Command and control: it just won't work anymore
30 January 2012
The world of work is evolving more quickly than ever and things are never going to return to how they were, says Ben Moss, who warns that managers need to convince their teams and peers that change to promote more effective and efficient service delivery is a good thing
The New Year is traditionally a time for reflection – and that includes our working lives. Our working landscape is changing and we could be on the verge of a major shift in attitudes and priorities.
People are questioning the status quo – their relationship to their work, to their employer and to their manager. Indeed, at times like these managers play a key role. Good ones are a critical source of challenge and support for staff. As we dig in for what looks like an extended period of financial struggle, how line managers are developed and deployed could make all the difference.
The world of work is evolving more quickly than ever – partly due to technology and partly because of the pressure of competition and financial survival. As someone recently reminded me: "Life has never been as fast as it is now, but it'll never be this slow again!"
That certainly seems to apply to working life. At the Business Wellbeing Network annual conference in December, David Macleod discussed this subject in relation to the work of the Employee Engagement Taskforce that he chairs. The key changes are:
• Technology, changing how we work and share knowledge
• Work itself, particularly the rise of knowledge jobs, where creativity and discretionary effort become more important
• Competition from other economies
• Greater demands from customers, who are equipped with comprehensive market knowledge
• Sustainability and integrity, the need for responsible business practice and behaviour that matches values
• Changing expectations of employees.
This final point is perhaps the most important and challenging. We have moved away from command-and-control management models in a context of a "job for life", so in most industries automatic deference to seniors is no longer the norm. In an age of openness and availability of information employees expect to know why things are being done and to be able to fit them into a bigger picture. They are looking for a sense of purpose to drive their activities – and if it's missing they may well go looking for it elsewhere.
But as these changes manifest themselves, so the psychological contract between the employer and the employee becomes increasingly complex. This relationship has become increasingly two-way as the needs of the employee have gained greater traction. But this is not about employees being more difficult and demanding. Giving employees a voice, trusting them and helping them to understand strategic and operational goals empowers them to take a proactive approach and contribute more to the organisation. The manager's role is to be aware of each member of their team – their goals, what makes them tick, what turns them off – to generate the right climate to help them perform at their best.
The big problem is that many managers still think of this as something that needs doing on top of their day job. But these elements are the day job. I'd like to see evaluations of manager effectiveness that include a measure of team wellbeing as well as outputs – this way you get a sense of whether performance is sustainable or whether extra pressure has just been applied around assessment time.
As Macleod also pointed out, there are key traits that engaging managers need. They trust people as individuals, taking time to get to know them, which also enables them to spot any early signs of difficulty. They have to know how to balance challenge and support, stretching people to get the most from them, generating a sense of achievement, without pushing them into a stress situation. If you get these things right the rewards are multiple – drawing in the skills of your whole team will improve their performance; you end up with a team that respects you and that you can trust. In turn, that means that you can perform at your best. As jobs become more complex, work intensifies and workforces continue to shrink, the manager who can put these conditions in place and maintain them will become incredibly valuable.
Of course, as workforces are asked to do more with less, the pressure on managers also rises. In times like these they might be tempted to think that employees should just be grateful to have a job. But this is a very risky reaction – when morale is already low, senior leaders in the public sector should be providing strong and clear direction about the importance of wellbeing and employee engagement.
A short-term outlook suggests that if we just wait it out things will return to normal. But the public sector has fundamentally changed. Many of the things that were once held sacred – job security, pension provision and, dare I say it, a lack of hard-edged performance management – are now being scrutinised. Things are never going to return to how they were and it's time for managers to look ahead with this in mind. They have an important role in convincing their teams and peers that change to promote more effective and efficient service delivery is a good thing. This means being open to new ideas and ways of working that make life better for staff and service users alike.
• For a full summary and free resources from the Business Wellbeing Network annual conference and report go to www.robertsoncooper.com/events