Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why I’m no longer hitting my head against a brick wall!

I have spent the last 20 years trying to get managers to change old habits. I ran the Future Work Forum at Henley Business School in an attempt to collect the best research information on the changing world of work and use it to show managers how work is changing. I kept asking the question – If it’s so obvious that work is evolving then why are managers not grasping this as an opportunity to change the way they manage? Surely they can see that their employees will be happier, more effective and more loyal if they are treated differently. They must be able to see that the way we manage today is a hangover from an earlier era when people were content to do mindless routine jobs and were grateful for the money. Now we are surrounded by technology that has freed up all sorts of work to be done at varying times and places, isn’t it obvious that management has to change?

I guess that after 20 plus years of banging my head against a brick wall, I’ve finally sat back and looked rationally at the situation. I can continue to produce logical arguments as to why our management practices are outdated. I can use the best research in the world to show that autonomous employees are more productive that those under close supervision. I can point to numerous management gurus over the last 50 years, all of whom have said the same thing - give people responsibility and freedom, trust and empower them, and you will get a high performance workforce. I can cite successful examples of agile working, self managed teams, diverse leadership, mobile technology, flexible workplaces and results based management systems. But managers still continue to do the same things they have always done, oblivious to the changing world around them.

I’ve come to realise that it’s not in the interest of managers to make any change. They are happy with the status quo. For them any change is potentially threatening. Particularly change that may strip them of power and even question the need for their job at all. They are comfortable in their current positions of authority, giving orders to their staff and checking that they have carried them out. They have probably risen to their current position by being good at doing the work they now manage. The Finance Director is likely to have been a successful Accountant, the Research Director will have come up through the labs and the Sales Director was once out on the road himself. They are experts at the work done by their employees. So managing them involves telling people how to get the job done – in most cases the way they used to do it. After all, they got to be the manager by being the best Accountant, Salesman or Engineer.

And who promoted these managers on the first place? Obviously their superiors, who themselves were chosen by their bosses – and so on. So we have a formula for appointing managers that reinforces the current values and behaviours of top management. Unless you are prepared to admit that you are a poor manager (in which case you shouldn’t be in the job) it is perfectly normal to select people who act like you. So no wonder it’s difficult to change organizational cultures. They weed out the ‘misfits’ who do not agree with the prevailing regime and reinforce existing practices that have been around for decades.

So when I talk to a group of middle managers and tell them about the changing world of work, I get polite nods. They agree that the younger generation have different values about the place of work in their lives. They understand that technology is freeing up people to work very differently.  They listen politely to the examples of companies that are reaping the benefits of agile working. And they already know that trusting and empowering employees makes them more engaged and probably more productive. But when they get back to the ‘real world’ of their office they have no incentive to rock the boat and try out new ideas.

If you are a manager why should you empower your employees? That means losing power by giving it away. It means admitting that individual members of your team know their own work better than you do. It could mean allowing people to choose when, where and even how they get their work done. Then what is left for you to do? This looks like you’ve lost control and are no longer managing the operation. That’s not the way your boss did it when he was in the job and it’s certainly not what he now expects from you. Unless there is a major disruption to the business forced on it from the outside (competition, regulation, takeover etc) your career is dependent on supporting the existing values, systems and behaviours and not introducing radical change.

This has led me to the conclusion that the work revolution has to be driven bottom up. Employees need to be pressurizing their bosses to manage differently. They need to point out the outdated work practices and the barriers to improved productivity. They need to express their frustration at the long hours culture and the lack of personal time associated with success. They need to show that they can take on responsibility and become more effective, given the chance. And when they get rebuffed by entrenched management they need to vote with their feet.

I may have been a bit slow in getting there, but I now realise that I have to change tactics. Yes, I will still keep on giving presentations to senior management about the importance of addressing the work culture as a business priority. I will probably still be talking to middle managers about moving from ‘command and control’ to ‘trust and empower’. But I am now going to address all those people stuck in a job under a traditional management system. I’m gong to point out how outdated our management practices are and show them there is another way. Then the combined pressures of Directors who ‘get it’ as a business strategy and employees who ‘want it’ as a way to live their lives will overcome the inertia of the managers between them.

In my survey for the book, ‘Future Work’, I asked an audience of 350 junior/middle managers (mostly MBAs) if they agreed with this statement “There will be a revolution in working practices in the next decade”. To my surprise, two thirds of them agreed, or strongly agreed, with the statement. So they recognise there is a revolution on the way which will effect the way they manage. But they can’t make it happen whilst they are in the middle of a system that resists the change. So, I’m now setting my sights on the working population as a whole, who stand to benefit from the revolution, instead of the current generation of managers who do not.