line managers

Many old sayings have tangled histories or ambiguous meanings that we often overlook. Is it “A friend in need is a friend in deed’, or should it end with ‘a friend indeed’? A subtle difference, you might say, or you might just snort and agree with Benny Hill that ‘a friend in need is a bloody nuisance’? One version of the phrase’s history suggests it came to us from the Latin ‘‘Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur‘, which translates rather less ambiguously as ‘a sure friend is known when in difficulty’ – it is not our ‘friend’ that is in need but us, and their friendship is revealed through their support.

It’s not the only phrase about friendship and relationships that has become a well-worn cliché. Another that springs to mind is “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”. And family can be a very loaded word: after all, family relationships are ones that we cannot distance ourselves from lightly, or abandon or move on from without emotional upset to at least one party. And views about the nature, meaning and importance of family are often tightly held and hotly contested.


Being told something is generally the consequence of someone else’s desire to bring it to your attention – that there’s a deadline looming that you need to meet, that you need to be aware that a particular activity is forbidden wherever you are, or that your choice of outfit might not be showing you in your best light. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s inadvertently amusing (I always enjoyed a friend’s office door that had a stern ‘No Tapdancing’ sign on it, in case anyone was about to break into the best Fred and Ginger routine); sometimes, however, it can have effects that we can only assume weren’t intended.

Mark Gould, writing at his Enlightened Tradition blog, provides a personal example to illustrate this point – and an explanation as to why a reminder might not have the intended effect:

I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.”


I never understood the whole ‘talk to the hand’ thing. I’ve learnt a lot of things by using my hands, but never by using them as a way of avoiding doing something more educational: listening. Even if you suspect you’re going to disagree with someone, your counter-argument is going to be stronger if you listen to theirs before you attempt to demolish it. Getting the response “Face? Bovvered?” is actually less annoying when the face belongs to someone whose ears were actually functioning in the preceding seconds. And let’s be honest here: if you want someone’s attention in the future, you’re more likely to get it if you give them yours in the meantime. As the Earl of Chesterfield once observed: “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” Neither are the perfect response, but a cold shoulder is warmer than a deaf ear.

Yet how often do we offer a deaf ear even when what we claim to be doing is wanting to hear something? Consider this example from Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor:

Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”

As the piece goes on to explain, Christensen persists and his audience is able not only to learn but also to do so by drawing their own conclusion – taking the learning on board and processing it rather than merely accepting a line to follow. But, at least in this telling, Andy Grove thought he would still have been doing all the listening he needed to do rather earlier in the process. Let’s hope the story does him an injustice, as it would be more inspiring to learn that a CEO didn’t simply want to be told what to think.

While we tend to realise that speech can be inspirational – perhaps because of our tendency to look for leadership behaviours to aspire to and be inspired by – it’s important to remember that listening can be equally invigorating. In its 2010 Report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership (read our coverage), The Work Foundation highlighted listening as one of the defining skills of the outstanding (as opposed to merely good) leader. Here’s one of the anonymised quotes cited in the report:

So I [have] got this guy…. No-one listened to him, you know? He’s a very clever lad and he’s all over the place getting himself educated, but they thought he was lazy. But they didn’t listen you know. And all he wanted, he was bored and they weren’t stimulating him, giving him enough to do and so the worse he did, the less they gave him and it was a downhill slope all the time. I just keep giving him more and more and he’s never let me down.”

The sensation of ‘having a voice’ – ie one that is heard and that helps you feel that you are making a contribution – is one of the most critical factors in engagement and motivation. (The flipside is that ‘banging my head on the wall’ sensation that nearly all of us would have felt less often if the other party had actually been listening.) Give or take the backing music and the dress sense, a dialogue is like a tango: it takes two. For the employee to experience the sense of engagement and motivation, the manager has to listen.

As our anonymised contributor above had realised, the first step in tackling the situation really is listening. There’s a Stephen Covey quote that might be considered the managerial equivalent of ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The rush to judgement might be tempting, but listening is the skill required to gather the evidence that enables the conclusion to be leapt to. Nor is listening simply a ‘once only’ activity. As Robin Wright pointed out in an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line series in late 2009, giving feedback is also about listening. When we wrote about that episode at the time, we made the point that feedback is a looping process – ‘Communicating, not broadcasting’ as we titled the piece.

