Does Britain still have macho managers?

Increased levels of stress within the workplace and the need for high-performing companies have led many in the UK to question the management techniques of the "macho" manager. The issue has been brought into focus by the publication of several pieces of research and the launch of a trade union campaign in late 1997.

There are two inter-related factors within UK workplace relations which, arguably, are both caused by, and solvable by British managers. The first is an increase in workplace stress - the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, has recently released figures (in its Health and safety statistics 1996/7) showing that half a million people believe that they are suffering from work-related stress. The second is the need for high-performing companies. Both of these are in large part dependent on the type of managers within the workplace. All too often in the UK - according to some commentators - job insecurity, work intensification and "bossy" management are seen as the answer to improving performance, but are also the cause of much stress.

The British management problem

Managers at the annual conference of the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) - the professional body representing personnel managers - at the end of October 1997 were presented with the findings of a Korn Ferry International/Economist Intelligence Unit survey on future business leadership. Delegates were told that "in an era when product life-cycles are short, competition is intense, and corporations are globalised, old-style command and control leadership is no longer appropriate". Instead organisations need a new language of leadership in which companies like to describe themselves using words such as "empowered", "process-orientated", "networks", "shared values", "shared cultures", "consensus" and "involvement". Despite this, it is argued that leadership in the UK today is still paternalistic, entrepreneurial and involved in command and control.

A recent survey from the Ashridge centre for international management and organisation development (The 1997 Ashridge management index) argues that trust in senior management appears to have declined in many companies. Many of the managers interviewed complained that fear and threats were used as the prime motivators in their companies. The survey states that this is leading to a new breed of lower and middle management who are "mercenary" and "hard-nosed", and who are prepared to move to the highest bidder.

Some employers have argued that they have to behave in this way because most British workers are lazy and likely to slack if the employer does not take a firm hand in the workplace. However, a 1997 IPD report (Employee motivation and the psychological contract), based on a large-scale national survey of employee attitudes, has found that most British workers are keen to work and that they do more at work than they are strictly required to, such as helping new workers and staying late or helping out when necessary. Mike Emmot, IPD policy advisor said that "if managers aim to build a reputation for quality, innovation or customer service and if they want employees who are willing to go that extra mile, they need relationships based on trust."

The search for the new manager

A new approach in the workplace is given further support by another 1997 IPD survey (The impact of people management practices on business performance), based on a survey of the performance of 110 manufacturing companies, which states that people management and development practices have more of an impact on the financial "bottom line" than research and development, technology, strategy or emphasis on quality. The report argues that employers should focus on improving employee satisfaction and motivation if they want to make more profit. Despite this, the research found that people management is one of the most neglected and underresourced managerial areas within organisations, with over two-thirds of companies having no written personnel strategy and 52% having no formal training strategy.

It was also highlighted in the IPD report on Employee motivation and the psychological contract that employers which give staff a say in the decision-making process can expect a happier and more motivated workforce. The survey found that high involvement is positively associated with job satisfaction, commitment and motivation and that almost half of workforces reported that they take part directly in some form of employee involvement activity, although these ranged from suggestions to quality circles and did not represent any power in decision-making. However, the majority did feel that their contributions are taken seriously and that involvement is more than symbolic. Even so, employees still said that their organisations are highly bureaucratic and that they have to follow rules and procedures to the letter, thus receiving mixed messages.

Some "blue chip" companies are even spending thousands of pounds providing top managers with personal counsellors to teach them how to get the best out of their staff. The job of these "coaches" is to point out weaknesses and help managers to become better team leaders and motivators. It is even claimed that more and more organisations are turning their appraisal systems upside down so that workers can have more of a say in what they think of their management. This "360-degree feedback", as it is known, gives employees the chance to appraise their managers and even managers who regarded themselves as "firm but fair" are suddenly confronted with how they appear to others.

The trade union response

A lot of the above management thinking and discussion may be mere rhetoric, but trade unions have long recognised what they see as the problems of British management. In early December 1997, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - believing that the need for change is greater than ever - launched a campaign aimed at exposing "Britain's worst bosses". The centrepoint of the campaign was a telephone "hotline", initially to run for one week, aimed at giving employees the chance to tell of their experiences with poor employers: "bigots, misers, and bully bosses should all beware", as the TUC put it.

The TUC states that: "while most people have some gripes about their work or their boss, the vast majority of employees are treated reasonably by their employer. But there is a hidden side to working life where Britain's worst bosses pay poverty wages and expect their staff to work long hours, sometimes in dangerous surroundings ... The hotline, part of the TUC's continuing employee rights campaign, will act as a 'listening ear' to those who are abused or feel they can't speak out at work."

TUC general secretary John Monks said: "In Britain, people often leave their democratic rights at the workplace door. While many employers recognise that unions are good for business, there are many bad bosses who don't pay a living wage, refuse paid holidays and harass and abuse their staff because of their race, creed or sex. There should be no place for these bosses in 90s Britain. We are asking employees to help us expose the worst of the worst because until they are challenged, they will continue to get away with it."

After the first two days of the hotline's operation the TUC reported that almost one in six of the 2,000 calls it had received were from managers complaining about bullying bosses. Other stories received told of people being paid only GBP 1 per hour, being shouted at in front of other staff, not being allowed to go to the toilet and working long hours. The TUC says that misery is still present in the workplace for too many workers, with bad bosses undercutting the good.

Commentary

The problem of British management is a long-term cultural phenomenon. However, it has also been argued that it is related to the nature of the capitalist system within the UK, in that in times of crisis the pressures from the "City" money and stock markets forces employers into making short-term decisions which often mean that labour bear the brunt of any changes. Both unions and good employers have a vested interest in attempting to stamp out bad management practices. The only problem is that what one person sees as bad management techniques are often seen as good by others. (MW Gilman, IRRU).

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