Why is it that my country is so poor?
I ask myself this question after listening to the latest set of economic and social problems emerging on today’s BBC Radio 4. Of course doom and gloom in the news is everyday ordinary (it is the journalist’s bread and butter), but I couldn’t help thinking that there is a deeper problem.
Almost all the people I meet travelling around the UK, regardless of their situation or physical ability, profess to want to work. Yet many are apparently unable to do so. The work is not there, the jobs are somewhere else, the pay is too poor, the conditions too onerous, and so on. Even if some of them are lying about their real wishes, I have the impression that there are serious problems with the world of work.
Is the work really not there? Or is it a question of poor management? Of course the weakness of the British managerial classes is well-known. By and large, most managers have become so by dint of their own hard work (and all credit to them for that) or sheer ruthlessness. But few have undergone the kind of professional managerial trainng that the best large companies offer to their staff.
Government must take its share of responsibility for this lack. Ever since Thatcher’s time, the kneejerk response of British governments to any kind of labour unrest has been that of the bully. If the workers are too well organised, then undermine the union. If they resist too successfully, then shut down or privatise the industry.
Such narrow attitudes have seeped into everyday management today. Shades of kneejerk bully-boy thinking can still be found in the management lexicon. Overcome objections, crush resistance, play the man not the ball, etc, etc. – it is as if the lexicon of management itself has been militarised. All too seldom is heard the word ‘negotiation’.
Indeed, one reason why Brexit is so painful to many is that there is no alternative to negotiation. The daily wailers of this world may bang the drum and say to the devil with them, but any reasoning person knows that the only Brexit possible is one that is long, slow and likely painfully negotiated.
Thanks to a long ‘us and them’ labour history in Britain (one that has been fostered by management and unions alike), even the word ‘management’ has acquired political overtones, symbolising either ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘one-of-us’, depending on your own personal prejudice. As a result, management practices have becom largely instinctive, and often down to personality rather than any kind of best practice.
How do you overcome such limitations? I have worked with companies that offer training to higher executive management, and their work is highly (sic) instructive. It is tough for any manager to think past his or her own cultural preferences and practice, actually practice, fair judgement towards the people with whom he or she works.
Such management training is often excellent. But it is, unfortunately, mostly only available to the larger corporations that can afford the fees. For smaller companies management training is, for time reasons as much as anything, a luxury.
And this training can be open to criticism. While such courses often improve understanding of industry tools or best practice, they cannot embed the instant, sometimes inspired, decision-making that is the currency of small business. Very often, they offer merely the kind of addition to a manager’s cv that will accelerate his or her onward career progression within another large company.
In general I find management in Britain to be near-sighted and poor (you may argue that this is the case in most countries). Yet individual managers are often themselves aware of their shortcomings. They may have come up the hard way, with little investment from their employer in training. As a result they can often find themselves blind-sided when up against others from a wider culltural background; one reason perhaps why managers from Europe or the Indian sub-continent do so well.
Yet there is a huge need for good management, even more so in a future outside of the European Union. Brexit will most certainly change the face of Britain. Whether that is for the better or for the worse, or whether the future comes out about the same, no-one can know. But one thing is certain, trade and negotiation will be hugely important to the economy, even more so than they are now.
If Britain is to make a success of itself post-Brexit, it will do so not only through exploiting the knowledge, skills and hard work of individuals, but also through success in negotiation. Britain’s managers will need to be good negotiators (be they in the public or the private sector). And while these abilities seem to come naturally to some people, they can also be taught.
And by the way, the first part of any negotiating process is establishing mutual respect, a kind of personal relationship. Which means language skills. Perhaps Ukgov needs to revisit the present lack of language-skills provision in British schools. After all, It could make or break Britain’s post-Brexit future.
© Philip Hunt, 2017.