How do UK managers learn to manage?

There is a "crisis of management" in the UK, according to a July 1998 report from the independent Institute for Employment Studies. The fault, says the study, lies in what managers are taught, and what and how they learn, and not in a lack of potential. The issue is seen as being of considerable importance in a number of current key debates in British industrial relations.

Three major issues have made the headlines recently in UK industrial relations. First is the performance of the UK economy and whether or not it can match the productivity levels of the other leading economies (UK9805121F). Second is the question of whether the UK workforce has the skills necessary to bring about this enhanced productivity. A final related issue is whether UK managers are sufficiently competent enough to oversee the change needed to "manage" British organisations to recovery.

It is no longer "fashionable" to blame UK employees and their trade unions for the poor performance of the UK economy after two decades in which they have been subject to constant change. Instead attention has now turned to the role of UK management. The quality of management, as illustrated by issues as different as toleration of bullying at work (UK9706135F) and whether managers deserve "fat cat" increases in pay, may prove to be a central issue.

The Government sees part of the problem as a need to improve the skills and education of the nation, and in February 1998, it launched a Green Paper setting out its vision of Britain as a learning society (UK9804115F). The Paper - The learning age- is claimed to contain radical measures to transform learning. UK management will have to both manage and take part in these changes.

Learning to manage

A report from the independent Institute for Employment Studies (IES), published in July 1998, investigates the links between industrial and organisational learning and whether the linkages are more likely to occur within certain kinds of development intervention than in others ("Learning to manage", P Tampkin and L Barber, Institute for Employment Studies, Report 345 (1998)). It concentrates on the kinds of formal intervention designed to bring about such industrial and organisational learning.

According to the IES report: "really good managers are in great demand and short supply. Organisations spend considerable sums of money training, educating and developing their management populations and yet organisations and their workforces still suffer autocratic bullies whose moment in organisational history has long gone. Worse than this are the far greater numbers of managers who have the potential to be really good but don't seem to quite realise what to do, or who cannot find the time or motivation to do it differently. These are the managers who don't communicate fully, who lack the confidence, the ability or the empathy to coach people to better performance, who spend too much time in the escapism of expert 'doing' and too little in the front line of expert managing."

The report highlights what is described as "a crisis in British management, a sudden lack of confidence exacerbated by the changing demands of organisations". It argues that the restructuring of the late 1980s and early 1990s has led to demands for managers who can "empower" their workforce to achieve greater commitment and effort, who can create "democratic and involved communities" and who can form "development partnerships" with individuals to help them in the practice of lifelong learning.

The report looks at: the learning experiences of managers in a number of organisations; the ways in which they learn; what they learn; and the impact this has on them and on their organisations. This study examines management development in five of the UK's best-known organisations - Marks & Spencer, Sainsburys, the Post Office, the Open University, and a civil service department. The authors interviewed some 60 managers in depth about their learning experiences, the impact that it had on them and the ways in which they had changed as a result. They also interviewed subordinates and line managers to explore their views on the learning that had taken place.

How do managers learn?

According to the research, managers' concepts of learning seemed to fall within four main categories:

  • learning as a process;
  • learning as an acquisition;
  • learning as embodying change; and
  • learning as a growth in understanding.

Managers were found to learn in many different ways, both formal and informal. They learn from: job or role changes; others, either implicitly when they act as role models or explicitly in a "coaching" or "mentoring" relationship; formal courses; or with the support of colleagues or peers.

The surprising factor, says the study, is not the variety of learning methods but rather that most of the managers acknowledged that they are not conscious learners. Most, it would seem, "fell over" major learning experiences and remembered and learnt from them precisely because they were so unavoidable. For most this experience had to be "big" enough to "hit them between the eyes" and was often seen as synonymous with being unpleasant - for example, a huge mistake, a personal tragedy or failing to cope. In order to learn from these experiences in a less traumatic manner, the authors argue that some structure and support are required.

What do managers learn?

The managers interviewed had learned many things from their learning experiences, which were clustered into the following main categories: knowledge; technical skills; management skills; increased understanding of their organisation; increased understanding of their impact on others; and increased understanding of themselves.

The report makes it clear that what individuals learn is strongly influenced by how they learn: "Those managers who had learned through formal taught courses had acquired knowledge and technical skills, those who had learned through networking with others, either within their organisation or from other organisations, had learned much more about their organisation, its structure, processes and culture. Those who had undergone a learning experience that involved personal feedback were much more likely to have learned something about themselves and their impact on others."

The impact of learning

The report attempts to establish whether learning had an effect on individual behaviour in some way, arguing that "learning that remains hidden within the individual, that is not used to do the job differently, or to impact on management style, cannot affect the organisation or others within it".

The researchers highlight some clear examples of changing behaviours and styles of doing things. As a result of their learning experiences, the managers showed change in a number of personal and cognitive areas:

  • strategic overview - a broader view of the business was often mentioned;
  • thinking style - clearer and more informal in their thinking;
  • action orientation - being more "proactive" and taking the initiative;
  • reflection - learning from mistakes and questioning the ways things are done;
  • personal style - showing a more "sensitive caring side" of themselves that they had previously kept hidden;
  • self-awareness - toning down aggressive behaviour because of feedback about the impact it had on others; and
  • ways of dealing with others - being more honest, more of a teamworker and having to adopt to a more human democratic management style.

