Press Release -The realities of leadership in UK supermarkets

The following press notice is issued by the Economic and Social Research Council's Research Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance based at Oxford and Cardiff Universities . Please address any enquiries to the contact tel nos/e-mail addresses shown. Info on SKOPE can be seen on the organisation's web site: www.skope.ox.ac.uk. 

The realities of leadership in UK supermarket

New research by Professor Irena Grugalis of Bradford University School of Management, Odul Bozkurt of Lancaster University Management School and Jeremy Clegg of Leeds University Business School shows that leadership skills in UK supermarkets relate almost entirely to encouraging employees to greater efforts.

Academic research on leadership skills suggests that these are changing from bureaucratic control to charisma, vision aimed at inspiring enthusiasm and contribution to corporate dynamism. Closely observed research in two of Britain ’s largest supermarket chains suggests that the reality required managers to strive to ‘meet a range of very demanding performance targets over which they themselves had little if any control’. This approach compares starkly with the product knowledge of expert assistants in France , the wide ranging skills of apprentice trained workers in Germany and the impressive educational achievements of Chinese retail workers.

‘While leadership skills and qualities were presented as core to the work of everyone and as particularly central for progression into managerial roles, in stores almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shopfloor workers… to the general store manager, was set out, standardised and occasionally scripted by the experts at head office’. Even specialist departments such as fish, meat, cheese and the bakery, are coming under increasing levels of central control.

So, what is left for managers to manage? Primarily the answer is ‘people management’: motivating, beginning with ‘getting the day started’ meetings they concentrate on meeting targets by, as one manager put it, ‘ensuring they (staff) are motivated, trained, they’re quick to do the job, and hyped up, and they’re going to go out there and deliver’. The research also found that non graduate managers speak of the encouragement they had received from their managers to embark on management training (though the study shows that few women make it through to senior store management positions, to a large extent because managers work full time and women generally work part time).

Intriguingly, while managers, even those with experience going back before head office controls were so all-pervading, nominally have little control over layout, stocking and similar issues and they back-up the ‘comply and then complain’ culture, in-store, some do cut loose and in spite of heavy official discouragement, make changes necessary to boost sales and make sure that news of this does not get back to head office.

Professor Grugulis asks ‘how far the low skill levels of supermarket workers and lower levels of discretion allowed to managers are consistent with the development of more personalised high value service in a high skill/high quality economy. Is it possible to reverse the process or are we heading into a cul-de-sac?’

Notes for Editors: SKOPE Research Paper No 91 ‘No place to hide? The realities of leadership in UK supermarkets’ has been prepared for the ESRC Research Centre SKOPE.

The paper is published on SKOPE’s web site: www.skope.ox.ac.uk or is available from the SKOPE Secretary, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cardiff CF10 3WT.

For further information contact: Irena Grugulis tel (0)1274 234331and e-mail i.grugulis@bradford.ac.uk; Ken Mayhew, SKOPE Director, tel (0)1865 276434 and e-mail ken.mayhew@pmb.ox.ac; and John Stevens, press coordinator and associate fellow, tel (0)1732 362895 and e-mail john.r.stevens@talk21.com.