Despite the rhetoric about team working, collaboration and openness within organisations, managers who play the political game and selfishly guard their own interests still seem more likely to succeed. Researchers at Cranfield, who interviewed 53 managers, found what they described as 'an organisational climate of hidden agendas, high levels of insecurity and even greater mistrust'. Most managers lashed out at the influence of bad office politics or interpersonal rivalry between senior managers in their organisations.
'There are a lot of management consultants out there pushing the idea of open cultures where everyone trusts each other, but it just doesn't work,' says Cranfield researcher Sally Atkinson. Her view is largely backed by Wendy Hirsh, associate professor at the Institute for Employment Studies and co-author of Trust and Transition, who adds: 'The people who get on are still the ambitious ones who play the political game rather than those who help others to do well.'
Atkinson and fellow researcher David Butcher believe that this lack of trust is particularly damaging because technological advances and de-layering are leading to greater pressure to work collaboratively. In managerial relationships, the study found that personal aspirations often overrode what was best for the business, and interpersonal conflict and competition were also cited as major problems. 'Trust used to be built up over time but, with the changing structure of organisations and more short-term attitudes, it is much harder to create trusting relationships,' Atkinson says.
Mike Emmott, policy adviser at the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), argues that in studying managers, Cranfield is looking in the wrong place for good examples of interpersonal relationships. They should be looking at the relationship between managers and the team they lead because that's where collaboration is taking place. The IPD's studies show that employees are confident that their employer will look after their interests. 'It seems managers feel much less trusting but I'm not sure why,' adds Emmott.
Further up the ladder, however, the Cranfield study reveals a major gap between people at the top and lower management tiers. Part of this could be due to the increasing responsibilities of senior managers. Many are busier than ever before and simply don't have sufficient time to develop relationships.
Another trend that works against a build-up of trust is individualised bonus systems. 'Bonuses linked to individual performance don't usually help collaboration and team working,' says Hirsh. She believes that change is possible, however, if people at the top make a real commitment to working collaboratively, as for example at BP. Companies that are serious about increasing collaboration and openness can achieve change in this way, using tools such as 360-degree feedback. 'But in many organisations there is a tension between that set of values and individual career goals,' she admits.
Cranfield's researchers are pessimistic about what can be achieved. They question whether managers can realistically expect to develop high levels of trust at work. Instead of trying to force openness, when there are so many pressures against it, they argue that managers should accept the politics and work within the system as best they can. This does not mean abandoning trust or collaboration but acknowledging that political judgment and lobbying skills have been with us since Machiavelli.