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The David Brent Effect – is there a reality gap between managers and their teams?

By Peter Pearson - 14th Dec 2012

Did you like the BBC TV series 'The Office'? Personally I always had a love/hate relationship with it. At times, it was devastatingly funny, at others I found it too toe-curlingly embarrassing (I know that was the whole idea)!

Much of the popularity of the programme came because it did resonate with people's lives. Partly this was from the whole work environment depicted - 'Is there nothing more to life than this?', and partly from the central character of the self-deluded office manager David Brent.

David Brent is a caricature - isn't he? Well a 2012 report from the CIPD (Chartered Institue of Personnel Development) makes alarming reading:

  • Most UK managers have an inflated opinion of their own ability and have no idea how bad they are at handling their workers
  • Eight out of ten managers said they think their staff are satisfied or very satisfied with them as a manager whereas just 58 per cent of employees report this is the case
  • More than 90 per cent of managers said they sometimes or always coach the people they manage when they meet, while only 40 per cent of employees agree
  • Three out of five managers said they met individual employees at least once a fortnight to discuss their workload or other work-related issues, but just one in four employees agreed
  • Just over half of employees are satisfied with their manager

(A good summary of the report can be found here https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/9241721/The-David-Brent-effect-managers-think-they-are-better-than-they-are.html )

I have no way of knowing how accurate the statistics are - but I do know that when talking with people from all walks of life that there seems to be a very direct link between how satisfied people feel with their work and their perception of how well they are led - and to what extent they are able to exercise leadership themselves.

Leadership can't be lifted wholesale from a book - and there is no one right way. It is the inauthenticity of David Brent that amuses and irritates - the gap between the words spoken and the life lived. Leaders don't have to be heroes but as a starting point we do need them to be authentic if we are to respect them.

The CIPD report makes a telling observation of how the 'David Brent effect' emerges:

people are promoted on the strength of their technical skills and not necessarily their management skills – and they are not retrained... they have little idea of how their behaviour impacts on others

It is not easy to change a work culture. If people do not feel able to speak honestly and openly it will take time, and a good example from the senior leadership - before they feel safe enough to do so.

It may help to employ an outside consultant to reflect back what is really going on and make recommendations. But this may not be necessary - the answers may be closer to hand. The best work environments all have processes in place to find out what employees really think and feel - and then act on the results.

Possibly the simplest and most cost effective way of doing this is for everyone in leadership positions to gain regular feedback from their colleagues on what they are doing well, and where they could get better. We believe that the 20Q leadership diagnostic is a very straightforward way of doing precisely this. How else can the 'reality gap' be closed?

It would be good to consign the David Brent effect to where it belongs - to the realm of TV comedy alone.

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