Managers have a poor reputation. Nobody seems to have a good word to say about them. This does not apply, of course to leaders.
As HR professionals, however, we have an opportunity to reshape the narrative and to help restore the status of management.
The popular image of today’s manager is a costly pen-pusher who blocks change and slows things down.
Middle management in particular is an easy target for cost cutting efforts.
Some companies have flattened their structures, and abolished managers altogether.
In this article, we explore how this image problem has arisen, and suggest that HR can help to engineer a turnaround, to restore the reputation of management.
With HR support, the strategic value of management can be leveraged to create a positive work environment which will help to attract and retain talent, and drive organizational performance.
What’s the evidence?
There’s no shortage of evidence to support the argument that the management contribution is key to organizational performance.
In the 1990s, studies showed that middle management involvement in shaping strategy led to better decisions, greater consensus, improved implementation, and better organizational performance.
That work emphasized the coordinating, mediating, interpreting and negotiating roles of middle managers.
In 2017, a team led by Raffaella Sadun studied 12,000 companies in 34 countries, conducting 20,000 interviews. Companies were rated on their use of four sets of management practices: operations management, performance monitoring, target setting, and talent management. (add links)
The highest rated firms were more profitable, grew faster, and were less likely to go out of business.
Moving a firm from the worst 10% to the best 10% on their management ratings was linked to a $15 million increase in profits, 25% faster annual growth, and 75% higher productivity.
Recent research by McKinsey found that having more top-performing middle managers leads to better financial outcomes.
Middle managers create relationships that enhance team performance and improve operational effectiveness.
They turn vision and strategy into reality.
A study of NHS management by the Social Market Foundation and the Chartered Management Institute found that investing in management leads to better patient care.
They also found that the management contribution was not always recognized, or taken seriously.
Analysis by the Institute for Government concluded that low hospital productivity in the UK is due in part to insufficient management capacity.
The NHS Confederation argues that hospital efficiency, quality and patient satisfaction improve with an increase in management-to-staff ratios.
They also conclude that negative comments from the media and politicians are damaging, by playing down the need to develop management capacity.
What’s the problem?
The evidence confirms that management really matters. But evidence alone has not improved the almost universally negative management reputation.
Four factors have done the damage:
The first is ‘leader worship’. When things go wrong, the first solution to emerge is usually ‘We need new leadership’. The textbook says that leaders inspire, motivate, and drive change.
Managers budget, hire, supervise, and maintain order. The leader is prophet, catalyst, mover-shaker, strategist.
The manager is technician, administrator, problem-solver. If you write a business book, your publisher will tell you to have ‘leadership’ and not ‘management’ in the title, if you want to sell more copies.
This ‘good guys – bad guys’ stereotype is deeply embedded; leaders are special, managers are ordinary. But Henry Mintzberg argues that leadership and management are different sides of the same role.
He asks two key questions: Would you like to be led by someone who can’t manage? Would you like to be managed by someone who can’t lead?
A second factor concerns the scapegoating of middle management. We often see this in the public views of UK politicians who are always ready to blame ‘bureaucrats and bean-counters’ for inefficiencies and failures.
As managers have few opportunities to fight back, the negative stereotype is not often challenged in public, and thus persists.
The manager-free organization
Who needs managers anyway?
The idea of ‘holacracy’ has become popular – organizations without a traditional hierarchy, which operate with self-managing teams instead.
And yes, some of these organizations claim to be successful.
However, somebody has to do the POSDCORB – planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, budgeting.
Other key management tasks include human resource and change management.
Those somebodies are employees who have been persuaded to handle those management responsibilities, without enjoying either a management job title, or the salary that would normally go with it.
If you have no middle managers, where are you going to develop, identify, and recruit senior managers?
Some of those managerless organizations have either failed, or reverted to a more traditional structure anyway.
How can we actually show that management affects organizational performance? Well, despite the evidence, this is difficult.
Michael West found that mortality rates following surgery were lower in hospitals with human resource practices concerning staff appraisal, training, and teamwork, and where the HR director was a full voting member of the board.
Medical staff were understandably skeptical about any link between management and patient outcomes.
But West points out that if HR practice develops people’s skills, and encourages cooperation, collaboration, innovation, and teamwork, then the whole system works better.
In other words, it is hard to attribute results to specific management actions. The management contribution is systemic, behind the scenes, with few obvious tangible outcomes.
As Mintzberg also notes, the manager’s main function is to set the conditions in which others can do their work effectively. It’s difficult to see or to measure ‘set the conditions for others’, or to attribute this to the actions of particular individuals.
What’s the solution?
The management contribution may be key to performance, but the popular management stereotype is still negative.
Finding solutions is harder than diagnosing the problem. How can HR help to improve the image and reputation of management?
Reporting the ‘hard evidence’ doesn’t seem to do much good. Calling a myth a myth doesn’t work either, because this is a challenge to deeply held beliefs.
We need to be more creative. We would like to ask you, readers, as HR professionals to suggest practical ideas in the following areas:
- Individual steps – what can I do?
- HR/L&D – what steps can the function take?
- Professional bodies (e.g. CIPD, CMI, IoD) – how could they help?
- Corporate actions – what can my organization start doing/stop doing?
- Government policy – how can government signal change in this area?
With your contributions, we may be able to restore the image of management as key to organizational success.
Please email your answers to us, using the addresses below. We will combine your suggestions and share these in a future UNLEASH article.
David Buchanan is Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Cranfield University School of Management: firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Macaulay is an Associate at Cranfield Executive Development: email@example.com
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