an emphasis being placed on 'transferability' of 'management skills' and the resultant placing of people in positions of management over functions and activities they, themselves, cannot do and have never done. I agree entirely with Mr. Hunter that there needs to be a complete overhaul of management and a move to making sure that people are selected for these positions because they possess -
1. The ability to lead and manage,
2. A sound knowledge of the activities, processes and businesses they are in,
3. Are given the right training and support to manage the people they supervise and lead, and
4. Know that the people above them are technically competent to understand any requests, problems and solutions that may have to be brought 'up the line.'

One of the things that bedevilled my last few years in my career, was constantly having to explain the most basic technical issues to people who (a) were only really interested in how much, (b) why, if we did not have it, we would be unable to do what they required, (c) would make the decision based on whatever was more 'sexy' at that moment in time, and (d) blame me when their decision not to support something or provide some service or equipment, meant I would be unable to deliver.

All to often that is what really frustrates 'the workforce' and the 'middle manager' who is doing his best to keep his head above the rising tide of frustration beneath him, the constant demands from above him and the stress of having to explain everything to people who really shouldn't be attempting to 'manage' the operation or the company they claim to lead. As 'management structures' have grown and extended many of the issues Mr. Hunter mentions have been exacerbated, and, contrary to senior management and management consultants ideas, it is often the 'middle manager' who saves their bacon and is not the person causing the problem.

All too often now one sees people appointed to positions on the basis of 'social/gender/racial awareness' and not on expertise or ability. Not everyone has the interpersonal skills to manage a team, but this is seldom considered. As I learned eventually to my own cost, often it is a case of having the face or profile that 'fits' the selection board's profile - and frequently that is NOT the published profile. I would therefore argue that the problem Mr. Hunter identifies is more than just a case of a bad management style 'hanging over from the past' it is, at least in part, a result of the selection of people for promotion based on a range of things which do not necessarily qualify them for the position they are about to be thrust into.

I'd suggest that what he, and other 'management consultants' need to look at is how we change the idea that a grocery store manager can 'manage' a technical service without ever having any knowledge of the technicalities of the service. That is where the major problem lays. Someone thrust into managing something he/she cannot themselves do, who can't talk the talk with their underlings, has no option but to fall back on the 'do as you are told' method of management.

Until we break that cycle we will continue to have 'bad managers' in every industry, service and commercial activity.

1 comment:

  1. The modern omni senior manager can be a frustrating animal to work for as a middle manager. Previously the majority of senior managers had had some grounding in the sector concerned and therefore discounted certain courses of action by careful consideration of past success and failure. One successful omni manager I worked for at least consulted with middle management before setting the strategic agenda – basically asking – what strikes you as unworkable or counter productive for this project , if nothing else it gave us a chance to articulate our concerns based on experience and if our arguments were weak then the new way forward was rightfully adopted in whole or part.
    Unfortunately many omni’s pretend to offer this consultation through meetings and staff awareness sessions but if you listen carefully you can hear the steamroller revving in the background.