In defence of management

It's hard to tell if this is a recent phenomenom but there has been a distinct trend recently of bashing UK managers.  At a time when all sorts of professions have been under pressure from budget cuts and general financial hardships, management has stood out as a profession ripe for kicking.  Whereas public opinion is uber critical of any news of cuts to nurses or teachers, news of cuts to management is generally greeted with bunting and streamers.

A survey by released this week fits in with this zeitgeist.  They claim that British managers are the worst in the world, with nearly half of respondents believing their boss to be 'totally useless'.

Suffice to say that the survey was quite probably designed to gain column inches as opposed to providing valuable insight into the status of management in the UK.  After all, it was only a few months ago that the London School of Economics ranked British managers 6th place internationally, far ahead of the lead nations in the Monster survey (China and India).

management international

In defence of management

Now firstly I should state that management is by no means perfect.  Our own research suggests that just 1 in 5 UK managers have a management qualification, which isn't good enough and provides a clear route for improvement.

But the general bashing of management as a role is absurd.  Naturally the performance of a task is essential and as such nurses, teachers, engineers and scientists will always be essential parts of a functioning society.  But equally those that exist to organise and co-ordinate those people are critical to a well oiled organisation.

The role of management

It's probably as good a place as any to start at the role of managers.  What exactly is the point of a manager?  Whereas in a previous age when managers existed as a cog in an industrial machine one could regard a manager as merely a person of systems and processes.

The modern world however places management at the hub of each organisation.  People look to their managers, not just to assign them a task, but to define for them a purpose. And managers must organize workers, not just to maximize efficiency, but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results.

The late management guru Peter Drucker was one of the first to recognise this truth, as he was to recognize so many other management truths. He identified the emergence of the “knowledge worker,” and the profound differences that would cause in the way business was organized.

With the rise of the knowledge worker, “one does not ‘manage’ people,” Mr. Drucker wrote. “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

So if we are living through an age of knowledge and our economy is indeed founded on the output of our minds, then managers are key components of that economy to ensure these minds are organised and supported to achieve their full potential.


I forget the source now but remember seeing some data on the most respected professions.  You had things like doctor and fire fighter at the top, at the bottom were managers, just above used car salesmen!  It was pretty indicative of how far the profession has sunk.

As if to typify this, check this out on the Huff Post today.

Great companies, organizations and countries are fueled by its leadership, not by its management. 

Wayne Ellis wrote:

As if to typify this, check this out on the Huff Post today.

Great companies, organizations and countries are fueled by its leadership, not by its management. 

Just reading through that.  This comment stuck out:

" "Managers" are a commodity in the workplace where as a "Leader" is a diamond in the rough. "

Good grief.  Talk about an outdated point of view.

I think part of the problem is that there are a lot of people in "management" positions not actually understanding what it is they're there to do.  These "accidental" managers have most likely been promoted for a number of laudable reasons but not always because of their management ability (bear in mind their manager probably isn't a professional manager either, so they'll be using their own experiences as a yardstick).

If "management" was a brand, then it would be tarnishing it's own image in this regard - it's corroding and rusting.  Brand "leadership" on the other hand has been polished and remains galvanised.

If leadership is fuel (as suggested in the comment quoted earlier in this thread), management is the system which accepts the fuel from the tank and distributes it, making the engine work the front line staff are the pistons, making the whole thing turn.

You can buy all the fuel you want but it won't get you far without the other parts and its up to CMI and its members to remind people of the vital importance "management" as a profession plays in driving forward the UK economy.

Perhaps the professionalisation of management through increased accreditation or qualification would assist to some degree but overall, I think managers need to raise awareness of what it is they actually do and start to rebuild the brand that has been neglected and is showing signs of fatigue as a result.

You're quite right Colin, many managers do seem to be accidental.  There was a discussion earlier in the year, both here and at places like Harvard Business Review about whether management can be regarded as a profession or not.  Maybe that is a first step, to have it regarded as a such, with professional qualifications required in the same way they are to practice accounting or engineering.

I actually don't think there's a huge difference between "leadership" and "management" and am currently working on a blog, the essence of which is that the 21st century company 'Executive' will, more than ever, need to be situational in their approach, moving along a continuum from 'managing' to 'leading' in response to the demands of 21st century workforce.

To pigeonhole someone as a "leader" or "manager" will become a thing of the past and we'll start to describe the activity emanating from that individual as being more 'leadership' or more 'management' based on the tools; strategies and techniques they're employing at any given time.

I'm then going to submit it as part of the CMiShare Ambassador event, so I'm saying no more on the topic or I'll have nothing left! :-)

Interesting to read this in the Telegraph today about management in the NHS

"Prof Chris Ham, Chief Executive of the King’s Fund, said: “We know there is public support for reducing the number of NHS managers. But given the immense challenges facing the NHS, politicians of all parties must resist the temptation to denigrate the value of management in delivering excellent and efficient services."

It follows that up by saying that relatively speaking the NHS is under staffed at management level, not over-staffed.  It's almost a tacit admission that the NHS is playing a political game by investing so much in front line staff but not enough in the people to co-ordinate everything.

Slightly off on a tangent, the Scottish Government made a pledge for an additional 1,000 police officers in Scotland.

I done a crude calculation and worked out that annually, this political pledge was costing the taxpayer a few million pounds when we could have recruited an additional 1,000 police staff to undertake functions that didn't require the power of Warrant to arrest.

All the talk's been about 'efficiency savings' and 'protecting front line staff' and, unfortunately in this case at least, the two are actually diametric opposites.

It would be a brave administration who actually called for and employed additional managers in the NHS but again this is perhaps partly because of public opinion of contemporary management. If management was seen as 'adding value', I don't think people would have any qualms about increasing the number.

