Straight-talking and honesty are what staff need these days

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, showed his tough side when David Beckham missed training to be with his child: he left the player out of the team.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, showed his tough side when David Beckham missed training to be with his child: he left the player out of the team.

Hardly a model of people-orientated, family-friendly management. Yet when the internet communications group Energis asked workers to say whose management style they admired most, almost 60 per cent named Ferguson. Other recent surveys have had similar findings.

For one thing, claims Energis, we are drawn to Ferguson's "results-driven approach, the ability to be critical and demand absolute commitment from a team". For Andrew Forrest, the Industrial Society's learning and development director, "leadership is back in fashion, whereas a decade ago the concept was seen as rather macho and military, unsuitable for the modern generation of workers".

The reason, he explains, is not because we are turning back the clock but because perceptions of what leadership means have changed. "We asked 1,000 people and they all said trust was crucial, which was a new insight," Mr Forrest says.

Indeed, when employees were asked to name the qualities they most admired, "honesty and straight-talking" came top of the list. At 25 per cent, that quality was ahead of recognition for good work and empowerment - just 19 per cent and 15 per cent of the vote - normally considered the must-haves of good management.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, was surprised by the results. "Our Quality of Working Life report surveyed 5,000 employees, and the majority said they wanted managers who valued and rewarded people," he said. However, he is beginning to believe employees no longer trust those terms. "There's a cynicism about what notions of empowerment and reward mean; employees have heard it so often yet nothing changes. They get sent on empowerment courses, but it's only when senior people relinquish some power that anything changes.

"In very insecure times like these, honesty is what you need. So when you ask: 'Does the merger mean we'll lose our jobs?' you get an honest answer and can plan for the future."

Diane Sinclair of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development agrees. "There's a huge difference between destructive and constructive criticism," she says. "Employees need to know their strengths and weaknesses if they are to develop successfully."

At Glaxo Wellcome, Ian Brown, the human resources manager, says leadership never went out of fashion. "Companies have always needed directive leadership," he says. Although he believes that a good manager will consult his or her people, then leave them to get on with it, he is quick to admit that certain decisions have to come from the top. "At Glaxo Wellcome, we use a system called 'red, amber, green'. If a policy is red, it means it's not up for debate; amber means: 'please discuss this before implementing'; green means: 'you're in charge, follow your judgement'. In a good team 10 per cent of decisions would be red, 20 per cent amber, and 70 per cent green."

Ms Sinclair stresses how important it is for managers to be flexible. "Individual personalities react differently. A good manager perceives when to push someone and when to back off. But all of us respond well to clear goals."

Unfortunately, many UK employees may be experiencing this problem. An alarming 19 per cent of workers in the Energis survey thought their manager conformed to the dozy style of cartoon character Homer Simpson. Mr Brown said he had once had a Homer Simpson as manager. "He wanted to please everyone and as a result he wouldn't make a decision - results suffered."

At Marks & Spencer, lack of clear objectives played its part in the company's downward slide. Sheryl Kuczynski, of M&S, says: "We took our eye off the ball. Now we've got a new management team and we're right back to watching the sales figures."