The UK’s Most Persistent Weakness

Businessman run on 3d hamster wheel


It’s in the news everyday: UK PLC is falling behind its European and Global competitors because of low productivity. The business media says it, the academic community says it, and the HR thinkers and researchers say it too. They talk about our Industrial Strategy to highlight essential investment in technology, education and practical skills. Then there’s investment in leadership courses, MBA, ILM etc.

But, there’s little mention of what is fundamental to productivity: the quality of the relationship between staff and their line managers.

Of course, businesses need leaders who can solve problems, make plans, recruit good people, create strategy and take products and services to market profitably, but they also need leaders with soft skills, leaders who can foster and nourish strong inter-personal relationships in the work environment.

Soft skills have to be included in the leader’s toolkit, if we want to address our age old UK problem of low productivity. In other words, managers need the ability to connect with their staff, and provide leadership at a more personal level.

I’ve been to many business network meetings where I’ve given my elevator pitch, and then asked the group: “Put your hands up if you have ever worked for a bad boss.” Invariably well over 50% raise their hands and show their expressions of disapproval, as if they had just re-lived a hundred bad experiences within the last few seconds. They shared feelings of being disconnected from management, just another number in the business, a resource to be told what to do, rather than a person with ideas of their own. Some remembered being put down, ignored, shouted (or sworn) at, put under stress, and being left confused and unrewarded while the boss took credit for their hard work.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s more to getting results and raising productivity than turning on yet more pressure to perform. Dan Pink’s “Drive” is summarised exceptionally well on this 11 minute Youtube video; in summary, knowledge workers need Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose if they are to give of their best. More recently, Bex Dawkes of Blueprint for Business wrote about productivity in the January 2018 edition of HRD magazine, highlighting the need to treat people as humans, to help them discover greater meaning in their work, and to let go of tight controls over their behaviour.

The purpose of leadership is to get results through the efforts of others, so that their individual achievements and their cumulative achievements are in alignment with the purpose and vision of their organisation. The leader has a duty of care to the organisation and to his/her staff, keeping both in balance and reducing any potential conflict between the two. From the leader’s perspective, “it’s all about them, not about me”, so the ego needs to be put to one side, and the focus needs to be external.

And to demonstrate that duty of care to their staff, leaders have to invest the time to learn about them, their skills, their ambitions, their hobbies, their families, and whatever else motivates them and gives them a sense of purpose for coming into work. Leaders have to connect at a personal level as well as at a business level.

When people have clear direction, when they are trusted and respected and when they are developing their skills, they naturally want to achieve more.
Who provides all of this? It’s their line managers, who set expectations, delegate effectively, communicate clearly and openly, provide constructive feedback, and recognise and reward performance.

When it comes to our Industrial Strategy, our leaders must be able to deploy these people skills, or we risk failure at the implementation phase and the UK continues to remain behind our more productive competitors.

Having successfully coached and supported over 100 leaders and influencers with a variety of roles and responsibilities, I know very well how their skill of dealing with people affects business results, either positively or negatively.
I also know that this particular leadership (people) skill CAN be learned and developed with the support of a good coach, and that’s where I have my place in our Industrial Strategy.

One Response to "The UK’s Most Persistent Weakness"