Is the UK suffering from an under-management epidemic?

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Endless efficiency drives have seen the cull of large layers of management but what impact is it having on UK plc?

According to US HR consultancy RainMaker Thinking the US is suffering from an under-management epidemic which is leading to poor productivity and low staff morale.

The research claims that:

  • Under-management is a workplace disease of epidemic proportions
  • The impact of under-management is harmful and costly
  • There are four leading causes of individual infection
  • Eight environmental factors support the spread of the disease
  • Hands-on managers tend to follow the same practices

Is the same disease prevalent in the UK? I would argue that it is and that the current vogue for leadership has been at the neglect of core management skills. The key relationship in any organisation is between the employee and their line manager.

If this relationship becomes disengaged it can lead to poor productivity and low staff morale. Line managers drive performance and productivity, and consistent support and motivation is vital for improving retention rates. Therefore, managers must provide feedback, praise and recognition for good performance and help for under-performers. This takes time and commitment. It also requires courage and belief that such efforts will bring dividends in terms of improved performance.

Managers under pressure have less time to focus on people and every survey suggests that managers feel under more pressure than ever before. This leaves staff under-managed impacting on business objectives. Communication and team involvement are essential to business success, yet lack of contact with employees means managers don’t know what staff are doing so find it hard to offer clear direction and support.

The Rainmaker study identified four main causes of the under-management epidemic:

  • Lack of time and/or resources: managers often struggle to balance the responsibilities of their own job with managing their employees.
  • False ‘Nice Guy’ syndrome: some managers misunderstand ‘empowerment’ and refuse to accept responsibility for the authority and influence that comes with their position. This leads them to resist being clear about performance requirements, operating procedures, direction, feedback on performance and so forth.
  • Lack of skill: most managers do not receive sufficient training in the most effective supervision techniques. As a result they tend to use their own management styles which become ingrained as strong habits over time.
  • Fear: many managers are afraid of the consequences of high engagement with direct reports which could lead to difficult conversations or reports which express negative feelings which then need to be addressed.

The study also highlighted eight environmental factors which exacerbated the under-management epidemic. The majority of these factors are as relevant for the UK as they are for the US:

  • The impact of technology and globalisation on the workplace since the early 1990s.
  • Organisations are expected to be leaner and more flexible. Aggressive HR policies mean organisations demand more and better work from fewer employees.
  • Lack of long-term security for employees.
  • The employer-employee bond has been turned into a short-term transactional relationship.
  • Managers are frustrated by employee attitudes and behaviour.
  • Organisational structures have become flatter with the traditional rules of seniority, age, rank and rules becoming less important. Therefore managers are losing their long-term hierarchical power.
  • Line managers are increasingly the primary point of contact for most employees for access to resources, rewards and work conditions.
  • Employees are relying more on line managers for meeting their basic needs and expectations at work – requiring time, dedication, skill and courage from managers.

The findings of the US research seem to be backed up by a CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) report which highlighted the fact that managers have more to do than ever, due to less layers of management and a target driven culture. The net result is that managers are spending more time on figures than they do on people. This has left staff under-managed leading to poor productivity and low staff morale.

What is the solution to under-management? There is no simple answer. Alistair Mant asks "what's the difference between a frog and a bicycle?" His answer is that you can take both apart, but only one can be put back as a viable system.

He extends this analogy to organisations, to complex learning systems and asks us to consider the "frogishness" of our organisations. He points out the devastating effects of ignorant interventions by politicians, investment bankers, directors, senior executives and management consultants in such "frogish" organisations including the NHS, Railtrack, Marconi and Equitable Life.

All of these were easy to dissect but impossible to recreate if the invisible learning and mutual co-operation which held the organisation together is missing at the time of attempted reconstruction.

So sending managers on training courses is not enough. The organisation and its situation need to be considered and careful ‘systems’ thinking undertaken to find the right blend of answers. Is it a frog or a bicycle?

By Peter Casebow, CEO,


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20th Nov 2005 23:38

Just a short comment to confirm the thinking, and confirm also the practice is alive and well in New Zealand. In many ways I place some of the blame on multi nationals, who either bring their management practices to New Zealand, or who are held up as the ideal by consultants and commentators. Principle diagnosis of the disease in my country identifies managers being given the task of achieving more with less. It would be half acceptable if they were asked to achieve better with less. On top of all this, we have this lemming-like belief here that good managers have an 'open door' policy. Whoever thought up that no-brainer? It just encourages managers to open their door, rather than get off their posterior and go to the coalface where it happens; to where workers feel most comfortable about discussing their concerns and ideas etc. And then in some ways even more important, go back and shut the door to do the urgent things with no interruptions. Please continue with your message.

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