Management upgraded

Feb 26 2010 by Mitch McCrimmon Print This Article

The popular image of management is past its sell-by date, born of faulty thinking from the late 1970s. Management is long overdue an upgrade to dispel the old clichés and cast it in a more positive light.

Among the enduring myths about management are that it is task oriented, only interested in efficiency; it preserves the status quo; it just keeps things ticking over; it is controlling, mechanistic and bureaucratic; it does things right, while leadership does the right thing; it motivates through rewards and punishments - it can't inspire.

So how did these negative clichés come about?

How management got tarred and feathered

Gurus started denouncing management in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Warren Bennis, John Kotter, Abraham Zaleznik, Tom Peters, Kouzes and Posner, among others, wanted a scapegoat to blame for the failure of Western businesses to see off Japanese competition. Management got the finger and has yet to recover.

Previously, managers could have one of two styles. They could either initiate structure or show consideration for people. They could be either task or people oriented. They could follow theory X or theory Y.

To justify replacing "management" with "leadership", we granted "good guy" status to leadership while saddling management with the "bad guy" role. That's why no one wants to be a manager.

Writing in 1911, Frederick Taylor portrayed managers as efficiency experts. Perhaps they were in the assembly line days, but we aren't committed to this model today. In his book, The Managerial Mystique, Abraham Zaleznik condemned managers for being mechanistic. He quoted Frederick Taylor extensively but provided no evidence that Taylor's conception of management must be valid forever.

Why did we make this mistake? Well, we viewed managers and leaders as people in roles competing for the same territory of getting work done through others. This left us with no way to differentiate them other than in terms of style.

John Kotter focused on function to separate them but he couldn't rid himself of the popular style descriptions. But if we limit ourselves to function, nothing is implied about their styles. Managers can inspire us to work harder just as leaders inspire us to change direction. Equally, leadership can be shown quietly or by citing hard evidence.

Thus both management and leadership can finally be rid of the albatross of any style connotation. We need to shift our binary thinking from styles to functions. This is how we differentiate sales and marketing so it's not an odd idea.

It is vastly more empowering to define management as a type of activity, than as a role. After all, you can manage your time without being in a formal role. Because all employees can do some managing, the managerial role is only one application of management, a special case.

People in roles can use different styles but the function itself can be defined with no reference to style. Leadership reframed focuses on promoting a better way while management upgraded takes care of everything to do with getting work done through people.

Management can thus be as inspiring, facilitative, empowering and developmental as it needs to be in a world of knowledge workers. The assembly line and Frederick Taylor are long gone. It's time to abandon the mechanistic image of management along with the 1980s thinking that trashed management and replaced it with leadership.

What management means

In What Management Is Joan Magretta explains that management means working in an organized manner. You might get by in reactive mode but achieving anything complex is impossible without a corresponding level of organization. Magretta also says that managers allocate resources for future returns suggesting that management is like investment.

You use management principles every day. When you decide to phone that key client now instead of later, you are prioritizing. What is prioritizing if not deciding how best to invest your time in order to get the best return or add the most value in relation to your goals?

Thus management is about achieving goals in a way that makes the best use of all resources. It differs from financial investment in that managers actively develop their resources. You might be managing in the sense of coping if you are running around like the proverbial headless chicken. But you are only managing effectively if you can justify in hard business terms why doing A instead of B adds more value or why you should do A instead of delegating it.

How management works

Managers make decisions and facilitate actions in others to get the best return on resources. When managing knowledge workers, they might decide that a self-managing team will yield the best return. Here, the classic functions of management (planning, organizing and controlling) are delegated. But the function of management is still operating even though the manager is not personally doing it. This should dispel the myth of the manager as control freak or bureaucrat.

Knowledge workers do a lot of mental work: thinking creatively, solving complex problems and making difficult decisions which managers can facilitate by asking questions like: "What do you think?" Managers draw solutions out of team members to develop them, generate better solutions and foster wider ownership.

Knowing the team's creative thinking potential and the need for innovation, managers use facilitative skills to elicit ideas for new products. Fostering innovation is crucial for getting the best return on the organization's talented resources. So much for "preserving the status quo" or merely "keeping things ticking over."

There's nothing in this definition of management that says managers can't be good with people. Getting the best out of people entails motivating, engaging, developing and empowering them.

Why do we believe that managers just "preserve the status quo" rather than make strategic decisions? As chief executives they must make strategic decisions. From an investment point of view, managers cannot limit themselves to efficient execution. Why should only leaders be capable of doing the right things, making strategic decisions? There is no logic to this bias.

What about managing change? Suppose a leader advocates a new vision, the need to enter new markets, be more environmentally friendly, socially responsible or some other new direction. Leadership sells the tickets for the journey and, if resistance emerges en route, the tickets can be resold, but the bulk of the journey is a project requiring good management skills.

Management or leadership?

Management upgraded takes over much of leadership's territory. This is justified because leadership is carrying too much of the load of getting work done in organizations. Also, this just returns management to its rightful place before our emotional reaction to Japanese competition in the late 1970s. A more rational move would have been to upgrade management, not condemn it with an unjustified negative image.

We say that leadership is an influence process. Decision making thus must be managerial because making decisions for a group is not an influence process. "Influence" suggests voluntary acceptance.

If people have no choice, then they haven't been influenced to act which means that they haven't been shown leadership. If managers make strategic decisions they are hardly limited to "keeping things ticking over" or "preserving the status quo."

Benefits of upgrading management

By upgrading management we break the association of leadership with position. If executives are managers by virtue of their role and only show leadership occasionally, then all employees can show discrete leadership acts without being anyone's boss.

Dismissing management from the organizational stage has been a disaster for making leadership a confused mix of leading and managing that has left non-managers feeling like mere passengers on the bus.

Wherever innovation is key to success, we need an account of leadership that is position-free, that can be shown simply by promoting a better way. The ultimate benefit is the potential for greater employee engagement and faster innovation, bottom-up.

About The Author

Mitch McCrimmon
Mitch McCrimmon

Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching split between Canada and the UK. He is also the author of three management books, the latest being Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes,