Radio 4 Four Thought: Let People Choose Their Managers

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Below is the script of the talk for Radio 4’s Four Thought, broadcast on 22nd May 2013. Listen to it here

As I talked from prompts it won’t be exactly the same. But this is roughly what I planned to say:

49% of the UK working population would take a pay cut to have a different manager

That was the damning statistic from an extensive survey of British employees found. I can also show you research that shows that the time of day when people are least happy is when they are with their managers. Most of us can relate to that and can remember when we were left frustrated or even had our health ruined by toxic relationships with managers.

I am going to propose a solution which, if implemented in every workplace, could reduce that % – who would take a pay cut to have a different manager – to zero.

I have had people come to me and say “I love my job. I love the people I work with. I’m even happy with what I’m being paid. But I can’t stand my manager.” You may have known that situation. You may even have been that person. We can try to mediate, to work it out but the normal outcome is straightforward: one of those people ends up leaving the company.

Hands up? How many people here have left a job to get away from their manager?

Research indicates this may be the most common reason people leave a company. They don’t leave for career reasons. They don’t leave because of their salary. They leave their manager.

At my company we have a simple solution, and it takes about 5 minutes to solve. We ask “Who would you like instead?”.

That’s right – we let people choose their managers.

Yes, the idea I’m proposing is that you should be able to choose who is your boss.

My personal journey to this point started 26 years ago. I was involved in setting up a new national tabloid newspaper. It was a serious venture and we raised no less than 6.5 million pounds. And then we lost the lot within 6 weeks of launch. The book about what happened is called, appropriately enough, Disaster.

I learnt a lot about how not to run a company. And especially about the importance of good management. Indeed one of the key reasons I set up my own company was to find out what made a company both effective and a great place to work in. I hoped to create a good example.

Over those years I’ve learnt a lot. My company has been rated the best in the UK for customer service (by Management Today) and one of the top 20 workplaces in the country for five successive years (by the Financial Times / Best Place to Work institute). At the core of that is our approach to management. [This bit was too self-promotional for Radio 4!]

I often say our most radical belief is that you should choose who manages people on the basis of … how good that are at managing people – or their potential for that.

What normally happens? People are promoted on the basis of core skill and length of service. Say Jo is a great computer programmer and they’ve been programming for ten years, whats going to happen to them? Jo will be promoted to Programming Manager. Because the fact that they are great at coding is sure to mean they are great at supporting and coaching people.  !?

That wouldn’t happen at Microsoft or Google. If somebody was a brilliant programmer they will reward them, give them lots of benefits and involve them in key decisions, but they won’t put them in charge of managing people unless its something they are good at.

And its not just coders. It is true of engineers, lawyers, finance workers, salespeople or indeed any job. Just because they are good at the core job does not mean they will be any use at all at managing other people to do that job.

Let’s start with recruitment. At a delivery company we worked with, they would regularly recruit managers for the teams of van drivers. The managers would be chosen by the two founders, who would then have some months of stress and uncertainty – always unsure whether this one would work out.

So we involved the van drivers in the decision, all of those who would have this manager. They looked for people they could work with and who would motivate them and the stress disappeared as everybody was bought into making it work. Everybody gained from involving staff in choosing which manager was recruited.

But I am talking of going beyond this and letting people change their manager at any point. One of the questions on our six monthly appraisal form is simply “would you like a different manager?”

At my company let me give the example of Natalie, who works in credit control at my company. Two years ago she was bored and looking around for alternative work. Now she is enthusiastic and motivated.

The key difference, she told me, is that she chose a new manager. Natalie explained that she knew this manager would be good at challenging here, keeping her on target and moving forward. “I used to do little more than answer the phones. Now I walk out the door feeling I’ve achieved something.”

She knew who could take her up a notch. It makes sense.

So let’s look at what objections there might be to the idea of letting people choose their manager?

