Throw out that management advice book (Part 3): The paradoxes

Feb 12, 2016 | 0 comments

11 minute read

In last week’s post, I’d begun explaining why management advice books are littered with inconsistencies and contradictions – like this one, for instance:

  • In What Really Works (2003), author William Joyce holds Dollar General up as an exemplar of good management, offering this quote from the company’s website: “We [at Dollar General] believe in emphasizing strengths in a positive and blame-free environment [my emphasis], where accountability for mistakes is processed in a personal and team developmental way.”[1] However, when “debt soared and the company foundered badly” following the acquisition of a rival chain—a purchase approved by the former CEO’s own brother—Dollar General’s response was to re-hire Carl Jr. as CEO, who then abruptly “fired his brother”[2] Positive and blame-free indeed.

The reason this happens is pretty straightforward, as I’d also begun to explain:

  1. Virtually all management advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying assumptions…
  2. …and those assumptions almost exclusively concern what a manager should do as a manager.
  3. Unfortunately, these assumptions also contradict each other…
  4. …and this all but guarantees that any advice based on them will be contradictory/paradoxical as well.

Last week, I tackled points (1) and (2). I listed what most management advice books assume managers need to do in order to be successful. I called these responsibilities the “Ten Commandments” of good management, and they are again (in no particular order):

  1. To make decisions
  2. To delegate
  3. To hire and fire
  4. To monitor/evaluate subordinates
  5. To motivate subordinates
  6. To instruct/train/provide expertise for subordinates
  7. To mentor subordinates
  8. To communicate
  9. To set goals/lead/provide vision
  10. To ensure team/departmental/organizational success

This week I’ll show how these “commandments” contradict each other. I’ll demonstrate that each responsibility, while seemingly incontrovertible in its own right, nevertheless argues for engaging in a behavior that one of more of the others argues against. As a result, any book based on them is all but guaranteed to be riddled with contradictions and paradoxes as well.

The paradoxes

So what do I mean when I say that these commandments contradict each other?

Well, consider the first two from the list: (#1) to make decisions, and (#2) to delegate.

According to Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, both are critical to managing well. “If managing is about getting things done,” he writes in Managing (2009), “then managers have to be decisive…”,[3] and one of the ways to “get something done” is by “delegating.”[4] And virtually every management advice book I’ve ever read expresses something similar.

But there’s a problem here. Consider that in delegating, a manager must necessarily give up some decision-making power, to the extent that it allows for the task’s completion. To do otherwise—that is, to assign a task to a subordinate, and then insist that each and every decision necessary in carrying it out be approved by the delegating manager—can’t really be considered delegation. As Mintzberg points out: “In delegating, a manager identifies the need to get something done, but leaves the deciding [my emphasis] and doing to someone else…”[5]

And so this is paradox. A manager can’t adhere to one commandment without breaking another. To make a decision (or set of decisions) for yourself is to obey commandment #1. But it is also to deliberately not delegate them, and therefore to disobey commandment #2. Of course, to obey commandment #2 and delegate those decisions, is to violate commandment #1 because you’re not making them for yourself.

To be clear, it is not that I disagree with either “commandment,” or believe that these aren’t things managers should be doing. It goes without saying that managers need to make decisions on occasion in order to be effective, and in other circumstances be willing to delegate. But what one commandment argues for, the other argues against – so in the absence of any further information, clarification, or qualification, how is a manager supposed to know when to follow one versus the other?

It’s not just me here. Mintzberg himself seems to be aware of the problem too. In Managing, he refers to this as the “dilemma of delegation,”[6] but has nothing to say about how to navigate it. Instead, he merely observes that when it comes to delegating, sometimes you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”[7]

And while that may be true, it’s not very helpful advice, is it?


An outlier?

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to just these two “commandments.” Consider responsibilities #3 (to hire and fire), #5 (to motivate), and #6 (to instruct/train/provide expertise).

According to Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit (2004), all three are critical to good management. “Your success as a manager will be determined by…your ability to hire and retain good people; to motivate and develop the potential of each member of your team [my emphases],” the authors explain.[8] They furthermore add that if “no amount of coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing can get an employee’s performance up to an acceptable level,” this might mean firing the individual instead.[9]

Again, every management advice book I’ve ever read expresses something similar – and each responsibility is absolutely critical to managing well. But as they stand, these “commandments” contradict each other; what one argues for, the other two argue against. Faced with an underperforming employee, for instance, should a manager seek to replace him or her outright – that is, obey commandment #3? Or instead go to greater lengths to train that person (commandment #6), and therefore disobey commandment #3? Or, should a manager forgo both of these commandments in favor of commandment #5, and attempt to better motivate the employee?

Undoubtedly, many managers probably feel comfortable making such judgments for themselves (although maybe they shouldn’t). They may believe, in other words, that they know when they’ve done enough “coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing” as the authors of The HBE Manager’s Toolkit put it, and to instead go ahead and pull the trigger. But that isn’t something that’s explained in any management book that I’ve ever read. Like The HBE Manager’s Toolkit, these texts simply assure managers that whatever they choose to do—train, motivate, or terminate—is consistent with “good management.”