Given the role of listening in sales – where, at least among the better practitioners, it is seen as common sense that the best way to find out what someone might be interested in buying is to ask them what they want or need and then listen to them – its importance in more metaphorical aspects of selling (managing, supervising, persuading, initiating, leading change) should be equally obvious, though that is not always the case. Listening is not just hearing: it involves paying closer attention, processing what is heard into understanding – and into questions that can be asked to deepen and clarify that understanding.

Asking questions is one way to practice, and one that – like feedback – encourages communication to become a dialogue. If you find yourself merely hearing, remember the words of Igor Stravinsky:

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

That open palm that many of us find ourselves talking to – metaphorically or literally – from time to time is meant to silence, but its impact is ultimately to isolate. Not just the person being silenced, but also the person doing the silencing. Listening isn’t just something we do while we’re waiting for our turn to speak – which reducing the notions of dialogue, feedback and understanding to the level of the old joke about ‘How dare you fart in front of my wife?’.

Listening is something we do so that when our turn comes to speak – if speaking is even appropriate – we do so from a better-informed standpoint. And what we say is not simply ‘our turn’, but a fully fledged response. To quote from a fine article in the December 2011 edition of Training Journal:

Quality listening involves us momentarily stepping out of our own frame of reference and into that of another. It involves us acknowledging and affirming another. It requires us to see and experience someone other than ourselves.”

Try the ‘talk to the hand’ routine to often and what you wind up hearing may be little more than the sound of footsteps as they get further and further away. Which isn’t the learning experience it might have been.

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Ah yes, time. Bit of a sticky one. We can’t evade it, escape its ravages or turn it back. It’s only a 30 minute walk from the Thames Barrier to the Greenwich Observatory, but while the former can contain (if not quite literally turn back) the tide, the latter can only mark time. There is a long and fascinating history of the relationship between time and tide.  In inventing reliable marine chronometers, John Harrison – whose story was memorably told in the Dava Sobel novel Longitude – not only reliably measured time, but made safe sea travel possible. Appropriately, his early timepieces are on display in Greenwich too, at the National Maritime Museum. To prove the point that time is inexorable, the first three are still running. So next time you fill in a timesheet, now you know one of the people to thank for the opportunity.

At which point, a confession. It’s not so much that I struggle to embrace the joy of timesheets (although that’s true), but that I struggle to do so when I see how they’re used – not by the people completing them, but by the people collecting and collating them. (And, quite often, not collating them.) The first absurdity is working out how to log all the time you need to spend logging your time. Timesheets impose their own overhead on the productivity they are supposedly monitoring. Every 15 minutes we spend recording our time is 15 minutes lost to a more productive task. It’s enough to spark anyone’s inner Dilbert cartoon (speaking of which …)

My own inner Dilbert duly sparked, a more serious point. Timesheets are, like most other spreadsheets based around recording, simply a historic snapshot. Compiling them doesn’t change anything – except, ironically, to take up more of our time. We’ve argued before that the most important question is ‘Why?’, and timesheets are a prime case.


Simon Caulkin is a writer who is, notwithstanding a career that has embraced The Observer, The FT, The Economist, and many others, not afraid to manoeuvre his pen into controversial areas. I was surprised to see that one of his own blog articles took its title from one of the nouns of the well-known Sex Pistols album, especially when the noun wasn’t “Mind”, but I could only agree with him that a more recent article – publishing in the FT Business Education supplement – shouldn’t be as ‘shocking’ as its subheading might entice some of us into thinking. The sub-heading? “It makes business sense for companies to give employees a say in how they are managed.”

As he points out, the best companies to work for outperform those where the workforce aren’t chuffed as deeply or as frequently; OECD figures show no correlation “between low employment protection and high economic performance”; trust, engagement and commitment – the latter two of which “are the nearest things to a management silver bullet” – are mainly brought about by excellence of first-line management. Yet, as he points out, while sales and marketing functions have grasped that insight into a customer’s perspective is more easily aquired by trying to see things from their viewpoint, the art of management still insists that managing must been seen only through the eyes of managers.

His article was written partly into a London Business School research report into employee-centred management. One of the report’s authors, Julian Birkinshaw, highlighted some of the main findings in a recent article for HR Magazine:

Employees have a pretty clear sense of what makes their work engaging: they want responsibility for doing something worthwhile; they want a high level of freedom in how they achieve their results; they crave the opportunity to extend themselves and to develop expertise and to work with good colleagues; and they want recognition from those around them for doing a good job.

