Philip Whiteley's Blog

August 1, 2011

From Author of the Month Q&A

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:28 am

In July I was Author of the Month at the Chartered Management Institute’s new book club. Below is an extract from the Q&A session with members. The full article is here.

Kelly YoungWhy are so many workplaces still so fixated on you putting in 8 hours a day and how can the focus shift to output rather than input?

Philip Whiteley: This question neatly summarises the puzzle that drew me into this line of work; pretty much my whole career is concerned with trying to tease out answers to this puzzle and some closely related ones. All the evidence shows that the more highly engaged workforces, with high levels of trust, outperform others. In this climate, you don’t need to monitor everyone’s activity minute by minute – which is a wasteful way of managers spending their day. Despite this, there still seems to be cultural preference for micro-management, measurement of activity, strict rules on use of the internet and physical presence in the office.

In years of considering this question, I have identified two culprits: one is economic theory, in which ‘the firm’ is taken to be an inanimate entity, and its activity taken to be a set of functions delivered by cost units. We even use an inanimate description ‘the human resource’ to describe the people. This is a hopelessly inaccurate metaphor. The other main culprit, which I explore in Meet the New Boss, is the influence of culture. This is subliminal. Dozens of influential writers and song-writers, from Charles Dickens to Ricky Gervais, have portrayed the role of the boss as being one who maximises the business interest by demeaning the workers. These archetypes have a huge influence, in my opinion.

However, creating a trust-based workplace isn’t easy. Sometimes, there has been a breach of trust. So there do have to be some rules. These should be fair, and as few as possible; but an ‘anything goes’ culture is not acceptable. Also, it’s not responsible for workers simply to make demands based on their convenience, and not care about business performance.

To help the transition, many employers find that an employee opinion survey is a good start. If you track this against business results, there will typically be a correlation; and measures can be made more sophisticated to elicit which types of engagement are more effective at delivering results. Once managers start to have confidence in these metrics, you can manage around performance and outputs, rather than presenteeism.

  • For a comprehensive review of Meet the New Boss by marketing and management blogger Management Sushi see here. It concludes: “For a unique glimpse into the world of work seen through Whiteley’s lens of songs, sitcoms and books underpinned by extensive knowledge of the management perspective, ‘Meet the New Boss’ is definitely a fascinating and inspirational read.”


  1. A clear and sensible answer to what is in essence a complex question. Well done, and congratulations

    Comment by Matt Boyle — August 1, 2011 @ 9:14 am | Reply

  2. Difficulty also arises, I find, in the fact that everybody has a different concept of reward; what is an incentive to one may be indifferent to another. Some employees perform better with greater management, while others will only be stifled. The balance is delicate and I absolutely agree that culture also plays a huge role in people’s expectations (and pre-conceived notions).

    You are right that trust has to go both ways.

    I think I’ll have a lot to learn from this book!

    Comment by Rebecca Gebhardt Brizi — August 1, 2011 @ 10:25 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Rebecca – I guess individuals and different workplaces vary hugely, so there isn’t one type of ‘good manager’. Some people will quite enjoy the dictatorial nature of an acknowledged expert if they feel they are really learning, but others would be intimidated. But you can’t get into this kind of detail if you assume all workplaces are the same and that humans are a ‘resource’!

    Comment by felipewh — August 3, 2011 @ 7:49 am | Reply

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