Objection 1: People will choose a manager who will give them an easy time

Let’s go back to Douglas MacGregor who in 1960 published The Human Side of Enterprise and suggested two alternative approaches to management. Theory X poses that workers are lazy, dislike work and need to be closely supervised. Theory Y, on the other hand, proposes that people can enjoy work, are self-motivated and – in the right environment – will seek out opportunities and challenges.

If your company is still run on the basis of Theory X, a lack of trust of your people, then it makes sense to impose managers. However if you believe your people are always trying to do their best, then why not let them choose their managers.

Later research at Harvard by Shawn Achor found what he called the Pygmalian effect. You get what you expect, If you assume people need to be micromanaged, they respond by avoiding responsibility. If you treat them in a Theory Y way, with high levels of trust, they are likely to act in a way which deserves that trust.

Let me give the example of the company W L Gore. You probably won’t have heard of them, but you are likely to know one of their products – especially if you are a runner or a cyclist. They make Gore-tex.  Now it is said that when Bill Gore set up his company over 50 years ago, he set out to test whether you could build a company based on Theory Y, trusting your people.

At Gore you choose your manager. In fact they are more radical than we are. At my company you have to choose somebody who is a manager. At Gore, you can choose anybody to play that role. They have a saying “if you want to be a leader, you’d better find some followers” because nobody is going to allocate you any. WL Gore is now a hugely successful multinational, regularly tops the best workplace lists and was once rated the most innovative company in the US.

There are of course some individuals that are not engaged and not working at their best and might go for an easy ride. But I like to quote an approach I believe was laid down by Richard Branson, that you should set your rules according to the 97% trying to do their best every day, not the 2% who are alienated.

Objection 2: Managers will focus on making their people happy

Well, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Some years ago Nandos, the chicken restaurant chain, set out to work out what made some of their branches more successful than others. After extensive research they found one element that correlated most closely with sales growth and profits. That was simply how happy staff said they were in their annual staff survey. They even changed the bonus system for a while to get managers to make that their key target.

We have a simple belief, that “people work best when they feel good about themselves”. Put your hands up if you agree with that statement. That is (just about everybody). If you do believe that, then what is the most important role of management? If that statement is true, it is making your people feel good. Put up your hands here if the focus of management in your organisation is making your people feel good. That’s xxxx.

Yet three months ago I was sitting next to the Chairman of a British company employing 80,000 people who raised his hand to that question. That man was Charlie Mayfield and the company was John Lewis. At John Lewis it is bound into the constitution that the mission of the organisation is to maximise the happiness of the associates – as staff there are known. That approach has created one of the most successful and respected organisations in the country.

So I have no problem with an approach that gets managers to focus on making their people happy. A few more companies could do with focusing on that. Though we’ve found people are only really happy if they are productive and achieving.

Objection 3: What about the managers that don’t get chosen

It is always curious that people are more concerned about the feelings of a manager who isn’t chosen than those who have to work for years under managers that frustrate them and sometimes make their life hell.

But, yes, some managers don’t get chosen. They get to do something else.

One company we worked with had a Marketing Director who was brilliant at marketing but, even after lots of training and development, not so good at managing people. Each year half her team left. Most people can see the solution: We helped the company move her into a role where she spent all her time doing marketing. We got the team to choose who would be the best manager. The result was a much more motivated department but the person who was happiest of all was the Marketing Director. She got to spend all her time doing what she was best at.

I know managers who love managing people. Its what gets them out of bed in the morning and a huge part of their job satisfaction comes from knowing the way they have helped others to develop. But I also know some, like that Marketing Director, would dearly love to be able to drop that part of the job. In fact the survey I quoted at the beginning also found that two in five of managers don’t want the responsibility of managing people

At many companies you can only get promoted by getting to manage people. Which means people are often put in management positions despite managing people not being one of their strengths. It doesn’t have to be that way.

At companies like IBM, Microsoft and even BT it has long been possible to get promoted for your technical ability without having to manage anybody. A colleague at a traditional insurance business told me how they had introduced two tracks, one for People Managers and one for Technical Managers, who wanted to stay focused on their core skills. The one thing they insisted on was that they still be called managers, even though they would never manage anybody, because that was important to their self-esteem.

