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Parkin Space: What are we Teaching Managers?

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Godfrey ParkinAre managers engaged in developing the potential of their teams or simply their own careers? Godfrey Parkin suspects the latter.


What on earth are we teaching people in “management training” courses? The more senior managers I encounter, the less impressed I am with either our training practices or our promotion processes, or both. There seems to be a growing sense of self-righteous despotism in organisational management, and it’s getting harder to ignore.

There has always been a lot of lip-service in organisations. Our Vision, Mission, and (especially) Values statements bask in a PR-conscious preciousness that rarely reflects the reality on the ground. Upholding human dignity, respect for the individual, fairness, equal opportunity all drip from the earnest clichéd prose used by corporations to describe their management regimes. But, in most companies, at the one-on-one, manager-employee level, it’s a sham.

Over the decades I have worked with corporations large and small around the world, and my universal impression has been that most people manage by fear and manipulation, and they get ahead by skilful (or instinctive) use of politics, networking above themselves, and exploitation of their peers. The warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely stuff so beloved of HR policy and management training gurus is a whitewash that obscures the reality: at the individual level, people-management in corporations is all about taking credit and passing blame.

If this is a result of incompetence or indifference, then perhaps training is at fault. But often it is a result of calculated competitiveness in those with ambition for “bigger things,” or desperate attempts at maintaining control in those already out of their depth. As trainers, we prefer to ignore these realities, because formally acknowledging them is career suicide in companies that are in denial.

Particularly at the upper-middle management level, dominance rules over competence. That appears to be the natural order of things anyway, so maybe it is the best way to run a business. It’s how the military has been run for centuries, and 20th Century business organisation was derived from military organisation, with command-and-control hierarchies the central pillar of most corporate designs. Sadly, the military has always done a much better job of managing talent.

The dog-eat-dog environments in which most employees operate tend to allow those with bigger teeth and less restraint to advance ahead of those who may be better qualified but less ferocious, or less sly. Nothing is more guaranteed to have you occupying the same desk for decades than doing a good job and passively waiting to be recognised. The result is a top-tier of management whose unifying characteristics are ambition, ruthlessness, and a sense of infallibility, and whose integrity, decency, and fitness for task may be questionable.

It is that mix of characteristics which gets companies into trouble. It is how mega-corporations lose billions in only a few months. It’s what leads to the commonplace firings of thousands of workers, a gesture that says: “I have absolutely no constructive ideas how to manage my business out of the hole that I put it in, so I’ll just dump overhead.” Bizarrely, such acts of desperation are routinely applauded by analysts as indicators of strong management.

That self-serving indifference to employees also leads to another commonplace management practice – instead of simply re-organising a department, everyone in it is instructed to re-apply for their own job. “You have been working for me for years, but I don’t really know who you are or what you do, so sell yourself to me.” In the contorted world of management-speak, this grotesque process is seen to be clever, yet it is really another admission of management failure.

Individual employees are routinely ignored, stifled, oppressed, mentally abused, and in other ways subjected to enormous stress that has nothing to do with their roles or tasks. Good people are played off against each other. Managers nurture those least likely to threaten their jobs or their egos, and sideline those whose competence makes them uncomfortable. Getting ahead these days typically requires a good performer to change companies. None of this is good for the health of an organisation.

There’s something wrong with this picture, but what, if anything, is to be done?

Should we heroically be trying to train managers to act in the best interests of the company, even when it is not in the best interest of their own careers? Should we be training managers to recognise and respond appropriately to self-serving practices in those reporting to them? Should we be training employees how to get ahead, giving those who are by nature less assertive the skills and insights to compete? Or is this all futile – should we simply stick to regurgitating Argyris, Ansoff and Maslow, and hope that nobody ever notices that we are not in touch with day-to-day realities?

Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.

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