Monday, 5 December 2011

Why Are British Managers So Bad?

You would think that in a period of high unemployment that the person in a job would be the best that you could get. The government is keen to remove the ability for workers to bring a tribunal against unfair dismissal, but it already seems it is pretty easy to remove people from a job. With all these lists of competencies we each have to match, let alone set targets for each month and year, it is easy to find something that an inefficient worker is unable to meet and so remove them on those grounds. However, in terms of incompetent managers that seems to happen very rarely and rather these are tools for them to intimidate the workers below them with.

Time after time recently, meeting with people from within my own company and from others in the sector, I hear about bad managers. I am talking about the people at the level of managing a team or and office or two, something between, say 5 and 50 staff. I have no idea how many there are of them in the country, but certainly the places I have worked, they are numerous and for the large part very poor at their jobs. British business has always suffered from cultural problems. It has had a senior management content to take high pay for little work, with no interest in innovation and happy to add more than one job at a time to their activities. This is one reason why so many successful British companies have been run by people from ‘outside’, even if from Britain, they have not been part of the Conservative-Anglican mainstream, rather immigrants or the grand/children of immigrants or from different religious groups including Nonconformist Christians. It has had a middle and lower management which is terribly self-centred and at best paternalistic, but too often bullying. It has had a workforce with little interest in personal training and development and with a tendency simply to blame outsiders for their problems whilst also be unwilling, certainly since mass unemployment returned in the 1980s to risk challenging bad practices in the workplace.

In this structure, the average manager can behave how they like and this is what makes so many workplaces stressful and so inefficient. What has exacerbated the problem is the return of 1980s managerial style. I have seen managers walking around telling workers that they should be grateful for the jobs that they have. It is not sufficient simply not to complain about things, workers need to be seen to be lauding their managers at every given opportunity, a tendency which eerily is reminiscent of officials in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. To be passive is now to be disloyal. Loyalty has become a key trait that managers want demonstrated again and again by their staff. A key reason for this is that managers know that they do blunder and in the blame culture which permeates so much of British business, they know the only way they can escape from having to face up to the consequences of their actions is to conceal them and this can only be done if they have sufficiently terrified the workforce into keeping quiet, or, even better, taking the blame themselves.

Loyalty is vaunted as a necessary trait for keeping your job and is often associated with ‘professionalism’ no matter what the nature of the job. The sense that someone who is ‘disloyal’ to their boss, typically because they are ‘loyal’ to the wider company or the customers, is unprofessional is an attitude which managers perpetuate, to add additional pressure on workers not to reveal their manager’s shortcomings. Usually quickly added on top are descriptions like ‘unusual’ and ‘not fitting in’, to make it easier to remove any work who dares complain, or in fact, increasingly is seen as insufficiently vigorously supportive of the manager’s approach no matter how flawed it might be. The worst managers even begin chiding workers in other areas. In my company a colleague was shocked when my manager gate-crashed a meeting she was in because she believed it was discussing an area of work which she had an interest in. In fact she was mistaken, but that did not stop her redirecting the meeting to cover that topic. My colleague who had arranged the meeting, sat stunned at the gall of the manager and simply agreed with everything she said to bring the meeting to an end as quickly as possible. However, even that was insufficient for the manager, who, after the meeting was over, lectured the woman for whom she has no line managerial responsibilities for twenty minutes about how her attitude was wrong. It was not that she had not agreed with the manager it was she had done it in a sufficiently deferential style.

Deference and gratitude are two terms which come up increasingly when employers talk about what they want from their staff. You could have conducted a survey in 1811 and had much the same answer. These traits seem more valued than ability to use IT or organise meetings or any other skill necessary for an office of the twenty-first century. Deference and gratitude simply promote the status quo, they do not lead to innovation. Deference and gratitude are what meant that the Indian princes, the Japanese Shogun and the Chinese Emperor found themselves overwhelmed by the imperial powers who had allowed a little room for challenging and innovation and so had advanced technologically.

As I have noted before, there are major problems when no-one has the courage to challenge the statements a manager makes. It creates a vicious circle as the manager feels that without complaints they must be doing everything perfectly alright and they are encouraged to develop more and more outrageous projects. If anyone makes an alternative suggestion they are told that they are in a minority so their view cannot be legitimate and this discourages them and anyone else from ever raising a question again. This attitude is not a new one: it appears in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837 in the third volume of ‘Fairy Tales Told for Children’.