The result is that the people who become managers are those who actually want to manage people.

Objection 4: People won’t know what makes a good manager

What does make a good manager? Normally managers must first be good at strategy and decision-making. At the same time they must be good at coaching, challenging and supporting their people. Why? Why do they have to be good at both? One thing that makes it fairly easy for us to allow people to stay in the same job and choose their manager is that we have split those roles.

Some people get to do the strategy/decision-making stuff and others get to do the people stuff. So we have a Training Manager who gets involved in any strategic decisions around training (and we are a training business, so there are a few of those) but has no line management connection to most of the trainers.

If that sounds odd, think of any company which is project based. People will have a Project Manager, responsible for their day-to-day work but who is not their line manager. And it works. In fact such companies sometimes do enable people to choose their managers. One woman from a top 5 consultancy came up to me after a recent speech and said “I chose my manager”. They have a manager on each project they work on, but separately they have a manager responsible for their personal development and they can choose who that is.

But what makes a great manager? Google carried out one of the most thorough investigations of this question and, being Google, based it on the data. They analysed performance data, feedback surveys and interviews across thousands of their people and identified and ranked the 8 behaviours of great managers.

Now ask people what makes a great manager and the most common responses are “communication, vision and being good at the job”. Being technically capable did make the list, but at number 8. Vision was 7th and communication came 5th – with a strong emphasis on listening skills. 3rd was showing interest in your people, and second was empowerment and trust. No 1, the single most important behaviour of management, was one that many managers don’t even see as their role. It was to be a good coach.

So will people know how to choose a manager? Well, if it was about judging strategic awareness, it might be tough. But if its about whether a manager shows interest, trusts and empowers you and is a good coach for you – then I’d say most people will be able to judge that, and that’s what we find in practice.


This is one of the best kept secrets out there. It is not common practice yet but there are some companies that let do people choose their managers. I would argue it is one of the cheapest ways out there to improve the motivation and productivity of your people. Imagine how your working life would have been different if, at key moments, you could have chosen your manager.

Let’s say you get into work and find a note saying your manager wants to see you at 2pm. Does that leave you in eager anticipation, looking forward to the one-to-one attention you are about to get? Because it should do.

So hands up those who would like to be able to choose their manager? Well, that is xxxx [was about two thirds]

We can change the way things are. We can create workplaces where people are happy and fulfilled and are able to choose the manager best able to support and challenge them. Please join me in working to change the way we work. [Check out the Happy Manifesto site and sign up to the commitment to be a happy workplace.]




3 responses to “Radio 4 Four Thought: Let People Choose Their Managers”

  1. Heard the programme: very, very interesting! I – along with several former colleagues – am a “victim” of such a “bad manager”. Our former manager was so bad that a number of people in our department resigned – including myself eventually.

    An official complaint was raised with HR about this managers practices but since Senior Management were so ignorant that the neccesary action was taken too late.

    As a result, the company lost a number of truly dedicated workers and specialists. The manager in question was eventually sidelined to a non-people management position (where he is now moderately successful).

    I however have to be thankful: as a result of me resigning I was offered another position in the company and have a manager who I would have chosen, if I had the choice.

  2. Henry
    I heard you on Radio 4 yesterday and I was cheering the radio! I strongly agree with what you were saying. I have had some very bad, and some very good, experiences with line managers over the course of my working life. I really do agree that the people who can best judge how good a manager is are the people whom they manage.
    I have often thought that performance appraisal for managers ought to at least include input from their “managees”, and their performance grade should depend on how well their staff are performing – not, as is sometimes the case, vice versa.
    The idea that many managers don’t want to be managers, but have been promoted for being good at a technical job is spot on, too. It should always be possible to be promoted up a “Technical” ladder.
    Please continue to spread your message – the more employers get the idea, the better.

  3. I thought your talk very interesting and I have emailed links to my manager and my Chief Exec. I can’t imagine anything dramatic will result – but its good to think. Thanks

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