A history of 20th century management failures and some lessons to learn

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Why are managers so bad? Peter Hunter looks at the history of a constantly developing discipline and what we can learn to help improve our managers.
 
The answer to the question lies in an appreciation of the way that both the workforce and management have changed in the relatively short time since both concepts have existed. In different countries the timescales may differ, but the mile posts on the developmental journey are pretty much the same.
 
At the beginning of the last century in the UK two classes predominated, the landowners and those who worked on the land. There was no social security or social mobility, and the owners of the land and the industries tended to be the same people. They had great power over those who worked for them. Often the home of the worker was tied to the job, and without work not only was there no income but there was no home; the only alternative being the poorhouse.
 
This absolute power of the owners over the workforce created a fierce loyalty amongst the workforce towards the owners, to whom they owed their lives, and the casual acceptance of that loyalty by the owners (who had done nothing to earn it except provide employment) became characteristic arrogance.
 
"Post Second World War found us with industries managed by people who did not own them and other people working,  who came from the same social order as their managers. This new workforce was much less likely to suffer blind loyalty towards their employers."
The first war got rid of swathes of both of these groups of people, owners and workers. After the war the landowners found themselves without the heirs they needed to run their businesses and there was also now a shortage of workers to work in those businesses. The returning soldiers found themselves in such demand that instead of being grateful for anything that the owners would give them, they found that they were a scarce commodity and could now bargain with different owners to obtain themselves a better deal. That had never happened before.
 
A new class began to develop between the landowners and those who had worked on the land, that class became known as the middle class.
 
This new middle class rapidly became the majority and by the Second War there were no longer enough of the landowning class left to supply all of the officers required for another war. Thus members of the new middle class became officers and were taught by the armed forces how to behave as if they were members of the upper class. The forces saw their arrogance as necessary to lead men in war.
 
At the same time there were not enough of the working class left to make up the rest of the forces so the new middle class also provided the soldiers whom the new officers commanded.
 
This uneasy organisational structure was held together during the war because a soldier could be shot if he did not obey. But the changes in both the workforce and management were already taking place and would come to the surface when peace once again broke out and people could no longer be shot for not doing as they were told.
Post Second World War found us with industries managed by people who did not own them and other people working,  who came from the same social order as their managers. This new workforce was much less likely to suffer blind loyalty towards their employers.
 
The workforce were now able to pick and choose their employers and if they were not treated well their new standard of education meant that they could find other employment elsewhere.
 
This was not an immediate shift, the new managers continued to behave towards the workforce in the same manner that the old owners had. The difference now was that the new workforce would not put up with the same arrogant behaviour from their employers and therefore we entered decades of industrial dispute.
 
Things began to get better as the new managers began to appreciate that they could no longer run businesses without communicating with their workforce. The old attitude of management, hung over from the days of the owner/manager, was that the workforce should do as they were told because they were the workforce and that managers were always right, as they were the managers.
 
Social change, better education, and increased mobility all helped to change the expectation of the workforce faster than that of management.
 
"We should be aware that one of the biggest causes of dispute and industrial unrest since the 50s has been the failure of management to recognise that the workforce will no longer submit blindly to their desire to dominate them. "
Douglas McGregor, author of 'The Human Side of Enterprise' in the 50s, recognised the massive change that had occurred in the workforce and the change in the way that the workforce had to be managed, if industry was to remain effective. Since then, successive generations of management have resisted changing the way they manage because it suits them to continue to believe in their own omnipotence, and since that attitude has worked for over a hundred years, why change it?
 
Why? Because the massive social change that has happened in the last century means that the people who used to dominate the social landscape do not exist anymore, and the people they used to dominate also no longer exist.
 
We should be aware that one of the biggest causes of dispute and industrial unrest since the 50s has been the failure of management to recognise that the workforce will no longer submit blindly to their desire to dominate them. The child has grown up; continuing to treat it like a child creates even more rebellion, as anybody who has ever raised a teenager will know.
 
Today:
  • We have a mature, well-educated workforce
  • We have a large number of managers who actively demotivate and disengage their workforces by behaving towards them as if they were children
  • We have a small number of managers who understand that to allow their workforce to achieve its potential we have to listen to them, we have to respect them as individuals, we have to value them
  • What has changed over the years is the workforce
  • What has not changed is the attitude of managers
  • Until management change the way that they behave towards today's workforce their behaviour will always be responsible for the disputes and unrest that prevent their workforces from doing their jobs.
Peter Hunter spent eight years commuting to South America and the North Sea as a management consultant working with crews on drilling rigs. This experience formed the core of his first book, Breaking the Mould. Breaking the Mould is a collection of stories about what happens when employees were allowed to become engaged with their work. Peter is now based in Cranfield and spends his time writing, speaking at seminars and delivering training programmes.
 
This article originally appeared on TrainingZone.co.uk.

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