Does bad management lie behind the UK productivity puzzle?

Posted on 3 Aug 2018 by Nick Peters

The answer to the UK’s productivity puzzle is routinely cited as adoption of new digital technologies. It is a drum we bang all the time at The Manufacturer, but in so doing, are we ignoring a key issue that underpins business success, namely the quality of management in UK manufacturing companies?

It is not a comfortable subject to address if you are a manager, but not facing up to problems is no way to solve them.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE of Manchester Business School is the doyen of the HR industry in the UK, and president of the HR professional body, the Chartered Institute for Professional Development.

Bad Management - UK Productivity Puzzle - View of a Businessman holding a Financial arrow going up and explosing at the end - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
It is not a comfortable subject to address if you are a manager, but not facing up to problems is no way to solve them – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Manufacturers seem to have two problems at the moment: finding a new generation of talent to keep their companies going, and once they have them, getting the most out of them.

Are these challenges peculiar to manufacturing?

Cary Cooper: People in manufacturing tend to be things-oriented, less likely to be people driven than somebody who gravitates towards social work or teaching, and I think that is a problem.

We need more people in managerial roles in engineering and manufacturing who have higher EQ (emotional intelligence) to retain the new generation of people.

It’s basic self-interest – the UK does not want to be seventh in the G7 and 17th in the G20 on productivity per capita.

We’re not doing something right in terms of how we’re managing our workforce to get the most out of them, and a command-and-control-type management style is not appropriate now or in the future.

We need more and better training of line managers on their social skills, on empathy, on how to manage people (particularly different generations) all the way up from shop-floor to top-floor.

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

I can just imagine a grizzled veteran of the engineering world saying, “That’s not how we treat our people. They come here, they bloody work!”

That’s the problem with the command-and-control culture in manufacturing. It doesn’t work for millennials at all. What I would say to a small manufacturing business is, “Treat your younger employees, who can grow with you in your business, as you would like your own son or daughter to be treated by their employer.”

Just think of it that way. Would you like your son and daughter to be managed the way you currently manage people? You shouldn’t.

Generation Snowflake?

Millennials, largely, have a different attitude to work those previous generations - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Millennials, largely, have a different attitude to work compared to previous generations – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

They’re not snowflakes. They’re only ‘snowflaky’ because of the way people treat them. They leave because they’re treated badly, and they don’t have the job security element that
previous generations had.

They don’t have that ‘I want a job for life’ mentality because they saw what happened to their parents who did think that way, and who ended up being dumped during the recession.

Remember, they’re much more mobile. If they’re unhappy they will walk, so you have to think, ‘How do I retain them?’ You retain them by making them feel valued and trusted, giving them challenging jobs, gradually training them with proper skills, doing things that advance them, and make them a part of your business.

You make them a part of your ‘family’ because you want to keep good people. The really good ones – if you treat them properly – will stay with you.

We have a few very large companies in this country, where we assume modern management practices are common, a handful of medium-sized companies, then a very large number of smaller companies.

Is it among the smaller companies that the problems lie?

Yes, but the good news is that smaller companies have much more flexibility to give young people opportunities above their pay grade – really challenging interesting work that they’d never get in bigger organisations.

But, you have to be socially skilled to know how to deal with them. You have to know that people want to be managed by praise and reward, not by fault finding. They are much better when they’re managed by carrots rather than sticks.

That’s not normally what you get in engineering and manufacturing businesses. They don’t get that management style.

There’s a tremendous paradox, though, isn’t there? You’ve talked about the processes by which younger people can be made to feel welcomed, nurtured, cherished even, in the employment workspace.

But, it’s a brave employer who is prepared to train people up and see them leave, and be happy about it, and then hope they will be able to attract other people to come in behind them.

People Management Training Meeting - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
If you’re not good at people management, you should hire people who are – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Yes, they’ll go, but they will always speak well of you, and that can only be good, particularly if they go to bigger companies which are part of your supply chain. They may come back to you, because you’ve treated them so well.

You will get a reputation for being a good employer, providing a good place to work, and people will want to come and work for you. But, it does take a mindset, and I’m afraid that some entrepreneurs who create businesses just don’t understand people management.

Let’s say I’m an entrepreneurial engineering company boss of the type you just described, and I’m reading this, and finally the penny drops. I recognise I don’t have these skills. Where can I go to get them?

If you’re not good at people management, you should hire people who are. But if you want to learn it yourself, there’s tons of providers who provide resilience training, emotional intelligence training, basic social skills.

Two years ago, I sat on a parliamentary commission on the future of management to investigate what should the manager for 2020 and 2025 be like? What do we need that we don’t have?

When we asked business leaders, they all said, “The one thing we’re lacking is people with good social skills.” It’s not just manufacturing by the way, but in manufacturing it’s worse than the service sector.

These are challenging times for manufacturers. I can just imagine them saying, “Well, I’m being beaten over the head on one side being told I’ve got to adopt all these 4.0 technologies.

Now, I’m being beaten over the head being told I’ve got to have emotional intelligence.”

It is a time of great change and challenge, not to mention Brexit and all the uncertainty that goes with it. We must sympathise with them.

Absolutely. I totally sympathise with the demands on manufacturers – but we still need to get this bit right. In the UK we think our productivity problems are all to do with not being digital enough, or we don’t have the best equipment. It’s just not true. We’re focusing on that because it’s a quick fix.

The Industrial Strategy is setting out a long-term vision for how Britain can build on its economic strengths.- image courtesy of Depositphotos.
In the UK we think our productivity problems are all to do with not being digital enough, or we don’t have the best equipment. It’s just not true – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

I think it’s actually that we just don’t have the right kind of managers to get the most out of people; ones who trust you, value you, encourage you, promote you, reward you psychologically and materially.

Guess what, if you had that, you’d produce. That is our problem. Yes, better equipment, more digital is all part of the mix, but if we only do that and don’t have the right kind of line manager from shop-floor to top-floor, then our productivity will not move.


Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School,University of Manchester.

He is the author/ editor of more than 120 books on occupational stress, women at work and industrial and organisational psychology. He has written over 400 scholarly articles for academic journals and is a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV and radio.

In 2001, Professor Cooper was awarded a CBE for his contribution to occupational health. In 2014, HR Magazine voted him ‘The Most Influential HR Thinker in the UK’ and he was awarded a knighthood for services to social sciences.

Cary is President of the Institute of Welfare, Past President of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, President of RELATE and President of the British Academy of Management.

Training managers

As Cary Cooper points out in this interview, productivity would be improved by better people management in smaller UK manufacturing companies.

Are we better or worse at management than other countries? It is a constant source of debate and much depends on which parts of the economy one is discussing.

Smaller, more traditionally minded companies will undoubtedly pay little heed to the niceties of ‘emotional intelligence’ and all the other soft people skills the HR profession urges us to be good at.

And because our economy is dominated by small businesses, in contrast with other countries, this will tend to bring our average down by comparison.

In larger companies, one would expect a more rounded view to be taken of people management, and in multinational companies this would be the rule, rather than the exception.

Some of the structural issues that affect the quality of UK management include the amateur mistake of promoting someone to management level because they excel at the technical role they have been performing, whether it is on the shop-floor or in the sales office.

You lose a good technician and gain a bad manager, who rarely, if ever, is given the benefit of specialist managerial training.

Also, in the UK we tend to undervalue management as a skill and a calling in its own right.

We admire leaders but tend to see them as ‘born, not bred’. If more middle managers were taught how to lead, and how to exercise soft people skills, business would be transformed. Nick Peters