OPTIMISTS ASSUME that management is a linear story of progress - slow perhaps, but we're getting better at it all the time. This is certainly the message you'd take from its public texts (books promising the secrets of success, prospectuses of business schools, the 'solution-speak' of IT firms and consultancies): with more information and research at his/her fingertips than ever, it's the best a manager can be.
Or maybe not. According to the Chartered Management Institute, which published its 2007 Quality of Working Life report last week, the most commonly experienced management styles in the UK are bureaucratic (the experience of 40 per cent of respondents), reactive (37 per cent) and authoritarian (30 per cent), while just 17 per cent of the 1,500 managers polled experienced management as innovative, 15 per cent as trusting and 13 per cent as entrepreneurial.
These averages hide huge differences in perception: what directors and senior managers saw as accessible, empowering and consensual, junior ranks judged bureaucratic (half the sample), reactive (38 per cent) and authoritarian (40 per cent).
What's more, management is becoming more overbearing and controlling. Compared with three years ago, all three of the negative rankings have increased. This is 'clearly disappointing', says Jo Causon, CMI director of corporate affairs, who points out there will be knock-on effects for engagement, innovation and productivity. While leadership needs to be situational - an emergency service will likely be more directive than a research lab - coercive and rule-bound styles do not bode well for a service-based knowledge economy in which organisations depend on discretionary effort and initiative for excellence rather than obedient compliance with orders.
Why is command-and-control management on the rise, when the report shows evidence that it is associated with declining rather than growing organisations, and that it is self-reinforcing (and, in the long term, defeating)? Why, when domineering management elicits a hostile reaction, does that appear, to a command-and-control management, to justify further controls, and so on?
One reason, Causon suggests, is recruitment and retention. Four-fifths of organisations have problems finding and keeping the right people, according to other CMI research. This means that many companies are operating with underqualified, or at least inappropriately qualified staff. Square pegs in round holes don't product good results, resulting in managerial browbeating or worse.
A more general reason, believes Lancaster Business School's Professor Cary Cooper, the report's co-author, is the creeping, and misguided, importing by UK plc of US business mores. In an increasing number of companies, boards seem to feel they need 'robust' management style to deliver bottom-line, short-term results, he says. 'From shop-floor to top floor, there's pervasive employment insecurity: long hours, people as disposable assets, no psychological contract - we'll pay you OK as long as you're delivering, but don't expect any employment commitment in return.'
The longer-term consequences are unhealthy. Cooper regrets the mismatch with an overall culture that's, in general, more caring: 'A more balanced management style, with employment security and a functioning psychological contract, is more likely to deliver the goods for the UK in the medium term.'
It's little surprise to note that public-sector management styles score highest on the bureaucratic, reactive and authoritarian measures and lowest on the accessible, empowering, innovative and trusting ones. Cooper is encouraged by the new emphasis the civil service is bringing to developing leaders rather than managers, but the CMI findings suggest just how far there is still to go.
In truth, the deeper reality may be that command-and-control management lives on for the simple reason that, despite the rhetoric, 99 per cent of employees, whether in public or private sector, work in command-and-control organisations: in effect, centrally planned dictatorships that are set up to take orders from the CEO rather than the customer. These organisations don't work very well - they can't - and when push comes to shove, as it naturally often does, the knee-jerk reaction is to tighten the reins, not slacken them.
But, as even Tony Blair recognised, flogging the system only gets you so far. This isn't management progress - it's the reverse, a manifestation of the desperation of the old model rather than a move towards the new. Will we look back at it as the last gasp of a played-out system, a staging point between the collapse of management 1.0 and the emergence of management 2.0 - or the start of a new management dark age, based on hidden, and not so hidden, coercion? It's up to us. History suggests that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
The Observer, 16 December 2007