What's wrong with talking to staff? By John Pope

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John Pope

Management consultant John Pope discusses the importance of managers who listen and talk to their staff and adopt a personal approach, so as to achieve true employee engagement.

I have worked with some wonderful and outstanding managers in over 40 years as a consultant, business advisor and coach, and have learnt a lot about management from them.

I saw an advertisement recently for a system that can tell senior managers their staff's views on the way they were managed and treated. It claimed to improve retention, identify probable loss of talent, get a scientific measure (yes!) of attitude and staff engagement, and help identify impending problems.

I suppose it might work, but I wonder why we should need these expensive toys? What's wrong with talking and listening to the staff? Those excellent managers I mentioned did just that.

A true story

One of the best managers I ever met was the first financial director of a big company – ultimately a FTSE100 company – and he had started there as an accounts clerk. When he was promoted to section supervisor he would go round the office towards the end of Saturday morning and ask his clerks to show him all their problems.

"He had a progressive attitude, was non-threatening, and was a marvellous manager. He was tough, but his staff loved him."

He said that he had never had an unpleasant surprise in his career. He had never found a problem hidden away. He had a progressive attitude, was non-threatening, and was a marvellous manager. He was tough, but his staff loved him.

He said his staff brought him their problems before they became his problems. Quite an achievement to become finance director without being a qualified accountant – he had staff who had all the qualifications.

Another story

One senior manager I know, and have worked alongside for over 20 years, started a routine early on where he regularly asked his team: "How can we do a better job together?"

He was man enough to take criticism in his stride, without rancour or becoming defensive. He would move on to say: "Tell me two or three things I have done in the month which have really upset you." Which they did, and which then entitled him to tell them the two or three things which had upset him – yes, he restricted the number, he didn't want it to take too long and get out of proportion. He wanted a progressive climate in which they would explore better ways of working.

Yet another story

Again a senior manager. He does not allow any system change until it has been 'floated' before the staff who are going to use it or be affected by it. He insists that the staff are fully consulted before it is developed. He treats even the most junior members of staff, several grades below him – ugly phrase, but you know what I mean – as intelligent adults. He expects them to be interested in the business results, service to the customers, and performance. And by and large they are.

And the last story

A couple of business men who had made enough money when they sold their rental business started a building company. They said they were tired of selling small ticket items. It grew to be one of the biggest building companies in Southern England.

At the outset they decided to be open with their staff; they put up progress reports of their projects on the staff notice boards and in reception; they posted the monthly accounts there as well. They would ask members of staff, at any level, what they thought of the plans or the results and if an individual said he did not understand, they would explain. Then they would go to that individual’s manager and ask why that member had not had it explained – usually by saying: "Do you realise you have someone on your team who doesn’t understand the money side of the business?"

What’s more, the sub-contractors were allowed to see those figures and were treated – in most ways – as if they were employees. And that means they were treated well and they felt they had a stake in the business. Sounds to me like a good way of increasing staff engagement.

Employee engagement

I read articles on increasing staff engagement, on improving the culture of the organisation; and I see advertisements for systems to do wonderful things for human relation in business. I do not see much about the human side of management or meet enough managers who know enough about their people and how they work, though I am sure that there are many good line managers who take the approach of talking to their staff.

Now don't tell me that these human approaches can't be applied in today's world of employment. They can, and from time-to-time managers have created businesses on the strength of that approach.

"My plea is for better managers with a real interest in their people and with simple effective personal approaches to managing people."

Managers who do engage with their people in that way do not need extensive or expensive systems to tell them about their staff. They know, and manage all the better for it. What is more, because their people understand the way they manage, they can take their full holiday entitlement knowing that the place will run perfectly well in their absence. And they can be promoted.

My plea is for less concentration on magic systems, complex reporting, rafts of mutually contradictory targets and measures, fewer surveys, or meaningless and perfunctory staff appraisals.

My plea is for better managers with a real interest in their people and with simple effective personal approaches to managing people. Managers who will talk and listen to their staff, and see that the managers and supervisors below them do the same.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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7th Aug 2007 12:40

Unfortunately everything here is pretty much accurate - good managers consult, work for overall understanding and take as well as give constructive criticism.

The bad news is that British management seems to revel in withholding information, not trusting their staff with the big picture and refusing to believe that their staff could give them useful feedback. This is endemic in almost every organisation and wierdly leads to ridiculous inefficiencies all over every project.

CYA is the motto of the day. Please god let it end soon...

Good article.

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7th Aug 2007 13:31

Part 1 of response:
I agree with John’s comments about the importance of engaging with staff. Having worked for and with many managers in the public and private sectors within the UK and abroad I have seen some excellent examples of effective engagement and some not so successful. Let me add 2 stories.
Story 1. A manager, on joining an established team, immediately went about getting to know people, both professionally and socially. He openly talked about his strengths and weaknesses and involved people in the creation of a new vision and direction for the team. Everyone’s opinions were considered and their ideas acted upon. Very soon the levels of commitment and energy within the team increased. The manager regularly fed information back to the team; treated everyone equally and fairly; publicly praised the team; fought the team’s corner when required; rarely took the credit for anything, choosing to praise his team instead; publicly taking any criticism of the team himself, then managing the causes and reasons for the criticism on a one to one basis with the relevant people; and he rarely referred to his hierarchical position. He constantly challenged people to enhance their performance and did it in such a way that people would willingly strive to do so simply because he believed in them. When he left the office he was asked what achievement he was most pleased about. His reply was that he’d seen people within his team grow and achieve their potential. 15 years after he left people still fondly talk about him and his achievements.

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7th Aug 2007 13:31

Part 2 of response:
Story 2. Another manager was the opposite. She would often begin a sentence with ‘as Head of Training and Development I…’ Rather than demonstrating a level of competence/professionalism this opening undermined her position. She appeared to hide behind the position. She did not admit to having any weaknesses. Rather than creating a sense of confidence, her team saw weaknesses in her approach and performance which led to people being unwilling to talk about theirs. If they did it was seen as another weakness to be chastised by her. Her team quickly realised she was not authentic. A culture of secrecy and fear became the norm. She would also regularly take credit for work done by them yet externalise any failures and openly blame them for any mistakes. This manager was not respected or liked. The performance of the team deteriorated.
I hope, in line with John’s article, people will see the benefits of the first manager’s approach when compared to the latter’s. Unfortunately, there still seem to be quite a few managers around like the one mentioned in the second story.
Duncan Miles
Director
Inspire Training and Consultancy Limited
www.inspiretraining.net

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10th Aug 2007 16:22

It is strange that despite all the stories about the effectiveness of managing people as, well as people, managers continue to dish out the mushroom treatment.

I have seen organisations with insufficient stretch in their managers (including supervision up to board directors). As a result some managers do not have enough real authority. To enhance their importance they have to act as a block on communication, up and down. Nobody can be allowed to get close. This is a structural deficit in the organisation.

On the other hand a really good manager does not appear to do anything, the communications and decisions flow around her.

Some clever consultant (yes I am a consultant) then decides the manager does nothing and is not needed. Suddenly the work flow falls apart as the people massaging stops.

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

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