Do we expect too much from our managers?

We all have our interests and perhaps unsurprisingly (if you're reading my blog) one of mine is the topic of leadership and management. Whether it’s Julius Caesar or the guy who manages three people in the paper shop, the psychology of leadership and management fascinates me. It’s worth underlining that the two wouldn’t necessarily employ the same techniques! Anyway, I have found myself revisiting some of my old assumptions about management on the back of two pieces of work I have recently undertaken. The first is ongoing work in Aberdeen with an organisation called Scarf and the second was completed back in April together with Michelle Heron from Enhance People.

Michelle is hugely experienced in using psychometric profiling tools - something I’m also now qualified in.  DISC Personality profiling is based on the rationale that we all have preferred behavioural styles which translate into inherent strengths and weaknesses. My work with Scarf meanwhile is about helping to develop the organisation, its systems and its people. The work I completed alongside Michelle could be best described as 'People Development' whilst the work with Scarf could be described as 'Organisational Development'. Both have informed my thinking on line managers.

Like many other HR professionals, I’ve long held the view that the role of ‘manager’ is crucial to ensure staff development, motivation and performance. However the afore mentioned work has had me questioning this. I’d therefore started to reflect on my own experiences and in particular the managers I’ve had during my working life. Now it goes without saying that I was a model employee...ok my admin has always been questionable, I have a habit of running late but otherwise I was a model employee! Thankfully I’ve had no complete psychopaths to contend with and with hindsight I can appreciate all my managers had their strengths and limitations.

It was also true that I wasn’t always so forgiving and was on occassion, very frustrated by my managers seeming inability to perform to the standard I expected. Therefore my conclusion on these experiences, had until recently, been “good managers are the hens teeth”. I’d therefore built assumptions around the importance of rigorous recruitment and training as the ways to ensure management performance.

Perhaps one of the things which has made challenging my assumptions easier was I’ve been a manager myself and I have to concede there were things I was good at and things I was less good at. This also related well to the knowledge psychometric profiling gave me – that people have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Therefore if our starting point is people can’t be good at everything, is the problem in fact, that we simply place too much expectation on our managers?

I remember carrying out management training within a medium sized organisation a couple of years ago. It had quite a familiar hierarchical, organisational structure with departments and with good intentions around empowering people. The course we delivered was designed to give managers training on performance management, principles of management, coaching, mentoring and a whole host of other management skills. All of this was training on the ‘people’ elements of their duties. Managers would be expected to use these new skills next to their other management responsibilities which included delivering department outputs, keeping track of cost, planning etc – all fairly familiar outputs for a manager in any number of organisations. There was enthusiasm during our training days but afterward the feedback was that the training hadn’t had the shift in practice we had hoped for.  When I look back at this, I now think we were setting managers up to fail. I’m not too sure it was simply a case that the managers were “not getting it”.

I now believe we have to look deeper to understand the route of the problem which is our whole notion of the role of manager goes hand in hand with organisational structures which were designed to organise work in a bygone era. The industrial organisational model and accompanying hierarchy was designed around a relatively steady economy and slower paced, less globalised world. It was militaristic/feudal in concept and hierarchical. Our understanding of people and behavioural psychology was also far more limited during this time. However this has changed but it seems we’re still fundamentally sticking by industrial era organisational thinking. We still have the role of manager but we’ve now bolted on additional responsibilities to the job. This is because we have seen things like employee engagement emerge as issues but we want to solve them using old solutions. So whereas once the manager would have been there to control – to oversee the process and ensure targets were met - we now want them to empower, engage and coach our people as well as do the former.  Oh and they have to do this against the backdrop of a faster moving and more connected world. Is this realistic?

I don’t think it is. We know that intrinsic motivation has to come from within. A huge part of achieving this is by giving someone genuinely interesting, meaningful work and giving them autonomy. Not only is this desirable for motivation but it is also, I would argue, a practical necessity for many roles in our super connected, fast moving and uncertain world. This means changing the way we structure our organisations. Does this mean people don’t need to be managed? I certainly think they need leadership but perhaps they need less management. What I am saying is I don’t think we need the do it all, super star manager and we should stop kidding ourselves on that such a person exists

Until we start seriously challenging the way we work we will remain in a sort of limbo - a world where we are applying early 20th century solutions to 21st century problems. In the meantime the poor individual line manager remains trying his or her hardest to be all things to all people - the archetypical ‘Jack of all Trades’ and Master of None.

As ever, I’m interested in your thoughts...