Long reads

The latest big ideas from the best business thinkers

11 Jul 2019 By Jo Faragher

People Management asked eight of Britain’s leading management academics for the key insights from their latest research. What did they reveal?

“Demotion can be turned into a viable career choice” 

Professor Sophie Hennekam, Audencia Business School

In today’s economic climate, we’re used to headlines about job losses. But one aspect of restructuring that’s not always discussed is demotion, where someone remains in employment but without the responsibilities (and often salary) they had before. 

Naturally, involuntary demotion is associated with a negative impact on workers, according to Professor Sophie Hennekam from Audencia Business School in France, who describes it as a “stigmatising experience for workers as it leads to feelings of failure, loss of face and incompetence, as well as the expectation that it will have a negative impact on their future career that will be permanent.” 

But what if employees scale down their role themselves? Those who actively choose demotion experience much better outcomes, perceiving it as a tool “to help them integrate work into their lives, obtain a better work-life balance, experience less stress or prevent a burnout”, she says. 

Voluntarily scaling down of responsibilities tends to be associated with phased retirement, but it can also work for employees who have caring responsibilities or external interests they want to pursue. “A better ‘fit’ between someone’s job and personal situation, wishes or needs can lead to positive outcomes,” adds Hennekam. “It might prevent a dropout from the workforce by being able to find a new balance between work and familial or personal responsibilities, interests or needs.” 

It’s also a good way for employers to retain talent where a career move has not gone to plan. “Someone who is promoted to a supervisory position but does not deliver, can become productive and happy again by putting them back in their old position and therefore making the best use of human capital,” she says. 

Hennekam also suggests voluntary demotion should be discussed at government policy level, concluding: “The creation of a taskforce on work-life balance could propose this as a serious option. As demotion is more frequently discussed, the taboo is likely to reduce and its use might become more common practice.” 

“Leaders don’t have to shout

Dr Claire Collins, Henley Business School

It’s fair to say the long-held view that leaders should be heroic and charismatic has been changing for some time, but is it possible for them to be introverts? Dr Claire Collins from Henley Business School argues that a growing number of people in leadership positions are identifying as ‘quiet leaders’ – a description that encapsulates thinking from the likes of Susan Cain (author of Quiet, the hit business book on introversion) and Jim Collins. 

“It doesn’t fit neatly into a definition,” she says. “For example, you can’t just say that a quiet leader is an introvert, and you can’t say that the opposite is a ‘loud’ leader either. Quiet leaders can be happy on the public stage, can chair board meetings, can talk to shareholders. But they might be less comfortable in a group working scenario.” The key is that these leaders fulfil their role with humility, are prepared to listen and have the will to change. 

Collins adds: “There’s lots of nuance within quiet leadership. You might be able to give a talk, but not enjoy social situations. A lot of it is to do with how you cope with stimulation, as Cain points out in Quiet. So a big speech might drain a quiet leader’s battery and afterwards they need to take time alone to recharge. An extrovert can have a lot of battery before they deplete it, and still want more interaction.” 

Collins believes it’s so important to embrace quiet leadership that organisations should consider people’s tendencies to introversion or extraversion as another strand of diversity. “It goes against that ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ persona of ‘this is what a leader needs to look like’,” she adds, reflecting that it’s often men we attach charismatic leadership qualities to, whereas women often adopt a “more thoughtful” leading style. On a practical level, L&D departments will need to shape their learning environments to be inclusive of quiet leaders – for example, not forcing them into group work if they won’t get anything out of it. It follows that building teams of diverse leadership approaches will attract a range of thinking styles and be more innovative, suggests Collins. 

“Universal basic income will rebalance our relationship with work

Anthony Painter, Royal Society of Arts

To many it sounds like a pipe dream, but the idea that one day we could all be entitled to a universal basic income (UBI) has gained traction in the last few years. A trial in Finland reportedly left participants “happier but jobless”, and similar schemes are being examined in a number of countries as the encroaching age of automation threatens to displace jobs or leave individuals underemployed. The case for UBI is simple – by providing every citizen with a regular, unconditional cash payment, they can contribute more to society. They could continue to work, or care for others, while the administrative burden on the welfare state is reduced. 

