As part of our blog series exploring links between conflict management and productivity, Sue Ferns, Deputy General Secretary at Prospect, provides a trade union perspective on the importance of managerial capability.

It’s not difficult to find reports or surveys that conclude UK managers are ill-equipped to lead and get the best from their staff. Managers may be technically competent it seems, but their planning, communication and performance management skills all come under critical scrutiny.

According to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), the quality of management and leadership in the UK is the single factor most likely to improve national productivity. That matters to unions and our members because, as an OECD analysis shows, low productivity tends to foster growth in low paid employment. This is certainly not the best route out of the major recession we all now face, and it won’t provide the good jobs our members deserve.

We can all agree that enhancing managerial capability requires a sustained national effort, but too often it appears that putting this principle into practice is not a priority.

Lack of managerial competence and experience comes into sharpest focus at company or workplace level, from the niggling day-to-day issues that can blow out of proportion to mishandling of change. These are the situations faced by trade union officials and representatives every day of the week.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that UK management is universally poor. Neither does it mean that poor managers are bad people. Many of Prospect’s members have managerial roles, but not always with the benefit of management training and they are increasingly bereft of HR support – even in environments that can require organisationally and legally complex decision-making.

I really do not understand why employers who regularly invest in plant and equipment do not take a similarly business critical approach to investing in skills and professional development or why so many fail to recognise their leaders at every level of the organisation. Often lauded top level commitment to programmes, such as equality and diversity, is important but generally not sufficient to catalyse, sustain and embed change throughout an organisation. It is the people who manage workplace relationships, often at the same time as delivering challenging operational targets, who need more and better support.

Good – but not cosy – relationships between management and trade union reps are paramount. In Prospect we seek constructive engagement with employers wherever there is a reciprocal will to do so. We do not mandate an adversarial approach to employment relations, but we will oppose effectively in the minority of situations where it is necessary to do so.

Effective managers actively listen and respond to concerns. They act transparently and engage in trusted conversations with trade union counterparts, and they don’t simply react to situations as they arise. They have open channels of communication and give honest feedback. Capable managers know that they do not eliminate discontent by ignoring it; this will simply lead to grievance manifesting in other – insidious – forms. Skilful managers know that the smarter way to resolve concerns is to work with union reps to do so on a collective and enduring basis.

It’s important to remember though, that effective relationships are a two-way street. Unions like Prospect invest heavily in training our representatives both with specialist capability, such as health and safety and employment law, and in generic skills – including advocacy, evidence-gathering, communications and engaging in difficult conversations. Experienced managers should recognise that diverse perspectives, including those from trade union representatives, add value and generally make for better outcomes.

Sue is Deputy General Secretary at Prospect, the union for professionals, and Chair of Unions21,  a forum for unions to explore shared challenges.