A sad looking man sits on a flatlined graph
Shouting never helps productivity © FT montage/Dreamstime

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Hello, welcome back. It’s a second consecutive public holiday week in the UK (thanks to 🤴) which has been fun but will probably further depress the already dismal national output. Do read on to find out why we should think about how better managers could help turn things around, and my advice to a CEO struggling with their deputy.

Get in touch: please send your podcast and newsletter ideas and any criticism (praise is also welcome) to isabel.berwick@ft.com. Or DM me confidentially on LinkedIn.

Talk nicely to people and they work harder. Who knew? 🤷‍♀️

High-level theories abound, not least in the pages of the FT, about why the UK’s productivity lags so badly. The latest set of figures show that nothing much has changed in our stagnant economy since the financial crisis in 2008. I won’t go on — this FT chart says it all.

Many of these theories explaining our poor productivity are to do with economic factors, relative lack of automation and the impact of Covid. So far, so accurate. But seldom mentioned is the blindingly obvious (to me) fact that people work more effectively when motivated to do so by good management and leadership. The last FT piece I could find about this was a 2018 long read by my colleague Andrew Hill, which mentions the prevalence of the “accidental manager”: someone in a team leader role who has had no management training.

Things have got no better since then. Current estimates from the Chartered Management Institute — which came up with the concept of the “accidental manager” — suggest almost 80 per cent of UK managers fall into this category.

If you are being ignored, or at the other end of the scale, micromanaged, by a clueless or insecure manager, are you going to do your best work? Of course not. You might even be irritated enough to sabotage output.

I’d suggest that a chunk of our lagging productivity is down to the UK being a hotspot of mismanagement and under-management, coupled with higher workloads from staffing cuts and shortages. Add in the rise of “high-intensity” work on short deadlines and it all creates a potent demotivational cocktail. Don’t believe me? Scroll through Reddit’s r/work forum for depressing confirmation of just how many workplaces are run by idiots.

Productivity is also affected by other human factors that too few people think about. I’ve been reading The Social Brain, a new book about human psychology in the workplace, and asked co-author Tracey Camilleri for her thoughts on this. “We’ve been looking in the wrong places to solve the productivity problem. Some of the solutions lie in plain sight,” she says. “The best source of ‘free’ energy and productivity comes from teams whose impact is more than the sum of their parts. Putting smart people together in a room — or zoom — is not enough.”

The way to make teams more than the “sum of their parts” is to be careful about their size. Humans have hard-wired behaviour patterns, which go back millennia, in terms of how we operate inside groups. “So many teams are too big for the kind of leadership on offer to be effective — or to accomplish the tasks at hand,” Tracey says. “Our research showed that if you map team size to task (for example the optimum size for a creative or crisis team is five) and adapt leadership style to suit, productivity improves.”

So, if you are already a decent manager, and want to think about improving productivity, five is the magic number.

What really improves productivity? Have I overestimated the impact of “human” factors? Let me know what you think.

Office Therapy

The problem: I became CEO of a non profit as an external candidate, while my deputy, who applied for the top job, has spent their whole career in the organisation. They now undermine me in meetings, claim my ideas as their own or subtly denigrate whatever I suggest. On the flip side, they crave my affirmation, nonstop. It’s a stream of personal/professional consciousness with no boundaries. I don’t want to provoke them so I haven’t confronted these patterns of behaviour. I want to show compassion but this has to stop.

Isabel says: Someone who should be your most trusted colleague is an unprofessional drag on you and the organisation. You have done well not to freeze them out. That’s what a lot of people (me) would do.

More constructively, you could ally with a third senior staff member. Ask this third person to work with you in meetings to “mirror” your statements and affirm what you’ve said: “Great point, X. We should take that forward”. Etc.

I asked leadership consultant Gabriella Braun for her advice. Gabriella sent a comprehensive answer, which I have shared with you, but this bit works for any reader with a tricky team member: “Meet with the deputy at regular set times (and stick to the times) to discuss work issues. Leave a short amount of time at the end for them to tell you everything they want reassurance about; give this when it’s valid, but manage it so it’s not constant.”