The self-centred attitude of so many managers lead to ‘one-way traffic’ in terms of communication. Not only do the managers not listen to their workers, they feel obliged instead to lecture their workers at length. Again this seems characteristic of the Soviet system in which the ‘leader’ was lauded at length, from the head of the state right down to the leader of the unit. Under such regimes, it appears to have been necessary to keep telling the workers at length that they had such a great boss and that his/her boss was great too and so on. My current manager is the worst in this respect that I have worked for. Colleagues joke about ‘Songs of Praise’ (named after a BBC television religious programme involving lots of hymn singing) sessions held by my manager. In one two-hour meeting for which no agenda had been circulated, the manager spent 100 minutes going on about how everything she had done was so wonderful and successful. She made no reference to the success of the team or the efforts that had allowed her to receive praise from her bosses. This is incredibly demotivating, let alone simply a waste of time to have such a long meeting at which nothing was advanced.

The self-centredness and the belief that there is only one truth explanation for any situation, however temporary or ill-founded it may be, can be seen as stemming from the attitude that I regularly highlight as being endemic in British society, the 'me first' attitude. This was promoted during the Thatcherite era and causes harm to the UK everyday not least how people drive and use any public service. I guess I should not be surprised given people behave this way when simply moving around a town or going shopping or using a hospital or a school that they apply such behaviour to their workplace where they feel so much more vulnerable and in need of being in total control in order to ensure that everything turns out precisely how they want it, down to the smallest degree.

Aside from ensuring that every worker within their area is cowed, the main job for managers seems to be to kow-tow to their superiors. My current manager spends much of the day making friends with those above her. This causes many problems, because even though she is useless at management, the people you would complain to her about simply think she ‘is wonderful’. She massages their egos by constantly praising their initiatives and ideas. Networking is fine, but when it simply becomes about sucking up to people it uses up work time for something which provides minimal benefit to the company and in fact can be harmful. Of course, experienced senior managers can often see through this and make an effort to call on the views of a wider range of staff. However, in these circumstances, the worker who speaks up is liable to suffer later from their manager. The anger the manager unleashes comes from a number of bases. As they see any suggestions that differ from a plan as best irrelevant at worst insulting, they feel upset if you make a suggestion to a senior manager because in their view you are simply being blatantly rude. Second if the idea is a good one, they are irritated that they had not thought of it and so have, in their mind, lost ‘points’ to you, even if you are unable or unwilling to play in the ‘game’. In this second situation, they are liable to take on board the idea as their own or, at very least, say that the idea came about because of how supportive they have been.

With all of these concerns with keeping down their workers and buddying up to their seniors, it is no surprise that so many managers cannot see beyond their own personal concerns. This is not aided by the fact that they think that their view of the office and the wider world is the only true one. My manager told me recently that there was ‘my perception’ of how things were going and then there was the ‘truth’, which of course was her perception. She could not accept that there was my perception and her perception, let alone that mine had some legitimacy. This is the third manager I have had who has believe that their viewpoint is the only true one and this has led to ridiculous demands such as re-writing a report to remove the views tens of people had expressed in a survey because, in my manager’s eyes, these people were not speaking the ‘truth’ even though they had simply outlined their opinions and the information had been captured.

The sense of the ‘truth’ extends down to individual words used in print, orally or in emails. Poor managers waste ages complaining about individual words and phrases. Me saying that I was ‘trying to fit in’ with my manager led her to go on for 10 minutes about how that was an inappropriate phrase. There was apparently no need to ‘fit in’ with what she wanted because all that she wants is common sense and that is what should be driving everything that I do and I am ‘unusual’ in not understanding that. Certainly on the basis of a majority view of what was ‘common sense’ we would not be doing many things the way she compels us to do them.

