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Our negative view of managers might be the last ‘acceptable’ prejudice at work, but that must change, argues Octavius Black
In popular culture managers are either: buffoons, think ‘The Office’; or beasts, as in ‘Horrible Bosses’. The latter created such widespread affinity among audiences that they made a sequel.
Perceptions within organisations are not much better. Senior leaders tend to describe middle managers as ‘permafrost’, or something equally unflattering. While in 25 years of listening to chief executives tell me what is so fantastic about their company not one has ever said: “We’ve got great middle managers.”
The attitude towards managers from the bottom up is just as pernicious. When someone starts a sentence with ‘did I tell you what my boss did today…’ you can assume that what follows won’t be anything good.
In an age where the focus on diversity and inclusion has thankfully ironed out so much overt exclusion, our poor opinion of managers might be the last acceptable prejudice at work.
But such prejudices are bad for business.
Chief execs and politicians seem confounded in their search for the elixir of improved productivity, yet the answer is bang in the middle of the humble organisation chart.
Stanford’s Graduate School of Business measured the daily output for workers and their bosses over five years.
The workers had, on average, four managers a year so it was possible to determine the impact of a good manager compared to a poor one.
Replacing a poor manager with a good one increased team productivity by a huge 12 per cent. That’s greater than the boost provided by the far more expensive alternative of adding an extra employee, which produces an uplift of 11 per cent.
Whether it’s implementing change, raising productivity, delighting customers or saving on recruitment costs, middle managers are the most important people in any company. But you wouldn’t know it from the way they’re treated.
To turn this situation around, we first need to recognise that managing people is not only one of the most pivotal roles in a company but it is also one of the hardest.
A manager needs to know how to organise and motivate people to work together to achieve more, better and faster. That’s a complex requirement.
They face nuanced dilemmas daily. For example, someone in your team teases you in a meeting, do you respond and risk looking overly sensitive or ignore it and look weak?
Or a direct report tells you they are getting divorced and may be a little off the mark in coming weeks. How much sympathy should you show and to what extent should a dip in performance be forgiven?
Every day, managers need to make judgements between some of the great quandaries of human existence, such as between mercy and justice. Asking themselves, do I respond to one individual’s need or apply the same rules across the group. Ancient Greek heroes struggled with less.
Most of the time managers are expected to know how to behave in these remarkably nuanced situations with little, if any, relevant training.
Companies that want to realise the benefits of strong people managers need to consider management skill on a par with other professional and technical requirements, assess applicants diligently and only appoint people managers who show sufficient aptitude.
Even those with an aptitude for managing people will need to discover new skills and there is no shortage of management competencies (Lominger has 67). But with so many on offer it’s hard to know where to focus for the greatest return.
But I think the science is clear. Mind Gym’s psychologists have reviewed more than 200 academic papers and identified the seven talents, which the evidence suggests, will make most difference.
Here they are and you are very welcome to cut and paste them.
- Relate: Create, strengthen and manage relationships with your team members
- Coach: Enable others to be the best they can be
- Energise: Give hope, build momentum and share your passion
- Innovate: Create a community that is willing and able to innovate
- Thrive: Be at your best more of the time
- Direct: Set the direction of travel, making it clear who is driving what
- Execute: Deliver on promises, on time, in style and through others
How many of these do you as a manager, or your own manager, display or recognise?
Managers are the most valuable people in business.
Rather than decrying management as some old fashioned practice and labelling those who do it as a drag on company growth, we should be turning managers into the heroes and heroines of workplace triumphs and organisational well-being.
Let the campaign begin.
Octavius Black PM Today 26 Aug 2015