Gabriella also suggests looking at bigger issues: “What does the deputy represent for the organisation? Are they seen as the holder of its history and perhaps its soul? Do you represent newness and change? If this is the case, the deputy’s fight with you may, unconsciously, be on behalf of the wider team.”

That slightly blew my mind: we don’t often think of organisations as having souls. Good luck with your quest to solve this problem — both organisationally and spiritually.

Got a question, problem or dilemma for Office Therapy? Think you have better advice for our reader? Email isabel.berwick@ft.com. We anonymise everything. Your boss, colleague or underlings will never know.

This week on the Working It podcast

During the 21st century, job-seeking has been transformed from an “active” activity — we apply for available jobs — to a “passive” one, where recruiters find and approach us. On this week’s episode I talk to Josh Graff, LinkedIn’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, about both the changes we’ve seen since the platform was set up 20 years ago, and about the next big thing in hiring: recruiting people based on their skills, not their education and formal qualifications.

I also chat to FT senior business writer, and LinkedIn early adopter, Andrew Hill. Here’s a screenshot of its homepage in 2004, when Andrew signed up.

LinkedIn homepage in 2004
LinkedIn homepage in 2004 © @WebDesignMuseum on Twitter

5 top stories from the world of work

  1. Lonely bosses and the crisis of disconnection: America is in the grip of an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” according to its surgeon general. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson looks at how chief executives have been grappling with the need for people — both staff and customers — to have more connection.

  2. Does it pay for British executives to move to the US? Well, yes — financially. This FT feature delves into the rewards, and possible pitfalls, of a move to the US for both people and entire companies.

  3. Hybrid work fuels the rise of women’s networks. Virtual clubs and networks became popular during the pandemic, and that trend continues. Emma Jacobs delves into the range of free and paid-for offers (some costing nearly $8,000/£8,000 a year) and asks if they are worth it.

  4. Negotiation in the age of the dual career couple: A partnership where both of you are successful is a new concept. (A Harvard Business Review article in the 1950s suggested that wives should encourage their husbands’ “long business trips”.) Stefan Stern examines the most recent advice on how to make dual-career marriages work.

  5. Everyone benefits when we have the ability to work from home: New research suggests job quality improved during the pandemic in occupations that were more likely to be able to work from home at least one day a week. Sarah O’ Connor examines the lasting positive impact of hybrid work across pay grades and sectors.

One more thing:Why must I suffer in the name of art?” The FT’s Bryce Elder asks why so many theatre productions are long and arduous. I endorse this 💯 and instead look for short plays so I can be home by 10pm on a work night. Many other people, it seems, relish several hours of high-intensity, bladder-busting drama. (If you are a weeknight theatregoer, do you actually manage to work the next day?)

PS Bryce’s column has a fantastic opening line. This newsletter is a “safe-for-work” zone, so I’ll leave it at that.

From the Working It community: Billionaire succession planning, Part II

Last week’s item about the tricky matter of succession planning in family-owned businesses prompted several experts to get in touch with their tips on how to do it better.

Here’s Russell Haworth, from the Family Business Partnership on how to encourage a reluctant older generation to let go of control:

“A lot of focus is placed on ensuring that the next generation are ready to take on their new role, however, very little focus is given to what the senior generation will actually be moving on to. This can create a reluctance within the senior generation as much of their legitimacy, identity and purpose is tied up in their role in the business.

“Identifying what elements of their wellbeing are being delivered by their role and how these elements will be replaced is important. Having a well thought out plan for what their life will consist of beyond their current role is essential.”

Where I am working from ...

Lynn-Marie Denyer writes: “This is my home office which I love working from (in leafy Surrey, UK). It is very bright and airy and has room for a giant dog bed for when the dog decides to come and keep me company. Much nicer than a stuffy office in the town centre!”

Send photos of your workspace — with or without furry colleagues — to me at isabel.berwick@ft.com with a note on why you love working there, and we will publish our favourites.

A light-filled garden office
A dream of a garden office
Lynn-Marie’s easy-going colleague

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