Anthony Painter, director of the Action and Research Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, spent time with residents of Fife, where the local authority is exploring a trial of basic income. The RSA worked out that – in Fife at least – a basic income of £2,400 a year would halve destitution and reduce relative household poverty by 8.5 per cent. An income of £4,800, meanwhile, would lift this figure to 33 per cent. The current system of universal credit, which depends on means testing, is by comparison complex and does not incentivise people to work, he says. 

Painter argues that “any potential design for a basic income as an alternative to the existing benefits system must be grounded in the needs of the people in the area in which it is deployed”. That would include support from employers as people’s attitudes to work evolve – many might opt to work less – but it would also mean people could push back against bad employers. 

Basic income also leads to better outcomes for women (who have more financial security from the regular payment) and those for whom access to work is more difficult. Painter asks: “If we are serious about greater economic security and freedom, what have we got to lose by exploring basic income further? Big challenges call for potentially transformative measures.” 

“Middle management will feel the impact of AI more than anyone”

Professor Kirk Chang, Salford Business School

Artificial intelligence is impacting more and more aspects of our work and home lives, but much of the discussion is around job displacement. Professor Kirk Chang of Salford Business School argues instead that AI could have a positive impact on managers’ decision-making capabilities.

He describes how AI is used by delivery company Yodel: task filtering and more mundane jobs are assigned to the ‘AI pack’ (a piece of software), while managers can spend longer on case evaluation, developing ideas, risk analysis and people management. “Simply put, AI does the hassle, so managers can concentrate on judgement work,” says Chang. If middle managers, many of whom consider AI a threat, look at it as “kind of a colleague” and use it to support their natural decision-making, he says, they’ll more likely benefit. 

Chang studied these ideas in a Shanghai hospitality firm. “Through AI-based monitoring, managers were able to make predictions about the frequency of diners at peak times versus low times, could see which dishes were popular and offer those at appropriate times – decisions that would normally take them away from managing their team,” he says. But managers need to be supported to acquire those judgment skills or think more laterally. “If AI assigns the jobs, and analyses how you can deliver your service most effectively, that takes away some of the decisions, which could limit managers’ prospects,” he adds. “The challenge is how we define limitations and potential.” 

“Bringing your religious identity to work can be positive for everyone” 

Dr YingFei Heliot, University of Surrey

According to Dr YingFei Heliot, lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Surrey, religious identity in the workplace is often neglected in HR theory and practice, despite the fact religious beliefs can profoundly affect how employees carry out their jobs. 

She recently co-authored a meta-study of academic literature on religion at work, which concluded we most often associate it with conflict between occupational and religious identities. This is seen in legal cases around religious discrimination – the recent European Court of Justice case where a woman was fired for wearing a hijab to work being a prime example.

But supporting employees to express their religious identity is core to today’s popular notion of “bringing your whole self to work”, argues Heliot. “The specific religion that individuals espouse can affect their ability and motivation to enact it at work,” she says. “Tikkun olam (repairing the world) in Judaism could motivate a Jew to engage in work that advances social justice, while an emphasis on ‘love one another’ could motivate a Christian to display substantial empathy in counselling clients and patients.” 

It’s up to HR to identify where work and religious identities are compatible and where they might create challenges, she adds. While there is always a risk of some tension between work situations and religious expression, “high identity congruence” (where work and religious identities align positively) can support both individual performance and the organisation. 

Increasing the opportunities for religious and occupational values to coincide – for example in ‘service roles’ such as counselling – can be a net benefit to the organisation, adds Heliot.

“Speaking truth to power needs more than individual bravery” 

Professor Megan Reitz, Hult International Business School

When barely a week goes by without another #MeToo allegation making the headlines, speaking up at work has become a huge issue for HR. Most literature on the subject, however, tends to focus on “individual bravery”, according to Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School. 

