Firms learn a lesson from Moaning Minnie

JOHN MAJOR might have been able to avoid his recent resignation drama and subsequent leadership election if he had paid a little more attention to dealing with difficult staff. Specifically, says training film producer Video Arts, he might have benefited from a humorous video widely available in government circles.

It is, of course, up to the Prime Minister to match the stereotypes to the real individuals, but the company insists that most managers will recognise the characters in Case Studies in Leadership: Managing Problem People with ease.

Even if they do not, they should enjoy a few laughs since this is another product from John Cleese's "day job" of making training films with a difference. The video, which is among Video Arts's biggest sellers to Whitehall, features Rulebound Reggie, played by Cleese himself, who never deviates from the book; Bigmouth Billy (Rik Mayall), who always promises more than he can deliver; Wimpy Wendy (Dawn French), who refers even the tiniest of decisions to her boss; Moaning Minnie (Emma Thompson), who can always find reasons for not doing things and who cannot improve because she never admits her own mistakes; Lazy Linda (Cassie Stuart), who does about half the work of her colleagues.

The studies, each about 15 minutes long, seek to build on the glib notion that people are an organisation's greatest asset. By demonstrating how different people need to be handled in different ways, it tries to make the point that to make the best of their staff, organisations do not have to force them all to conform. Problem people can be moulded into useful employees - or even cabinet ministers.

For instance, it is suggested that Cleese's "Reggie" character probably acts like a machine because he is treated like one. "If he is involved in the group, praised for flexibility and not grovelled to when he's obtrusive, the changes can be dramatic," says the company's Richard Laver.

Equally, "Wendy" behaves as she does because her confidence needs boosting. This can be dealt with by consulting her on key decisions. "Minnie" acts that way because her boss has an authoritarian style. "By discussing, rather than dictating, Minnie's behaviour becomes co-operative and less defensive."

The idea is to show that change is possible when a manager adopts the right approach. "People, despite their quirks and faults, are an organisation's most important asset - a good manager, as the programme demonstrates, can turn these idiosyncrasies to their advantage," adds Mr Laver.

As one might expect from the cast, this serious subject is handled with more than a touch of humour. Written by Stephen Fry in consultation with a noted behavioural expert, Peter Honey, the programme is also directed by Charles Crichton, who made A Fish Called Wanda and a string of Ealing comedies.

Mr Laver says: "The video shows that the effect of changing one's own behaviour is mirrored in changes in other people's and that, although no one can change personality - not even prime ministers - they can improve performance."