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Accidental managers heighten stress

Opinion Written by John Berry on 4th February 2018. Reading time: 4 minutes

DepressionTalking to a client the other week, I asked how long it took in her business to train an operative to become fully effective. She described a three-year under-graduate course followed by three years of post-graduate on-the-job-training and experience.

I then asked how long it took to train her managers. She explained that they'd had a trainer come in last year who gave them a three-day management course.

In the UK, we get the idea that our staff need to be technically trained, but we have little or no understanding that the job of 'manager' is neither innate nor obvious. It can't just be learned by trial and error. Simply, we don't train our managers and, as a nation, this lack of management training is killing us.

There are a host of reasons.

Hanging on their every word

Whilst management was in our blood decades ago, and whilst we still have some of the best management training schools in the world, management in the UK has become a by-word for pedestrian administration. We love the cut and thrust of the entrepreneur and the leader and idolise those such as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar - self-made men. They 'lead' and 'entrepreneur' and their every word is hung-on like that from a deity. We forget quickly that their success was more about chance and risk-taking (and about being in the right place with the right idea at the right time) than skills and knowledge. Most leaders and entrepreneurs will succeed through their management skills and knowledge and those must be learned.

And the Government must bear much responsibility for the poor state of management learning. A few years back the Department for Business and Skills espoused that in place of management training, all managers needed a coach - and then it put up the funding for just that. As a result, we're awash with an industry of non-managerially trained or managerially experienced business coaches. The essence of coaching as a process is to use the skills and knowledge of the coachee - but if the coacheee is untrained, and the coach can't mentor or show their pupil, no progress will be made and the blind will attempt to lead the blind.

Whilst the model is sports coaching, strangely, we seem to forget that sports coaches are themselves typically adept at sport. Until recently Ivan Lendl was Andy Murray's coach. And until recently Diego Veronelli was Heather Watson's coach and she's just appointed John-Laffnie de Jager. Those coaches were themselves all grand slam winners.

This need (to appoint those who know, understand and have the experience) goes out the window when it comes to business.

Accidental managers

Our economy has shifted too. UK was once a manufacturing power-house. But we failed to manage costs and gave way to the low-wage economies of the Far East. Now we're a low-wage economy ourselves, but in services. In the days of manufacturing, investment was well understood, and with that, investment in people. Today, our investors expect near-instant results. In their eyes, investment just reduces profits and available dividends. In any case, today's services need little investment and start-ups kick-off in bed-sits. So, the idea of training our managers is an anathema.

The result is the accidental manager - someone who, through circumstance, must manage, or must do those things that managers do, but has had no training and no guidance - perhaps not even three days.

The outcomes of this lack of training are everywhere.

Low productivity

One of the biggest outcomes is in our low productivity - well behind the US, Germany and France, and deteriorating. And statistics show that while the GDP per worker of the UK and France are the same, French workers create that wealth in 32 hours to our 36. We have to work longer for the same result.

Now, poor productivity is not all about lack of management training. Lack of investment in technology and lack of investment in worker skills and knowledge both contribute. But as the report of the Chartered Management Institute indicated recently, UK businesses have spiralling absenteeism, with stress rife amongst managers. That stress hits productivity square-on.

Nothing wrong with hard graft

We are inclined to think that stress is just about workload. And yet many managers have huge workload - specifically those in the military and emergency services where workload can be almost unbearable. Research shows however, that it's sustained, unrelenting workload combined with poor management that hits most. And simply reducing the workload solves nothing.

Referring to stress in managers, Ann Francke, CMI Chief Executive, neatly commented, "There's nothing wrong with hard graft, but only if you're well supported", and this perfectly encapsulates the issues of lack of training and high workload.

Workload is a stressor. It does not necessarily lead to stress.

Personal resources

Workload can lead to stress if the jobholder lacks the personal resources to meet the demands of that workload. Personal resources - the skills and knowledge - come from training, whether formal or on-the-job.

And those in high-workload, high responsibility, high demand environments train, train and train. I wonder why?

Managers cope when they know what to do in all situations. Of course, every situation is different in the detail, but if a manager has trained in the general, he or she can respond easily to the specific.

Conversely, if the manager does not know what to do - and is badly advised - minor issues become major. Stressors become stress and productivity declines. As the CMI report commented, "Effective management is found to be a key factor in handling stress". We're inclined to think of stress and associated absenteeism as a malady that only affects staff. We need to fix the problem in managers first.

Essential competencies

Now, it's easy to say that managers must be trained. It's more difficult to say in what. The flip answer is 'in management, of course', but that's not helpful.

Some 30 years ago, Richard Boyatzis, an academic and management consultant, drew up his famous model for the competent manager. His model applies as much today as it did then. The model is described in this blog based on a TimelessTime article in The Engineer magazine.

Boyatzis put forward 23 competencies that are essential for a manager to have and use in order to be successful. Whether it's 23 or 53 is not important. The point is that there is a set of competencies - skills and knowledge - and associated behaviours that are necessary. Without them, the manager will fail.

The sooner you get started

All managers must complete a management development programme to ensure that they acquire the necessary skills and knowledge and practice the necessary behaviours. The detail of that programme and how it should be delivered is for the manager and his or her advisors. Managers are busy. So, it may well be that something that blends discussion, formal tuition, reading and pod-casts, research and assignments might fit the bill. Likewise, there's nothing fixed about over what time this learning should be planned - indeed most successful managers would say that learning is for life.

So, the sooner you get started, the better.

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