Q&A: 'HR leaders need more courage to confront managers'

24 Oct 2017 By Cathryn Newbery

Cary Cooper and Stefan Stern on the problems plaguing management and why HR needs to intervene

It was over “tea and coffee at the British Library” rather than a bottle of red in a cosy pub that Stefan Stern – visiting professor in management practice at Cass Business School and director of the High Pay Centre – and Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president and 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester Business School, put the world of management to rights.

As their new book, Myths of Management, hits the shelves, Stern and Cooper reveal what they really think of British managers, relive their own management failings and argue the case for more risk-taking in HR.

You make the tongue-in-cheek claim that there are ‘no new ideas’ in your book. So why should we read it?

Stern That statement is a bit of a reaction to the people who say: ‘I’ve got eight new ideas about management and I’m going to solve everything.’ The context we’re operating in might change, but a lot of the fundamentals about work and management don’t really change. But we know people do forget all sorts of stuff – when you are under stress the brain is less effective, and that’s when people default to myths or stereotypes. There’s lots of stuff in the book that you did know but you might have forgotten in the everyday rush. The book is meant to be a helpful reminder that there is a better, more human, more effective way of being a boss than the mythical, cliched, David Brent-style behaviour.

Cooper Questioning the myths is really important because I think some people use these for their own purposes. So if, for example, they feel threatened by certain women in organisations, they might say ‘women don’t really want top jobs’. Or if they are a workaholic, they say ‘working long hours is good, it shows commitment’. These stereotypes can be damaging for other people.

Is the quality of managers in the UK generally declining?

Stern There is quite a lot of evidence – on chronic low productivity, dissatisfaction and lack of engagement at work, job insecurity and stress levels – to suggest that our management isn’t that great. We have some great companies and terrific managers but, compared with the G7 and our major European competitors, our productivity is low. The average [quality of managers] is not as good as it could be.

Cooper I think the question isn’t whether our managers are good or not good – I think they have some deficits post-recession. I was involved with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Management’s Commission on the Future of Management and Leadership, which heard from all sorts of people – CEOs, academics, entrepreneurs. The one thing they said managers lack is good social and interpersonal skills. And that’s important now because, since the recession, jobs are more insecure, and people are working harder and are more stressed, and therefore we have the wrong kind of manager in place. They were reasonable for the time they were in, but now we are in a different era. I think Stefan’s right, it’s not that we don’t have good managers – we may have good technically competent managers, but the majority of them don’t have the social skills they need.

Stern Implicit in the book is a lot of what Cary said. We talk about being human, human interactions, showing more of yourself, not being remote – all that vital interpersonal stuff.

Can we learn more about good management from mistakes than so-called ‘best practice’?

Stern As my dad would have said, learning from other people’s mistakes is a more efficient and cheaper way of learning, if you can really spot what’s gone wrong. The other thing is that something called ‘best practice’ is only going to be best practice in theory, because things change. It’s risky to award yourself a best practice label and say ‘we’ve cracked it’. It’s a continuous, ongoing challenge. If you say ‘we’ve learned our lesson, we’ll never make that mistake again’, look out – you probably will. We all do; it’s very human.

What’s the worst management mistake that you’ve made?

Cooper Say you work with a naysayer, a glass-half-empty type. When I was younger, I tried to change people like that. But you can never change them, because they gain attention from being negative – it meets their needs. Being constructive doesn’t do that, because it doesn’t draw attention to themselves. I’ve learned it’s better to work with people who are flexible, open and more positive, rather than the negative people. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to convert naysayers when, as a psychologist, I should have said to myself ‘there’s no point’.

Stern The difference between ‘espoused theory’ and the ‘theory in use’ in an organisation is something that younger people can take a long time to learn – that, unfortunately, even if there is a mission statement and some very nice words on the wall, how people really behave might be quite different. This is a difficult one early on in your career, and it can be quite crushing to younger employees when they find out that values aren’t always lived up to.

How can HR support leaders who have bought into the management myths you’re debunking?

Cooper Number one, HR can provide data. Take, for instance, wellbeing – to a lot of senior managers, this is mushy stuff. Show them that if you do wellbeing interventions, if you control the hours of work, if you give people flexible working, etc, it improves performance and reduces sickness absence. Narratives are also good – people telling personal stories, because these senior people are human beings, too. The science isn’t enough; they have to see a face to that.

Stern It takes courage. We need HR to make courageous interventions where they help busy, pressured leaders to understand what’s really happening – to join the dots between strategic thought at the top and the reality of working life lower down.

Cooper Stefan just said something really important; I don’t think senior HR people are as prepared to take risks, to confront myths and sterotypes, as they should be. When I first came to the UK, senior, properly trained HR people were on the board of a company. Very few of them are now; there’s a lawyer or someone else on the board who represents HR, but not a trained person. I think the senior people have lost the self-confidence to be robust, and, like Stefan said, of taking the risk to confront. And that’s what we need them to do – confront some of these myths, which affect people’s health and performance.

Readers can get 20 per cent off Kogan Page books including Myths of Management using the code PM20

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