Her research shows that while individual courage is important in people’s motivations to open up about bad practice, it’s more important it is “relational and systemic”. This refers to employees’ relationships with their peers and managers and whether there is a culture of dialogue. “Senior leaders often point to middle managers being resistant to speaking up – but those managers report someone has spoken up and something negative has happened.” 

Ashridge’s research found that one fifth of younger employees had been punished for speaking up. And apart from anything else, that can stifle ideas and innovation: almost three-quarters of respondents to Ashridge’s survey said they had ideas that could assist their organisation’s performance, but 38 per cent had not aired them. 

In order to foster a “relational and systemic” culture of speaking up about the good and the bad, building self-awareness among senior leaders is essential. Reitz adds: “Senior people are often blind to their own power and don’t realise the effect of their relative power on someone’s ability to speak up.” 

“Intersectionality will move the dial on diversity”

Dr Doyin Atewologun, Cranfield School of Management

Why do so many diversity initiatives fail to gather momentum? A key factor is that organisations are not looking at their workforce intersectionally, according to Dr Doyin Atewologun, director of the Gender, Leadership and Inclusion Centre at Cranfield School of Management.

The concept of intersectionality itself – which identifies how different aspects of identity overlap with one another – was introduced to feminist theory 30 years ago, but has struggled to break into mainstream discussions about inclusion at work. “The links to academia make organisations think it’s complicated, but life is complicated. It forces us to think about people in multiple simultaneous identities, and that makes things more tricky,” says Atewologun. 

She argues that by looking at employees’ lives in a more multifaceted way, organisations can offer targeted initiatives that will have greater impact. She adds: “We’re used to putting people in silos, so companies say ‘let’s do the LGBT piece’, ‘let’s do a disability initiative’. But that erases the fact that we all, at the very least, have a sexual orientation, a degree of ability and a gender. For example, if we talk about a black woman’s experience and a white woman’s experience of something, the understanding we get is deeper. It adds more nuance to our understanding.” 

Larger companies that are “criss-crossing” data to look at intersectionality are already identifying patterns. And it’s possible to start small – Atewologun is working with one business that is looking at data across the strands of social background, gender and ethnicity. “Larger datasets mean we see where problems lie within different sub-groups, how different identities play out when they come together – it’s actually far more realistic to look at people this way and breaks down the divides between different diversity strands,” she says. 

“Forget executive coaching – do it by stealth instead”

Professor Zahir Irani, University of Bradford

Executive coaching has a reputation for being the exclusive preserve of the C-suite. Businesses invest thousands in intensive one-to-one soul-searching and goal setting for their most senior staff, then struggle to demonstrate the return on investment. Professor Zahir Irani of the School of Management at the University of Bradford argues that coaching need be neither elitist nor prohibitively expensive – instead, it can be done by stealth. 

“Coaching by stealth is an evolution of traditional coaching in that it extends its power,” he says. “You’re asking people challenging questions, building relationships between managers and staff instead of bringing someone into an office for a one-to-one with an external person.” Irani argues that coaching can feel like a forced intervention. By equipping managers with tools and embedding them into a more open culture, employees can be coached without even realising it – and it’s considerably less expensive. 

“If you give these skills to the management team and enact them in everyday practice, you can extend the benefits. It tackles self-limiting beliefs, because people feel they can have an open dialogue about whether they’re being challenged enough,” he says. One-to-one coaching can still be applied, but these interventions should be responsive rather than pre-arranged and formal. 

Coaching by stealth aligns nicely with today’s changing workplace, too. Employees have fears around digital transformation and how it will impact their jobs, but a more fluid approach means they become more comfortable with the unknown. “Being told you don’t know something or don’t have the skills instils fear,” says Irani. “This approach means you can take people with you and develop them to take ownership, rather than just sending them on a course.”

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