Opinion: Management impact too large to ignore

Dr Mary Wyatt

The recent political leadership tussle reminds us that how people are managed affects their wellbeing and has an enormous impact on productivity.

The 2012 Labor leadership tussle played out in spectacular form. Things have quietened down for the caucus, yet the core issues that caused the ruckus are ones faced by working Australians on a daily basis.

The key message here is this: how people are managed affects their wellbeing and has an enormous impact on productivity.

A number of people who worked with our ex-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, complained vociferously about poor work practices including overworked and disengaged staff, dismissive treatment, the lack of a team approach and repeated delayed decisions stopping work from being completed in a timely manner.

The impact on productivity will have been substantial: delays in workflow, making decisions under pressure because of disputes and disharmony, and time spent on meetings to work out how to address the problem. It’s extraordinary how time consuming dealing with a problem manager can be.

And then there is the impact on the wellbeing of those involved. Politicians are expected to have high levels of resilience, yet these high-performing individuals have succumbed to anger, bitterness and even tears.

An Occupational Physician (a medical specialist practicing in the overlap between work and health) will see such impacts of problem managers and problematic workplace culture daily. We see the anguish employees experience when stuck with a problem manager. Most employees, even competent managers, don’t have the power to topple their boss.

This fundamental problem is an everyday one, seen in organisations across Australia, workplaces small and large, public and private, and at levels from the supervisor to the CEO.

The impact on productivity and employee wellbeing is often poorly understood by workplaces and the greater community.

Problems with management, and in-turn, workplace culture are reflected in:

  • High staff turnover,
  • High levels of absenteeism,
  • High workers’ compensation costs,
  • Industrial relations problems,
  • Unfair dismissal claims, and
  • The significant increase in stress claims we have seen across the country over the last 10 years. Many of these claims fundamentally relate to how people feel they have been treated at the workplace.

The costs extend beyond the employee and workplace. Take the example of an employee who develops a sore back from their job. They will be less prepared to go back to work and put up with increased pain if they see their supervisor as uncaring and untrustworthy. It’s not rocket science; it’s just how we are as people.

A small but significant proportion of these injured workers don't go back to work. Such a case may well cost over $1 million. There may be a compensation common law claim, a total and permanent disablement payout through a superannuation fund and the employee may move onto the disability support pension.

At the root of many such cases is the breakdown in the relationship between the employee and employer. It happens on a daily basis. While back pain is a problem, medical evidence tells us the outcome is often (but not always) determined by beliefs, attitudes and approaches.

Managing people is difficult. The greater problem is that we do not acknowledge the difficulties of being a good manager. Some people have natural leadership and management competences, but most of us don't. Still, management skills can be learnt, and managers can be mentored and supported to deal with difficult problems.

Employee expectations have increased significantly over the last 20 years, in line with a general increase in community expectations. Medical patients also expect more discussion and engagement from their doctors, and gone are the days of just telling patients what pill to take. The quality of management has not kept up with this increase in expectations.

Supervisors and managers are often promoted because of their technical skills. Usually they have been a proficient and reliable machine operator / customer service advisor / electrician / data analyst, etc, and are promoted to become a team leader or supervisor. We see this all the time: a competent production supervisor is promoted to become a plant manager. A CFO is promoted to become a CEO. A Member of Parliament may be promoted to Prime Minister.

To be a good manager, one needs knowledge, a clear understanding of the goals of the organisation, and some vision also helps. A good manager also needs the ability to work with and engage people. The competencies of a good manager are not generally the competencies that have resulted in the promotion.

A problem supervisor can damage the local team. A more senior manager can cause disorder within the broader workplace. At the CEO level, the destruction is more widespread.

How does one deal with an autocratic manager who doesn't listen to others, doesn't pull the team together and leaves second-tier managers floundering to get their job done?

Some employees leave, some suffer in silence, some lodge claims. Others fester. The problem may continue to cause harm until one person voices their concern and others back them up. On other occasions, nothing is done until the breakdown in relationships causes a mini explosion.

Sometimes, managers are not autocratic, but are not trained and confident to deal with problem employees. The problem continues and gradually worsens until the issues have to be faced. But by that time problems may be more difficult, or impossible, to resolve amicably.

It’s time we started to look at the problem in more depth.

There is much that can be done: training and mentoring managers, recognising the difficulties associated with being a good manager, acknowledging that some people will be problem managers, and having support systems in place to provide clear feedback and boundaries.

There are numerous examples of organisations that get it right and shine because of it. Higher profitability, better results, low staff turnover, engaged employees, good productivity: we’ve had evidence of the benefits for decades. If we acknowledge how difficult management can be at times, we can start to address the issues.

Labor Party Ministers indicated their boss had poor management skills. On the information within the media, there has not been a consistent and constructive approach to deal with this difficult yet common problem. Yet, key players in this messy public spat are the architects of the Fair Work Australia legislation. Such legislation endeavours to tackle workplace issues, including situations where people feel they have been treated poorly at the workplace.

If this situation had occurred in an everyday workplace, the ex-Labour leader and the manner in which the Labour Party dealt with their problem manager could have produced a raft of claims under the Fair Work legislation.

The lack of a constructive approach to dealing with their problem manager reflects, in my opinion, the lack of a deep and rich understanding of the complexity and challenges of good management.

These issues are about people. It doesn't mean developing a new a set of rules with punitive approaches for non-compliance. This won't cover the many and varied problems managers face in dealing with teams of people, and in particular difficult employees and difficult situations.

And rules won’t be enough for a workplace to deal with a problem CEO. We need conversations at the workplace, community and government level to acknowledge the challenges of being a manager, and developing a healthy workplace culture.

As an Occupational Physician, I am appalled to see the hurt and waste that occurs from not tackling an issue so important to our country’s productivity.

Published 12 March, 2012