Let’s take a look at commandments #4 (to monitor employees) and #5 (to motivate employees).

According to Bob Nelson and Peter Economy, authors of The Management Bible (2005), both are critical to good management. “Motivating employees is what it’s all about…,”[10] they write, while “monitoring employee performance is a critical skill for every manager today.”[11]

No argument here – both are absolutely crucial to managing effectively. Supervisors who keep a watchful eye on subordinates are better able to determine who to advise, assist, reward, or perhaps reprimand. It’s also one way of “motivating” employees. Observation by a supervisor may discourage any laxness of effort, or slacking off. But acting on commandment #4 can, of course, be taken too far. It is now well established that undue scrutiny can be perceived by subordinates as surveillance, or a lack of trust. And this can have a powerful de-motivating effect.[12] One way to energize employees is therefore to allow them some autonomy. As the authors of The Management Bible observe, “[m]ost employees value being given room to do their work as they best see fit.”[13]

And so here too is contradiction and paradox.

To obey commandment #4, and more closely monitor a subordinate is to risk de-motivating him or her, which is to break commandment #5. But to not pay any attention to that individual’s performance is disobey commandment #4, even though that may lead to a more motivated worker. Or it may suggest that a manager doesn’t care about this individual’s work – which may again be demotivating. As a result, any manager hoping to increase the productivity of his or her subordinates might be forgiven for wondering whether this is best accomplished through more observation, or less.

And Messrs. Nelson and Economy? Well, they only have this to say:

“…measuring and monitoring the performance of individuals in your organization is a real balancing act: On the one hand you don’t want to overmeasure or overmonitor your employees—detracting from their work. And, on the other hand, you don’t want to undermeasure or undermonitor your employees.”[14]

Just where the “balance” lies, however—or how to achieve it—is never then directly addressed by their text.

Next, let’s consider commandments #6 (instructing/training/providing expertise) and #7 (mentoring).

Again, both are managerial responsibilities that are undeniably important, as the authors of The First-Time Manager (1981) also insist. “Training team members,” Belker, McCormick, and Topchik write, is “your responsibility.”[15] At the same time they also conceive of “the manager as a mentor.”[16]

But telling a person what to do, how do it, or when to do something—that is, obeying commandment #6—is not always the best approach to mentoring. The frustration of being perceived as some sort of automaton incapable of independent thought can be both frustrating and discouraging (as most people know from firsthand experience), and once disengaged, most employees are far less likely to perform at their full potential, much less grow and develop. In fact, it is now widely understood that workers who are advised at every turn by an over-involved manager not only internalize very little of what they are told, they are at risk of becoming disengaged from their job mentally and emotionally.[17]

Or, as the authors of The First-Time Manager put it, employees do not always respond well “to being told what to do.”[18]

So what’s a manager to do? Act on commandment #6 and risk alienating one’s subordinates by micromanaging them? Or act on #7 and risk…well, alienating subordinates by appearing to abandon them? Here again is contradiction and paradox – but don’t look to The First-Time Manager (or any other management advice book, for that matter) for help. This text simply assures their readers that both actions are consistent with “good management,” and its practice.

Next, consider commandments #8 (to communicate) and #9 (to set goals/lead/provide vision).

In Manager 3.0 (2013) authors Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin urge managers to “communicate, communicate, communicate,”[19] and to “never underestimate the power of direct and sincere communication.”[20] Equally important in their opinion being “a leader whom people want to follow [author’s emphasis].”[21]

Clearly they’re right – communicating and leading are both important to managing well. But communication isn’t just about telling someone what to do, and when to do it (no matter how “direct and sincere” you are with them). Genuine communication obviously involves listening as well. So a problem arises should subordinates disagree with their managers, for whatever the reason. Should a manager then revise his or her directives based on employees’ feedback (though that hardly sounds like “leading”)? Or should that manager flex his or her managerial authority and stick to his or her guns, even though that might be perceived as not listening?

Unfortunately, Karsh and Templin are of little help here. On the one hand, they argue that managers should “trust your decisions and communicate them confidently”[22] and “make a decision and stand by it—even if the going gets tough.”[23] On the other, they advocate for “Listening and acting on feedback.”[24] But beyond that, they simply say that the trick is to “find the balance between power-hungry authoritarian and friendship preserving pushover,” adding “Your goal is to land somewhere in between.”[25]

And while I can’t argue with that, I know it’s not enough to land just anywhere in between.


Drucker’s Dilemma

Which leaves the “commandment” #10: a manager’s responsibility to ensure the success of the department, group, or organizational subsection that reports to him or her.

