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‘Could Try Harder…’

What role can effective leadership and management of people play in tackling the UK’s poor productivity?

The greatest economic challenge of our time” and “Government figures show the biggest gap with other leading western economies since modern records began in the early 1990s” are recent headlines describing the UK’s poor productivity. It seems clear when one reads the various comments from industry and public bodies that there is no single cause, but a myriad of different things which contribute to what are, by international standards, pretty desperate levels of productivity. There is also a danger of this debate causing universal tuts of despair without a clear notion of the real consequences – which are lower living standards throughout. Inevitably there’s no single simple solution, but a need to address a whole host of issues covering everything from infrastructure to education and training.

There are many aspects of the productivity issue which lie outside our sphere of influence, given that few of us are likely to build airport runways, motorways or otherwise improve the transport network. Similarly, we probably have little influence on a day-to-day basis on general levels of achievement in our schools and tertiary education.

Where we can make a difference, however, is through the standards of management, leadership and levels of innovation that exist within organisations. After all, it is pretty lazy and short term of businesses to rely upon a constant source of low level, unskilled and often poorly paid employees to achieve their business or organisational objectives.

It would be fair to say that over the last decade or so senior managers and business leaders have made real strides in understanding the impact of effective management of their people and potential gains in productivity. Employee engagement, learning and development and performance management are certainly much more discussed than in the past. However, I’d suggest that there is still much to do, and that the prevalence persists of those at senior levels paying only lip service to this aspect of their role.

At EA, we also still see that the effective management of senior people is surprisingly rare, particularly when the impact on overall levels of performance in a business can be so heavily influenced by a high performing and committed top team.

Some of the barriers to this are not lack of intellectual awareness, but organisational culture, or simply managerial laziness, contributing to environments in which effective people management and innovation are insufficiently valued to recognise their impact on employee productivity. Plans and strategy are vital to sound people management, but are often seen as optional niceties.

The ability to get more out of people for less is key to raising productivity. This need not be as hard or as cynical as it sounds, but (as is well documented) can be achieved by seeking from employees their ideas on how to do things smarter and through increasing skill levels. Reorganising workforce and practices can sometimes feel like the hard option when the alternative is to throw people at an issue. As every senior manager knows, when a position becomes vacant the first question, instead of ‘how do we hire a replacement?’, should be ‘can we organise things differently and/or provide other existing employees with the opportunity to develop or take on new responsibility?’.

Needless to say none of this is rocket science, but if repeated throughout the UK workforce could significantly improve productivity.

The barrier to viewing the world this way is in no small part attitude, as well as lack of incentive to reduce the size of the function for which one may be responsible. Size matters – and (sadly) people often still measure their own worth in terms of span of control rather than the outputs.

While improving UK employee productivity self-evidently necessitates tackling many complex and expensive issues, not least of which are big ticket construction projects and upscaling apprenticeship schemes, it makes sense to remember that effective employee engagement through strong management skills and organisational culture can make a serious contribution to this great challenge.


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Posted: April 15th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Communication, Development | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »