Stuck in the middle

Being a good manager may seem simple on paper but, when faced by the day-to-day demands of a business, it’s much harder in practice

Stuck in the middle

Leadership and effective management are some of the most thoroughly analysed subjects in the whole business ecosystem. You can safely bet that a cursory glance on a business website or even in a rather meagrely stocked book shop will turn up some wordage on the honing of these skillsets. “There is so much published, there are so many consultants, books, you name it,” comments Ksenia Zheltoukhova, research associate at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). This would appear to be good news for any small- to medium-sized enterprise; as an owner is increasingly having to delegate they, of course, want to know the individuals have the skills they need.

And yet, despite the huge amount of time invested in dissecting the subject, a little investigation shows that this knowledge still isn’t necessarily leading to real organisational change on the frontline.

A new piece of research, ‘Real-life leaders: closing the knowledge-doing gap’, published in September by the CIPD and conducted in connection with YouGov, had two specific areas of focus. 

The first centred around a survey of 2,000 professionals, 800 of which were managers and the rest frontline staff. One of the most immediate findings of the research was that there was a clear disparity between the way managers perceived their abilities and the way they were viewed by those working for them. “Managers think they’re far better managers than employees rate them,” explains Zheltoukhova. “Most managers say ‘I think I’m pretty good’ but most employees would not rate them as highly.”

Given the sheer amount of learning materials available, one has to wonder what lies behind this incongruence. It might be easy to dismiss it as a bias of perspective, that individuals may be more likely to praise their own performance than others but it is worth probing the data a little deeper.

Zheltoukhova feels a more revealing – not to mention concerning – insight comes when looking at what managers feel stands in the way of their ability to represent employees. “They say one of the barriers is they have other business priorities or they have to achieve tasks,” she says. Rather than an integrated approach of empowering staff to achieve objectives, it seems many middle-managers are feeling they have a split in their loyalties. “They’re not quite sure what their job description is,” she explains. “Is it to care for people, is it to support them or is it to meet the team objectives?”

As already stated, this issue isn’t down to a lack of information or learning, because many people are aware on paper what good leadership entails. “Theoretically you build your business approach in such a way that you meet the interests and the needs of people, you care about their wellbeing and then they’re engaged and motivated to achieve their goals,” Zheltoukhova says.

However, there is a clear sense from this research that the issue isn’t down to managers not knowing the expectations placed on them; instead it may be that they are struggling to implement this learnt knowledge in a real-world environment. Zheltoukhova explains: “If you keep coming at them with conflicting messages, saying ‘you need a quick win here, you can’t manage people; you really don’t have time,’ then it is likely that they’re not going to demonstrate leadership and management behaviours.”

This is further exacerbated by an issue identified in the report’s second survey. Conducted exclusively with HR professionals, this was intended to investigate what the organisational context was and the quality of leadership training. But given the weight leadership qualities are often given in business, very little is being delivered in terms of practical, integrated training. “We still find that quite a few organisations don’t even provide training for leaders and managers,” says Zheltoukhova. “Even when they do, they don’t monitor what the quality of training was and what was really needed by the business strategy.”

This has a knock-on effect. Ultimately a lack of overlap between the business strategy and the training provided often means that managers will know what good leadership looks like but will be unable to deliver it in the actual business environment. “There is a gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’,” Zheltoukhova comments. “That’s what people told us in the survey: regardless of how much training you receive, you go out into your team and immediately when you have a difficult conversation or conflict you don’t have the experience of dealing with that in real life.”

As already mentioned, this can, in part, be attributed to the fact that day-to-day pressures often drive out longer-term, more nuanced business concerns such as staff wellbeing. “The number one reason managers are not being good leaders is because they don’t feel that they have the time,” explains Zheltoukhova. “Now we need to understand why they don’t have time.” The second stage of the CIPD’s research is intended to investigate this issue and whilst there are still plenty of avenues to investigate, the organisation does have a gut feeling about where it springs from. “The hypothesis is that these conflicts of what is expected of you mean their role is unclear.”

But in the meantime, how can an enterprise begin to address some of these issues? Once it has decided on its expectation of its managers, then the key is to stick to this and use it to inform every element of the business, from training and incentivisation to job descriptions and how managers are assessed. “Consider the wider organisational context,” Zheltoukhova advises. “Identify whether the organisation is actually committed to leadership or whether you continue to communicate to line managers the bottom line mentality.”

Obviously, leaving your managers torn between their loyalties to your strategies and loyalties to your staff isn’t an ideal situation. Which is why it’s important to resolve the conflict and ensure they can be doing their best for all involved. 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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