Books: How to consign the neolithic senior leaders to history

In this book, managers who adhere to discredited command-and-control ways are power-crazed or paranoid. John Knell finds this hard to square with the evidence.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Organisations have long been depicted as theatres of dysfunction - scripted by Dilbert, not Disney. Sally Bibb revisits this rich territory in The Stone-Age Company - for her, at least, modern business is well in touch with its dark side, hierarchy and deceitful leaders the symptoms of its deep malaise. Her noble aim with this book is to humanise business and create more fulfilling work, her intention to inspire those of us trying to create more progressive organisations.

Bibb believes these companies are over-managed and under-led, intent on controlling their workforces and lacking a proper focus on the customer.

These stone-age firms will become defunct as they prove unable to respond to the demands of customers and employees.

In comparison, she instances world-beating companies that are run very differently, based on trust, equity, discretion, passion and creativity.

However, she believes stone-age companies are resilient, propped up by senior leaders who benefit from the status quo. Their executives are needy, flawed, power-crazed and intent on creating cultures where trust dies and command-and-control flourishes. Bibb believes they are in denial, unable to face difficult truths and to challenge those above them.

How to explain the behaviours of our misguided organisational leaders?

Bibb bases her account on a mixture of psychology and psychotherapy - with the shadow of the schoolyard ever present in the boardroom. She asserts that 'relatively few people evolve very much emotionally and psychologically during their lifetime', and some achievement-obsessed CEOs are locked into a futile attempt to transcend a relationship with their father in which they weren't valued.

Problems abound with Bibb's analysis. Unanswered questions include: how big is the problem? How many stone-age companies are there and in which sectors do they congregate? Bibb gives the impression that stone ageism afflicts most business and only a few make up the progressive minority.

What of the research evidence? Well, there isn't much in the book, so let's examine some. Recent research can be used both to support and to reject her thesis.

The UK workforce remains broadly satisfied with the psychological contract at work, with overall scores remaining high in the UK. Still, employees lack influence and discretion. Compared with other European countries, Britain is an 'average performer' in the empowerment stakes, and dissatisfaction with line management remains a prime factor in employees changing jobs.

But on a central plank of Bibb's analysis - that most organisations remain tightly controlled, offering little or no employee discretion - the evidence suggests that she is blind to a much more interesting story. The recent ESRC Future of Work programme has confirmed that although work is increasingly delegated and managers now exercise less day-to-day supervision over jobs than 10 years ago, control over job outcomes and work effort intensified during the 1990s.

In other words, managers look over your shoulder less, but expect higher levels of output and monitor your performance more rigorously. Organisations do not therefore face a choice between autonomy and control so much as the continual challenge of resolving the tensions between them.

The evidence supports Bibb's claim that most organisations are stronger on efficiency and cost than on creativity or change. But her explanation as to why is deeply unconvincing. Few would dispute that stone-age companies exist, but Bibb ignores the suffocating influence of mediocrity. Numerous research programmes have identified enduring weaknesses in the management capability of the UK economy. Most leaders and managers in British organisations need support and investment in their skills rather than castigation for their lack of self-reflection.

In certain respects, this is a remarkably inhumane book for an author intent on progressive ends. For many at work in senior positions, organisational life has become much tougher. A senior manager in the social care sector is more likely to be unwilling to devolve authority because they fear failing in a zero-tolerance culture rather than because they are emotionally crippled.

Most leaders are struggling with contradictory pressures: manage your team more creatively, but don't fail; coach and support your people, but be ruthless with underperformers; tell your employees the truth, but don't paralyse them into fearful inactivity.

If the enemies of progressive work and organisations were the pantomime villains Bibb depicts, they'd be easy to defeat. But the reality is more complex, and those seeking to save stone-age companies from themselves will need better guides than this book.

John Knell is a director of Intelligence Agency

The Stone-Age Company - Why the companies we work for are dying and how they can be saved Sally Bibb Cyan £9.99 MT price £7.99

All the books reviewed are available from the MT bookshop. To order, call 08700 702 999 or visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk. P&p at £1.95 will be added to each order.

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