Again, virtually every management advice book I’ve ever read stresses the importance of this one responsibility. As renowned management author and guru Peter Drucker once declared, “the manager is duty bound to preserve the performance capacity of the institution in his care,” insisting that “to jeopardize it, no matter how noble the motive, is irresponsibility.”[26] Furthermore:

“Whenever a business has disregarded the limitation of economic performance and has assumed social responsibilities it could not support economically, it has soon gotten into trouble.”[27]

Hard to argue with any of that – except it clearly puts managers on a slippery slope. Under the guise of acting on this one responsibility a manager, executive, or CEO might justify compromising any number of legal or ethical principles—such as postponing the replacement of outdated or unsafe equipment, or disposing of hazardous waste inappropriately and therefore more cheaply—all for the sake of maintaining the bottom line. Now even the staunchest free-market advocate would probably hesitate before endorsing such behavior, Drucker included:

“One is responsible for one’s impacts, whether they are intended or not. This is the first rule. There is no doubt regarding management’s responsibility for the social impacts of its organization. They are management’s business.”[28]

But this is contradiction. To take responsibility for one’s “social impacts,” as Drucker insists here, is to assume “social responsibilities” of the sort he warned against in his previous statement. And faced with a paradox of his own making, Drucker seems only able to equivocate:

“Management must resist responsibility for a social problem that would compromise or impair the performance capacity of its business…but then, if the problem is a real one, it better think through and offer an alternative approach. If the problem is serious, something will have to be done about it.”[29]

Just what constitutes a “real” or “serious” problem, however—not to mention what might qualify as having “done something about it”—is not then discussed in any detail by Mr. Drucker.

Apparently the reader is simply meant to figure this out for him- or herself.


That’s not good management

So there you have it. Each and every “commandment,” responsibility, duty, or whatever you want to call them—while absolutely critical to managing well—argues in favor of doing something that one or more of the others argues against. Therefore, any advice based on that list probably won’t tell you much about how to become a “good” manager.

But I know what you’re thinking.

Right now, you’re probably saying to yourself: You know, I never really bought into your “Ten Commandments” of managing to begin with. And I don’t read management advice books because I have a pretty good idea about what it takes to be a good manager already.

Fair enough; I certainly don’t doubt you.

I’m sure you have plenty of ideas about what kind of person makes a good manager, or what they need to do.

For instance, you probably believe that having a clear strategy or “vision” for your team/department/company is important, as well as the charisma, enthusiasm, conviction, and focus to get people behind it, and see it through to completion.

It’s likely you also believe that working long hours is necessary, and perhaps riding your employees a little. But c’mon, people aren’t going to put in the effort required if left to their own devices, are they? Besides, as their manager, you’ll be right there in the trenches with them, right?

And finally, while it may be important to listen to your employees on occasion (especially when they agree with you), you probably feel that ultimately it’s a manager’s responsibility to tell their subordinates what’s what. At the end of the day, that’s your job—and it’s your job that’s on the line—right? Your employees are likely to thank you in the end anyway – for providing them with opportunity to be part of a team, and experience all of the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a successful collective effort.

(Nor should we forget the ample financial rewards—for them and yourself—that are apt to be the result of your managerial prowess.)

Yep, that all sounds familiar. And I should know, because at one time I bought into this clichéd characterization of the ideal manager as well.

So for my next post in the series, I’ll examine this “conventional management wisdom” a bit more critically. (It won’t take long this time; only one entry.) But to those of you who still see it as a recipe for good management, I have only one thing to say:

Prepare to be disappointed.


Next in the seriesIs nothing sacred?


Blogger’s note: Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy on July 13, 2011.



Barlett, Christopher (subject advisor). 2004. Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. 1981. The First-Time Manager (6th edition). New York: AMACON.

Drucker, Peter. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: Collins Business (2005 edition).

Joyce, William. 2003. What Really Works. New York: HarperBusiness.

Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin. 2013. Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. AMACON: New York.

Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (2011 edition).

Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy. 2005. The Management Bible. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



[1] Joyce, William, What Really Works, p. 33.

[2] Ibid., p. 32.

[3] Mintzberg, Henry, Managing, p. 187.

[4] Ibid., p. 60.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] Ibid., 173.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit, p. xiii.

[9] Ibid., p. 140.

[10] Nelson, Bob, and Peter Economy, The Management Bible, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., p. 145.

[12] Freeman, R. Edward, and Kirsten Martin. “Some Problems with Employee Monitoring.” Journal of Business Ethics 43 (2003): 353-361; Stanton, Jeffrey M. “Reactions to employee performance monitoring: Framework, review, and research directions.” Human Performance 13.1 (2000): 85-113.

[13] Nelson and Economy, op. cit., p. 64.

[14] Ibid. p. 145.

[15] Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik, The First-Time Manager, p. 66.

[16] Ibid., p. 133.

[17] White, Richard D. “The micromanagement disease: Symptoms, diagnosis, and cure.” Public Personnel Management 39.1 (2010): 71-76.

[18] Belker, McCormick, and Topchik., op. cit., p. 133.

[19] Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin, Manager 3.0, p. 77.

[20] Ibid. p. 78.

[21] Ibid., p. 70.

[22] Ibid. p. 211.

[23] Ibid., p. 180.

[24] Ibid., p. 104.

[25] Ibid., p. 207.

[26] Drucker, Peter, The Essential Drucker, p. 59.

[27] Ibid., p. 59.

[28] Ibid., p. 52.

[29] Ibid. p. 62.


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