Training is seen as the cure-all for any discrepancy between the manager’s view of the world and that of their workers. Alarmingly the perception seems to use the sense of training as ‘re-education’ is used in Communist China, i.e. a form of indoctrination. Bizarrely managers think that by sending their staff on some training course they will come back with the ‘right attitude’ rather than new skills or wider perspectives. Interestingly, the managers themselves seem to feel no obligation to attend any training. You soon find they have been on no managerial training courses and simply ‘learned on the job’ perhaps even at ‘the University of Life’ which apparently is fine for them, but utterly useless for developing effective workers. Funnily there is no recognition that sending someone on a decent training course is actually going to make them more confident, more perceptive, more skilled and so more liable to challenge the narrow-minded behaviour of their manager.

As managers see their perception of things as the ‘truth’ and often ‘common sense’ they see no need to actually tell anyone how they view things. To them it would seem a waste of time outlining anything that should be so blatantly obvious to everyone. This causes major difficulties and a lot of wasted effort as workers try to guess actually what their manager wants, fearful of making a mistake in their guesses for fear of being chided as discussed above. The manager is dismissive of the efforts, finding it difficult to comprehend that proposals do not match perfectly the vision held in their minds. This leads to repeated iterations, painfully slowly edging towards the model the manager desires as the feedback in the blame culture is only about what has been done wrong, not what needs to be done to make it right.

Another problem with this assumption that the manager’s view is common sense is that the manager feels t no obligation to remember what they have previously said. Thus their workers can get caught out by their capriciousness. My manager initially asked for one copy of a particular form to be submitted, then weeks later decided this had to be three copies. Some weeks after that she decided it had to be two copies. Her changing her mind would not have been a major issue, nothing more than rather irritating. What made it so much worst on each occasion she gave a new number she became indignant that we could have thought that the previous number she had demanded was acceptable. Not being able to remember her command she assumed we had taken the initiative and come up with that figure ourselves. Thus, we were harangued for daring to make a decision without reference to her, though this was precisely what we had done. The same applied for moving meeting days back and forth in the week. Again, it should not be a huge issue but she shouted that ‘I could never have wanted it on a Thursday, I do not think that way’ despite Thursday being the precise day she had ordered the meeting moved to. This capriciousness again seems reminiscent of the Soviet system with workers fearful of not complying with some industrial plan that was liable to change weekly without warning. I have been advised to save every email and even keep a notebook to log every instruction I am given. In addition to being time consuming, I am sure she would still challenge what I had recorded as being imagined or misunderstood by me, especially as she could not longer envisage herself ‘thinking that way’.

This short-sightedness of managers can have some incredible outcomes. I have worked with managers who have been oblivious to bullying occurring even though workers even a number of offices away have been aware of what was going on. My manager entered the league table for being so wrapped up in her own vision of the world to not even comprehend what was being said. I am not a rich man so lunch consists of a sandwich I have made eaten at my desk. Early on in this post my manager stormed into my office demanding I look at something and saying dismissively that she did not accept people sitting at their desks as having a legitimate lunch break and so she had the right to interrupt them. When I complained about the issue of my lunch break being ‘violated’, offering to have it at a set time if that was what was required, my manager made repeated righteous statements that she would strongly defend me from having my lunch break ignored. She did not understand at all what I meant when I pointed out that the only person doing that was herself. Of course, she has a different view of how she behaves and that view is the ‘truth’, so she appears unable to comprehend a different perspective on what has happened.

 I have worked for numerous companies over the past two decades, in part due to short-term contracts and three turns of redundancy. However, what has struck me is how prevalent such bad practice is across business. I accept that I have not worked outside London, southern England and the south Midlands, but the managers I have had have come from across the UK, so I do not imagine they would be any much different if I worked under them in Scotland or Wales. I know I am not alone in experiencing such outdated, self-centred approaches to management that seem oblivious of modern methods. What we appear to have is a kind of 19th century attitude reinvigorated by trends of the 1980s and revived once more by the current Depression. Ironically at a time when British companies need to be working more efficiently, this corrosive managerial behaviour appears to be increasingly common. Too many people I talk to have the same anecdotes to recount as me. No-one appears to be challenging these approaches and so British business will continue to suffer in the face of strong competition all because too many managers cannot see that satisfying their egos is not what a company should be focused on.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read. Some of my feelings of my previous global employer, HQ'd in the UK, are more validated. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Your blog post was the first hit from a Google search on "Why are managers so awful."

