Iain Murray: Be bloody, bold and resolute – or M&S will give you a P45

It seems honesty is not always the best policy. Take the case of the M&S manager, sacked for being too modest on a skills assessment questionnaire, says Iain Murray

In Shakespeare’s view nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. But Shakespeare didn’t buy his underpants at Marks & Spencer (M&S).

Or did he? Close analysis of the texts suggest to some scholars that he might have done. Thus “Brevity is the soul of wit” is Elizabethan word play alluding not only to briefs, but also to the comic potential of nether garments in the English humorous canon. Similarly, “More matter with less art” is a reference to the baggy underpants worn by clowns – in our own age, Michael Winner – and the central part they play in lowbrow entertainment. To the scholarly mind, it follows that such a familiarity with the infinite variety of men’s underwear powerfully suggests that Shakespeare knew M&S well. A contrary exegesis, however, points to “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own” as proof that Shakespeare was unaware that you could return ill-favoured goods and get your money back – no questions asked – and may therefore have acquired his underpants through other channels.

But I digress. Were Shakespeare to step into M&S today, he would find not a shred of modest humility – it’s against company policy. This came to light last week, when a tribunal agreed that Michael Davies had been unfairly dismissed from his post as manager of one of M&S’s most successful stores. He was sacked because his responses to a self-assessment form were insufficiently boastful, or, put another way, too modest.

He was shown the door by northern division manager Paul Nursaw, who felt his answers were “too passive” and “not proactive”. Nursaw told the tribunal, “Mike did have a very successful career, but this was about the future of M&S and not the past.”

This sad story tells in a few sentences what shelvesful of management textbooks confirm: that the business of running a business has become the province of psychobabblers and amateur theorists.

Irving Berlin mocked a similar trend in the musical theatre when he wrote, “Chicks who did kicks aren’t kicking any more, they’re doing choreography. Chaps who did taps aren’t tapping any more, they’re doing choreography.”

Just so. Managers who used to manage aren’t managing any more. They’re doing sociology. Or worse, consultancy. McKinsey has a lot to answer for.

Who was the psychobabbler at M&S who thought it was a good idea to send every store manager a skills assessment questionnaire? To send out forms is the mark of the prodnose, the bureaucrat, the petty-minded functionary who, rightly distrustful of his own abilities, puts his faith in formulae and box-ticking.

Listen to the gobbledygook Davies was asked to respond to, giving himself marks from one to nine (why not ten? too boastful, I suppose).

Here are a few examples: “Focusing energy into taking the initiative when managing people. Thinking logically to make decisions when improving sales. Controlling disruptive emotions when managing internal relationships. Communicating to influence change when improving customer service.”

What does it all mean? By what process is energy focused into taking the initiative? Who is going to admit to thinking other than logically? What is a disruptive emotion when it’s at home? What is an internal relationship? How else, pray, does one influence change other than by means of communication?

The prodnose could have done just as well had he shaken a brantub of buzzwords and picked out a few at random. Far from being fired, Davies should have been commended for having the patience to respond to this gibberish, not to mention the good grace in having a stab at comprehending it.

And note why he was dismissed. He was insufficiently proactive. There’s a coinage for you, a bastard word born out of sociologese and management-speak. I’ll bet whoever uses “proactive” draws it unthinkingly from a vocabulary that also includes envelopes (pushed), goal posts (moved), playing fields (level), learning curves (steep), scenarios (worst case) all rounded off, of course, at – when else? – the end of the day.

There is another, nastier aspect to the firing of Davies: the idea that ruthlessness is the mark of sound management; that to be aggressive is to be effective. No doubt Nursaw thought he was being tough and purposive (and it goes without saying, proactive) in sacking Davies on the ground that, for all his achievements, he was of the past and not the future. That is not merely nonsense, it is unpleasant nonsense to boot.

M&S is not alone in seeing management as some kind of arcane science that exists independently of the business to which it is meant to apply. Boards convene, middle management e-mail. Courses are attended. Questionnaires compiled. Consultants consulted. For the lucky few, share options and severance agreements are negotiated, so that when it is time to walk away it will be with pockets bulging.

The upshot of all this is that when a customer calls by phone, he is answered by machine; when he calls into a store in person, he is lucky to find anyone to serve him; he certainly won’t see a manager. He might, on a good day, find a checkout with someone working it. Davies was right – management has plenty to be modest about.

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