These changes occurred frequently as a result of receiving feedback from peers and subordinates which some described as being of "startling honesty". The authors argue that, through feedback, managers had reconsidered what was "valued behaviour" and reassessed their responses to others. The changes in the managers were fundamentally cultural in terms of changing their attitude on issues which they previously associated with "internal censorship". They had either learnt to relax an "internal censor" that stopped them behaving in certain ways because of a belief that it was inappropriate, or to impose censorship on behaviour that had been shown to be detrimental to them. An example would be a discontinuation of "macho" aggressive behaviour and replacing it with a more "caring" side of their personalities.

Having noted these changes, however, subordinates were more negative about the impact of formal courses than were the line managers of those who had participated or their immediate "coaches". This was the case in all the organisations studied.

Organisational impact

Trying to determine the effect that training and development has on an organisation was found to be difficult, especially when the development activities concerned are designed to have an impact on the "soft" "people skills" of managers. The report does not purport to prove that the management development programmes studied have changed the organisations concerned. Yet the authors did observe, in the organisations that were studied, "organisational change that was culturally consistent with the style of the development activity. Thus these organisations had on the whole become more democratic, more open, less hierarchical, less patriarchal in their style and their interactions."

What are the solutions?

The report argues that much management development fails to make managers significantly better at their jobs because the real problem is that much management development is knowledge-based and does not touch individual behaviour. Linda Barber, IES research fellow and co-author of the study, commented that: "What is needed is management development that makes individuals look at themselves differently, that makes them examine their interactions with others and the effect that they have on people, and learn to do things differently and more effectively. All too often management development does not make the difference that is hoped for it, but some management development does work. There are key characteristics of successful management development programmes that demonstrate that change is possible."

Managers, it is stated, need to learn about themselves and the way they interact with others and deal with the problems they encounter. The greatest impact on managerial behaviour comes through "soft skills" - managers' ways of communicating and relating to others. Examples given include:

  • improving self-knowledge - "let others tell you";
  • recognising the impact of behaviour on others;
  • reflecting on normal reactions under pressure;
  • identifying techniques to overcome reluctance to deal with conflict; and
  • accepting feedback and "taking it on board".

Much management development is said to focus on the external world and the development of knowledge and skills that are "out there" - such as understanding budgets, where business strategy comes from or what a good appraisal process should look like. Really effective management development, it is claimed, places considerable emphasis on "the internal world". This focuses on both knowledge and skills - identifying strengths and weaknesses, examining reactions when put under pressure, or analysing techniques that can be used to overcome a reluctance to deal with conflict.

There are two processes that appear to be essential if individuals are to develop greater internal skills and knowledge - feedback opportunities and support mechanisms. Those managers that have received structured feedback within a "supportive and trusting" environment have used this to change themselves for the better, becoming more "proactive", more self-confident and more empathic in their dealings with others. Feedback can play a positive role in enhancing self-esteem through increasing self-knowledge:

However, feedback is not always welcomed, states the report. In an unsupported environment, feedback can be perceived as threatening when it tells individuals something they did not know about themselves, and are not ready to integrate into their self-knowledge. In these circumstances, a vicious circle is set up. Unfortunately, the more senior the manager the less likely they are to experience feedback, or to be able to find the time for reflection.

In order to turn self-knowledge from a very uncomfortable experience into a positive one, the following are advised by the study:

  • feedback opportunities must be established, in an atmosphere of trust;
  • support mechanisms can turn instinctive defensive reactions into improved self-knowledge; and
  • feedback should become valuable and desirable.


The emphasis of the IES report is on managers' "soft" skills. These are considered to be both the most important for developing a successful organisation and those most difficult to develop. "People skills" are held to be the key to success in an organisation where managers are expected to encourage greater autonomy among their workforces. This means abandoning an authoritarian style of management and moving to one where the management style is open and encourages the gaining of trust and genuine dialogue. Yet organisations find that they have too many managers who cannot get close to their employees, cannot communicate effectively and cannot coach employees to achieve better performance.

There are some major problems standing in the way of this outcome being achieved. First, most managers now receive feedback through formal appraisal systems in which their success depends on such issues as budgetary and cost targets which sit uncomfortably with the kind of "soft" issues needed for good management development. Second, the organisations studied are ones that are already relatively successful in terms of performance and/or are progressive in terms of investing in new methods of working and training. Even so, there were enormous problems experienced by these organisations in their attempts at learning. This raises the question of the kinds of problems experienced by those organisations which do not wish to identify with progressive policies. What the IES report highlights about management learning is valuable information for organisations. Yet, given the two factors mentioned above, it is no wonder that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) continue to be inundated with complaints, mainly from managers, of continued bullying and "macho" attitudes at work (UK9712185F). (MW Gilman, IRRU)

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