None of this is surprising – they are all things we can instantly recognise as important and valuable. The surprise, rather, is so many people, in very different working environments, find themselves doing work that does not have these attributes.”

While some organisations have taken the radical step of ‘electing’ managers or allowing people to choose their line manager, Caulkin accepts that this may be a move too far for most, even if ‘leading’ must by definition include the abilities to attract and retain followers. (Where it doesn’t, the alternatives are alienation or tyrant – two experiences that we don’t need to see become any more widespread in workplaces.) But his argument is clearly that we persist in a particular top-down, manager-centric model despite the fact that, were we to look, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the model doesn’t work.

So how might we change? Persuading organisations to implement management elections doesn’t seem to hold out a great deal of hope. The idea made me think, perhaps oddly, of Alex Salmond: whether or not there’s a ‘devo-max’ question on the ballot paper, it’s still like convincing turkeys to sanction a referendum on the concept of voting for Christmas. Although it’s arguable that the likely rejection of the idea (this time without the comparison to ‘the Scottish question’) springs from the same source as the problem itself: a manager-centric vision of management can all too easily lose sight of what ‘managing’ is supposed to achieve. The point shouldn’t be to control those further down, but to develop their ability to perform in the interest of the organisation. To adopt a very different parable, it’s the difference between giving someone a fish or giving them a fishing rod: Giving people abilities and the freedom to act achieves more. As Julian Birkinshaw put this point in his HR Magazine article:

So one useful way of approaching a management job is to imagine the role won’t exist in, say, two years’ time, and that your job is to train everyone up so they can do your job as well as their own.

[…]We realise this approach has its risks. If your enlightened approach to management is not shared by your boss, it is possible the goal of ‘working yourself out of a job’ may end up with you having no job. But in our experience, this discipline of pushing down the structure as much work as possible has the effect of changing the nature of the work you do as a manager – it forces you to spend more time on the mentoring and supporting activities and it results in better performance all round.”

Another better approach would require buy-in from those at higher levels, but is one all too rarely seen (although we’ve proposed it before) – revising the reward and recognition model for managers, and actively reward, recognise – and promote – those who invest most in the mentoring, coaching, empowerment and development of those they manage. Performance Management should be a positive activity, geared towards optimising both behaviours and productivity: ‘positively managing the performance of others’ should, by extension, be exactly the kind of performance any organisation would want to see. Where line managers aren’t providing the development directly, their support and encouragement (or lack of it) is a critical factor in effective transfer of workplace learning however it’s provided.

It’s not a question of directly electing line managers, but a revised and remodelled appraisal approach for line managers would either give employees and reports an indirect voice (by supporting the promotion of those most likely to continue to be not just effective but responsible managers, and also promoting the concept of developmental line management) or improve the line management of those who might hitherto be wishing there was a ballot paper – and that there was more than one name on it.

Like Caulkin, Birkinshaw believes our model of ‘management’ needs reinventing (as his most recent book title makes clear). In one online extract, he argues that our tendency to contract it with ‘leadership’ is one of the factors that are to blame. Promotion of the dynamic, inspirational, motivational concept of ‘leadership’ has left the model of ‘management’ seen as its dull cousin, concerned with bureaucratic functions, controlling tendencies, planning and budgeting. Its like a status game that management has lost, when the more constructive, inspiring and effective response might well be to ask why managing shouldn’t be just as motivational and inspirational as leading further up the organisational tree. High performing organisation don’t after all, consist of a small group of engaged, committed senior staff, sitting in splendid isolation a floor or two above a building full of plodding drones.

The LBS Employee-Centred Management Report (which you can download as a PDF here) acknowledges that ‘hard times’ are not the most auspicious in which to launch suggestions that call on managers to make behavioural changes that are, for most of them, counter-intuitive, no matter how significant the gains to be achieved. Present conditions are in the range that encourage most of us instinctively to withdraw into the comfort of the familiar and into situations that afford us the greatest sense of being in control. (Thankfully for Mr Caulkin’s blood pressure, they avoided the phrase ‘tried and tested’.)

That in itself is probably cause for sadness. The sadness is greater when you read the authors reporting that:

The list of things good bosses do is not surprising as such. The surprise, rather, is that so few managers actually do these things.”

My sadness as a reader is the authors were finding the same results as The Work Foundation in their Exceeding Expectations research report, published in January 2010 (and commented on here a few weeks later). Sadder still, despite our all talk of management being geared towards results, a growing stockpile of evidence of ways in which it could achieve greater results doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact.

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Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.


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