Your post echoed many of my own experiences and opinions about managers -- certainly in the places I've worked.

The comparisons you make to Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War are particularly interesting -- isn't it surprising that people tolerate, accept and even reward controlling behaviors at the workplace but if these behaviors came up in other parts of life, say by government officials (at least where I am in the U.S.), the reaction would be quite different!

Apparently we are all supposed to be inspired by the successes of our so-called leaders, and to use that inspiration to become better people (like they are). This is a premise that is becoming increasingly shaky as corporate scandals like the BP oil spill, the Financial Crisis and countless political scandals unfold.

At my workplace there are several hundred PhD scientists. They are supposed to accept the leadership authority of managers who are less well educated than they are. I have no idea to this day what function a manager performs for me. If the workplace were a democracy, then we could vote intelligent people into that role where they could encourage innovation as you said, without treating other intelligent people like slaves or children.

You seem like a very intelligent person, and I do hope that your obvious frustration with work (at least on the day when you posted this) is something you can use to effect positive change if not in your organization then at least in your life. Life is too short for all of us to spend time kissing someone else's boots.

Rooksmoor said...

Thank you for this comment, it is very thoughtful. Whilst quite bleak, it is always heartening to find out that I am not alone, as some people have said that the difficulties I have faced are down to me. I believe, however, they are more widespread and people are being allowed to get away with behaviour which actually does companies harm.

In the early 2000s, I actually worked in a place in which some managers were elected, and it did not provide much benefit as they spent their time currying favour and in fact rather than managing, they were afraid of upsetting anyone so that they would not be re-elected. It went too far to the other extreme.

When I worked in the civil service, we had people who were highly qualified compared to the managers. I am happy to accept being told what to do by someone less qualified by me, but only if I have the sense that their decisions are on a rational basis and are in line with the objectives of the company/organisation. The key problem now seems to be that the manager's 'interests' are seen as being automatically those of the company, whereas, in fact, they are often simply personal prejudices and in many cases arbitrary and irrational. Yet, to even question them is portrayed as being in opposition to the company.

I have realised that my last manager was suffering from a mental condition which led her to be highly paranoid. She said that when I was asking questions at a public seminar I was personally attacking her and that the speaker and the rest of the audience were aware that I was attacking her. In fact none of them thought that (I checked with the speaker and a number of the audience) and this suggests she is so paranoid or perhaps simply vain that she thinks people are talking about her constantly.

Funnily, the company advertised my post but found they could not recruit anyone of sufficient 'quality' to replace me.

Certainly in the UK, and it seems in the USA too, from what you say, that self-obsession, the identification of the company with a manager's own mindset and this need to be indignant about even minor disagreements is really causing a problem in business.

The Modern Man said...

I feel that you have really nailed down what it is that makes so many managers poor at their job. Ironically most of these managers are lauded by their superiors and others who believe that they must be good to get where they are; however most of the time they completely self-serve and don't do one of the fundamentals of management for me which is making working conditions better for those underneath you.
A very interesting read, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your observations. I've worked in France and Germany and met many people who've worked in other countries.
They generally find that continental managers are better, more professional yet nicer than their British counterparts. Public and private.
Interestingly, UN's school inspectorate PISA found UK had the fastest falling standards beause of excessively powerful bureaucracy. In fact UK's boxy, narrow education may be causing inner low confidence so we put up with poor press, politicians, managers, where others speak out.

Perculator said...

Thank you for your observations. I've worked in France and Germany and met many people who've worked in other countries.
They generally find that continental managers are better, more professional yet nicer than their British counterparts. Public and private sector.
Interestingly, UN's school inspectorate PISA said UK had the fastest falling standards beause of so much top heavy bureaucracy. In fact UK's boxy, narrow education may be causing inner low confidence so we put up with poor media, politicians, managers where others speak out.

Rooksmoor said...

Percolator, I agree. I think it is being exacerbated with the return to Victorian education models through the increase of selective schools, the huge rise in the cost of studying at university and the need to do unpaid internships arranged by well-connected family friends in order to get a decent job. Furthermore, the worst characteristics of the 'greed is good', triumphalist managerialism of the 1980s appear to be back in fashion with a vengeance.

Anonymous said...

I have learnt not to trust British management, I was taught by British management.