‘Who cares about bloody management?’ asked the late Felix Dennis in exasperation. Many if not most people would doubtless nod in heartfelt agreement.
Yet there are powerful reasons why bloody management matters – and why you should care about it a lot more than you think.
First, we have to agree that management is necessary, a technology that makes possible things that we couldn’t do or want to do without – hospitals, transport, the World Cup, for example. In reality we don’t live in the atomised market economy beloved of the economists but an organisational economy in which large companies are the prime movers. Pace Adam Smith, our dinner arrives on the table not courtesy of the individual butcher, brewer and baker but of Tesco, Sainsbury and other management-intensive large firms, the marshalling yards of the economy, in Sumantra Ghoshal’s felicitous phrase. As the social technology of collective human achievement, management, as Peter Drucker put it, is society’s unseen central resource, and a modern developed economy is unthinkable without it. As he also remarked, it is what made the 20th century possible.
But in another crucial sense management isn’t neutral at all. Management can be bad or good, in both senses of those words. Many technologies don’t come with a choice – a wheel is round, a hammer has a weight at one end, a semiconductor is the product of the physical properties of its materials. But the means management uses aren’t fixed. Unlike a wheel, management depends on its founding assumptions, and these can evolve. So can management styles. Today’s management isn’t god-given or inevitable, and nor is tomorrow’s. We can change it, and how we choose to do that matters profoundly. It will decide if management is a force for good or a force for bad.
As I suggested in my last article, management is the difference between an NHS (and other public services) that works and one that doesn't. The financial crash of 2008 wasn’t caused by impersonal financial flows but by faulty management decisions made in boardrooms and offices on Wall Street and in the City of London. Ongoing scandals like Libor that still rumble around the international finance system like distant thunder were man- (or management) made in the same places. The way line managers manage is overwhelmingly responsible for the dismally low levels of employee engagement everywhere. According to the latest Gallup State of the Global Workforce survey, just 13 per cent of employees come to work each day emotionally invested in the organisation and focused on doing a good job, about half the proportion that is negative and potentially hostile. That leads the Drucker Society’s Richard Straub to suggest that what the world economy needs now is not more economic stimulus but a ‘Great Transformation’ of management that would not only add percentage points to world GDP but also reorient that growth towards sustainability. We could manage our way to prosperity.
Within Dennis’ expostulation, though, lies a powerful insight: it’s bad management that is bloody. Management only matters in use, as a means to an end. Management for management’s sake is meaningless. So the less of it the better. Good management is simple. Dennis mostly got it right, so he didn’t need to fret about it. In his influential Good to Great, Jim Collins found that companies on the way up paid 'scant attention to managing change, motivating people or creating alignment'. They didn't even worry much about pay. They didn't need to, because their people were focused on doing a good job. This could be called management by getting out of the way – the opposite of the situation lamented by Drucker, where ‘so much of management consists of making it difficult for people to work’. Conversely management burgeons as managers struggle to do the wrong thing righter. For example, targets proliferate to get people to focus on parts of the job that other targets made them ignore. As Collins noted, ‘the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline - a problem that goes away if you have the right people in the first place.'
In that sense, the crushing burden of today’s management is faithful testimony to its wrongness. But incompetence is not the worst danger that ‘bad’ management represents. Today’s management is ideological, not scientific, and running through it like the lettering in a stick of rock is a reductive, self-interested view of human nature in which people need to be bribed, whipped and constantly supervised to do their jobs. The danger is that these assumptions are self-fulfilling. People treated as untrustworthy do their best to escape supervision, thus justifying (in the negative view) more and tighter surveillance. Chief executives taught that they require incentives to perform are only too happy to believe it (greed is good!) and demand them in ever greater quantity. To put it brutally, today’s management moulds human nature after its own shrivelled, grasping image – a caricature of human potential.
The reverse is also true. Trust tends to breed trustworthy behaviour as well as greater engagement, and high-trust, high-engagement organisations by definition need fewer rules and regulations and less machinery of compliance – less management, in fact. That also means less cost. So ‘good’ management pays off twice: the first time by being more productive, and the second by reaffirming the positive, affirmative side of human nature. It is literally a force for good.
So sorry, Felix, this time you’re wrong. Everyone needs to care about bloody management. The future of the planet may depend on it.