It's almost like a sign of the times isn't it?  The newspapers for instance peddle bad news all the time in order to sell papers.  The government often paints things as bleaker than they probably are in order to justify their existence.  I wonder if CMI/ILM et al also do a similar thing by saying that management isn't great, therefore more people should join up with CMI/ILM.  Is this sewing the seed in the minds of the public that all managers are rubbish?  After all, you seldom see good headlines about managers do you?

I remember seeing Ed Milliband being interviewed on tv where he said the position of Government was to "under promise and over deliver".  I cringed at the statement.

If this is the mentality of "leaders" then its no wonder people have become so disillusioned with leadership and management and treat people in these positions with a deserved level of contempt.

As a great leader once said, "you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can't fool all of the people all of the time"

The advice emanating from this oration, for me, is just don't bother trying to fool people!  Be authentic and genuine; be honest and maintain your integrity; be cautiously optimistic; aspire and inspire.  You are a LEADER after all!

I think statements and behaviours like the former say more about the lack of leadership quality in the individuals at the very apex of Government; businesses etc than it does about the context in which the "leader" finds themselves.

I don't necessarily think that management qualifications or membership of CMI / ILM instantly makes the "man", there will be exceptional leaders outside of these institutions and poor managers within them. 

I do believe though that there is a gap between the required standards and the level of practice of leaders and managers in the UK and this is continues to damage the overall perception of the profession.

Qualifications and exposure to materials and 'good practice' as well as perhaps some compulsory CPD and accreditation may drive up the standards over a period of time but getting people to join these Institutes is merely leading the horse to water.

The real change will come when people WANT to be excellent leaders and managers and are voluntarily submitting themselves to external scrutiny or study.

Couldn't agree more Colin. I too cringed at the "under promise and over deliver" statement. If that is the best a potential government can come up with and/or deliver then it is disappointing. 

I saw this posted in the comments of another thread I started today.  Kinda sums up the public perception of management.

"Slash the management payroll, big time ! There are hordes of "managers" in the NHS in non-jobs which have flourished over the last ten years or so. "

Interesting comment from Ratan Tata on UK management:


That's a heck of a generalisation to make.  It seems indicative of the general poor esteem that management are held in that he feels safe in making this attack on management, yet you can imagine the uproar if he called shopfloor employees lazy.

And to cap it all we have this comment from the trade union guy

“he's entitled to his opinion” said Unite spokesman Mr Ciaran Naidoo.

You couldn't make it up.

Vincent Pizzoni wrote:

Interesting comment from Ratan Tata on UK management:


Hmm, very interesting Vince, good find.  It's interesting because Tata come with a very good reputation for treating their employees exceptionally well.  He is surely wise enough to not get trapped into making such comments unaware of the storm they'd create.  If the managers at Tata UK aren't putting in the effort he personally expects then there are surely much better ways of treating that situation than complaining in the press.

Doesn't the article lack some kind of insight though - it's okay to make claims such as "British managers are less productive than Indian counterparts" but why?

This is a very superficial assessment of management ability or engagement in Britain.

Following on from Adi's comments, surely there are people within the organisation, if not Mr. Tata himself, who could start to dig a little bit deeper to understand why they're not getting "the extra mile" they expect.

Perhaps motivators are culture specific and what's worked in India doesn't work in Britain?  Might it be that the approach isn't right.

The workers / managers response is informal feedback, so perhaps it's time to start listening to what that feedback's saying and adapt the approach accordingly.

Yes Charlie, at face value it is very poor. I also agree with Colin; if there is a problem, understand and fix it. Advertising it in the media sounds a sledgehammer to crack a nut.....

I've just read some research papers suggesting that middle managers are the key components of our knowledge economy.  I'll probably do a more detailed write up over the weekend, but the research came from Wharton university in America and revealed that in knowledge sectors such as biotech and software, middle management provided the most value of any employer in the company.  The roles of co-ordinating effort and allocating resources were crucial in allowing the creative and innovative individuals to do their thing.

Nice to see the NHS Confederation sticking up for NHS managers

"NHS Confederation chief executive Mike Farrar will today defend the role of managers at his organisation’s annual conference.


Addressing the conference, he will describe the attacks on managers as ‘unwarranted’.

“The NHS is desperate for certainty and clarity. We need recognition of the enormous job we face and action to help, rather than hinder us, in delivering it,” he will say."

Seems HBR have chimed into your way of thinking Adi

"In a comment on our recent blog post on freedom, we were accused of management bashing. That was certainly not our intention, but it does seem to be the intention of many writers these days. Why? Why are bosses so often maligned in the media and our popular culture? A case in point is the new movie Horrible Bosses, whose characters, we are told, were based on the writer's real-life experiences."

Another one

"British bosses lack basic leadership skills, employees said in a survey. Only 9% of workers say their bosses inspire them, and only 19% say their bosses communicate well."

A nice article here from the King's Fund defending managers in the NHS


Adi's original post contained two main points for me: 

1. We should benchmark our perceptions of success against the best, not the worst; i.e. we are ranked 6th against world leaders.  

2. To me, Drucker is the management guru.  The rest pale in comparison, and his principles of managing knowledge workers remain as true today as ever.

Colin's point about 'accidental' managers is often true and reminds me of the Peter Principle: Everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence.  An outstanding supervisor won't necessarily make a great middle manager, but is almost invariably promoted to that level.

Lastly, the overarching question about how to gain respect for the management profession: There is an American political adage - if you have to explain yourself, you've already lost the argument.  We'll only gain respect by actions and outputs, but isn't that the role of management?  In "Mangaging for Results", Drucker outlines that results are what matters in management.  Full stop.