Staff give sector managers low marks

Employee survey makes 'disturbing' reading for higher education, writes Melanie Newman

March 27, 2008

University staff have the worst perceptions of their managers of any employment sector, seeing them as secretive, uncaring and controlling, according to new research.

The Work-Life Balance 2007 survey carried out by Coventry University asked 2,300 employees across ten sectors for their opinions on the leadership styles of senior managers in their organisations.

"The results for higher education were far from flattering and among the worst of any sector we analysed," the researchers said.

"The leadership styles in higher education were perceived to be predominantly reactive, secretive, inconsistent, demotivating, controlling and indecisive."

More than half of the 300 higher education employees surveyed said that their managers were reactive (53 per cent), secretive (52 per cent) and inconsistent (51 per cent) compared with 40 per cent, 42 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in the private sector.

Only a third of university workers said their leaders were caring, compared with almost half of private-sector respondents. Fewer than a quarter of higher education staff felt that their organisation was loyal to them and that it treated them fairly, while more than 40 per cent of private sector staff felt this way.

University staff were also more likely to say they had experienced bullying by managers and colleagues and more likely to report stress than other workers, the survey found.

A quarter of university respondents said they felt stressed all of the time or almost all of the time, compared with 19 per cent of staff in other parts of the public sector and 15 per cent in the private sector.

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, said the report made "disturbing reading".

"It is the kind of evidence we would want to build into our leadership programmes to help participants reflect on sector-wide issues and take those messages back to their institutions," he said. "We are using research-based evidence of our own as the basis for real-life case studies on a wide range of leadership issues, as we think leaders learn best from reflecting on that reality."

Roger Kline, equalities officer for the University and College Union, said: "The report confirms the results of our own surveys, which show there is an epidemic of stress and bullying arising out of poor management.

"Stress is an institutional issue. Universities should not hide behind the idea that it is good for employees or that it is primarily caused by problems in their personal lives," he said.

The UCU wants bullying to be regarded as a workplace hazard that needs risk assessment, Mr Kline said.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that the sector placed a "great deal of emphasis" on stress management.

A Ucea spokesman added: "Although this report is based on responses from only 300 higher education sector academic and support staff, there are considerations for all levels of staff. It is reassuring to note that many institutions have exemplary policies and procedures in place to tackle issues such as stress, bullying and harassment."

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