Smart Moves: `Stop sending e-mails and talk to staff'

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The Independent Online
MOST MANAGERS have experienced massive changes in their organisations in recent years. And these changes are continuing. Unfortunately, change in both the public and private sectors is often badly managed. Many surveys show this has reduced managers' motivation, morale, loyalty and sense of job security.

A five-year study by the Institute of Management, together with the Manchester School of Management at Umist, has tracked managers' changing experiences since 1997. In their second annual report for The Quality of Working Life study, Profs Les Worrall and Cary L Cooper write: "Perhaps there is a need to develop a more `manager friendly' approach to human resources management geared less to making the `assets sweat' than to making them `gently glow', thereby keeping managers fit and healthy without wearing them out physically or mentally."

The 1998 survey included an open-ended question which asked the 1,300 respondents to list the one piece of advice they would give to their board or top level management which, if implemented, would most improve the quality of their working lives.

The majority of comments referred to the poverty of communications and consultation strategies. But managers don't want more meetings. Several want "fewer meetings and more informal chats". Others said "discuss important issues immediately", "listen to the employees", and "be seen to act on feedback given". As one put it, managers should "get off their backsides and talk to the workforce instead of communicating via memo or e-mail, then they might discover what is going on".

The second most frequent suggestion was to value employees. Several said organisations need to become "more people-centred" and should not treat employees at lower levels as commodities. Another advised management to "loosen up a bit and show your employees some respect and caring, then perhaps they will respond with true unforced respect for you and loyalty to the company".

Thirdly, real empowerment - letting people manage and make decisions - was seen as a means of improving morale and motivation. Many said they need to be treated more responsibly by senior managers who should seek to "maximise supported delegation, encourage mentoring and be relaxed about who does what and how they do it".

Many are concerned at the "thinning out of management". One said: "Don't expect me to leave the 15 balls I've already got in the air to pick up a new, different topic about which I am expected to have detailed knowledge with only 30 seconds' warning."

Management thinning-out has led to a long hours culture which harms relationships as well as their health, morale, and productivity. The study's authors make recommendations under three main headings: improve communication and consultation upwards and downwards; value, reward and invest in your people; and empower managers to manage.

On change communication strategies they say "think big". A realistic measure of people's attitudes and opinions is essential. Improvements in efficiency and effectiveness should be communicated to employees. Organisations need to be patient and persistent as change takes time. They also warn that the cost of change should not be underestimated.

The authors suggest the key to success or failure lies in the way change is introduced and communicated. Telling people takes no account of their fears, hopes or expectations. Persuasion will not work in the long term if your reasons are imposed without discussion. There has to be real participation - sharing the problem-solving and decision-making with those who have to implement the change. On valuing and investing in their people, employers are advised that if they have no planned staff development programme in place, one possibility is to seek accreditation as an "Investor in People".

Empowerment must be genuine. Clear and unambiguous commitment must be shown from the top. Employers should use employee involvement practices which create real change such as consultative committees, suggestion schemes, self-directed work teams, a team briefing system, mentoring and job enrichment/redesign. They should provide sufficient resources to develop their managers to be effective "people managers" rather than "task managers".

Managers' resistance to empowerment can be avoided by building confidence in their ability to manage in a participative style and by ensuring coaching is available for those who need to improve their management skills. Above all the study shows decisively that people management practices are the most important determinant of productivity and profit levels.