OPINION: What you think you know about managing is wrong

Being a manager means being ‘in charge.’ Right?

As a manager, you’re ‘the boss.’ You do the telling, while your employees do the listening – and then the doing. What to do, how to do it, and by when. That’s for you to decide (or at least approve), not anyone else.

Now your own management style may not be nearly authoritarian as that sounds. Maybe you’re perfectly happy to ‘empower’ your employees (at least on occasion) – that is, give them some freedom to do their jobs as they best see fit. Perhaps you only weigh in when you’re asked to, or when it’s obviously needed.

Nevertheless, should push come to shove and you and one of your employees disagree on something, you both probably accept and understand that it’s your opinion that rules the day, not theirs. You’re the top dog, after all – the big cheese, the head honcho. The ‘decider.’ And this is just how things have to to be if your organization is to have even a chance of succeeding. 

Anything less would seem to invite organizational chaos, and risk organizational failure.

Or so you probably think.

Unfortunately, however, there isn’t a shred of evidence to back any of this up.

In fact, according to the best available research just the opposite is true. Studies of effective management practices by Google, The Gallup Organization, Harvard Business School, and researchers associated with The Wharton School all indicate that managers are far more successful—and their organizations are far more profitable—when they behave as if their employees are in charge of them, not the other way around. You’re better off, in other words, behaving as if your employees are the boss of you.

Consider Google’s study. According to their findings the most effective managers possess most, if not all of following ten (10) traits[1]:

  • (1) Is a good coach
  • (2) Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • (3) Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  • (4) Is productive and results-oriented
  • (5) Is a good communicator – listens and shares information
  • (6) Supports career development and discusses performance
  • (7) Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  • (8) Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  • (9) Collaborates across Google
  • (10) Is a strong decision maker

Workgroups with effective managers were shown to score higher on a variety of productivity measures, including collaboration, ‘getting work done,’ and innovation. They also experienced lower turnover, and greater job satisfaction.

A study of good management practices by The Gallup Organization resulted in very similar conclusions.

Well-managed employees—that is, workers who are more engaged in their work—were shown to outperform their industry peers in a variety of measurable ways.[2] For instance:

– Among publicly traded companies, earnings-per-share of organizations employing highly engaged workers was 18 percent higher than that of their competitors, and over time progressed at a faster rate.

– Better managed, and therefore more engaged teams were more than twice as likely to succeed. Teams in the top quartile of engagement were three times as likely to succeed, and averaged 18 percent higher productivity and 12 percent higher profitability.

– High team engagement correlated strongly with higher customer service scores.

– Engaged employees averaged 27% less absenteeism than those considered actively disengaged.

– Workgroups in the bottom quartile with respect to employee engagement averaged 62% more accidents than workgroups in the top quartile.

– Workgroups with a high number of disengaged workers also lost 51% more of their inventory to ‘shrink’ (employee theft).

– In high turnover industries, business units with a surplus of disengaged employees suffered 31 percent more turnover. In low turnover industries (where the cost of losing one person is often higher than in high turnover industries), business units with actively disengaged employees experienced 51 percent more turnover.

Critical to ‘great managing’ then, is getting employees engaged in their work. That, Gallup found, is best achieved by adopting a variety of very specific workplace practices and behaviors – or what these researchers refer to as the ‘12 Elements’ of great managing.

Their list is not so different from Google’s, however. Copyright prevents me from reprinting it in its entirety, but, for example, Gallup concludes that having a manager who provides employees with clear job expectations is critical. Encouraging career development, and taking employee opinions seriously are also seen as crucial to worker engagement.

But far more important than any of the cosmetic differences between these two lists, is the broader, overarching theme that they both reinforce. And that is:

Great management consists of doing things for your employees.

That’s worth repeating.

The best managers appear to focus on doing things for their employees, not doing things to them. Directing, controlling, evaluating, or otherwise telling employees what to do; these things have little, if anything to do with being an effective manager, according to these two studies, even though such behaviors are amongst those most closely associated with the management role.

Research associated with The Wharton School further reinforces this conceptualization of ‘good management.’

Their investigation focused on ‘enthusiastic’ employees (again, those highly engaged in their work), and who they claim outperform their less motivated counterparts by anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.[3] Critical to getting the hoped-for levels of enthusiasm, they furthermore determined, is satisfying three (3) basic employee ‘needs’, including:

(1) Equity – Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully by their employers – particularly regarding compensation. Equitable treatment also includes a desire for a safe work environment, and humane working conditions.

(2) Achievement – The opportunity to take pride in one’s work is also important to most workers. Human beings possess an innate desire to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done, and to receive recognition for those efforts. They also want to take pride in the efforts and achievements of their organization as a whole.

(3) Camaraderie – Workers are happier and more satisfied when warm, interesting, and cooperative relationships develop between themselves and their co-workers. This feeling is often the result of successful cooperative effort.

Again, managers who see their function as doing things for their employeesin this case fulfilling certain basic needs—are demonstrably more effective than those who do not. ‘Great managing,’ in other words, can be summed up with a single term: SupportThis is the critical insight.

A study by Harvard only further reinforces this conclusion.

For their investigation, freshman managers were interviewed as they transitioned into their new role – and it was the word ‘support’ specifically that many relied on time and time again in their survey responses (my emphasis in each case):

You have to…listen to and support your people.

What does he [the employee] need from the manager? Support, guidance, training…

I’m paid for making my quota, but my job is to support and develop my people…

It is best to lead by example and with support.

You have to let them go out and do their job and not get in the way. Be helpful and supportive…

These new managers also realized that support was what their employees expected of them:

I think the first thing they [subordinates] expect is support. They expect that if they’re out doing their job as they think it should be done and as it has been outlined for them, that they’re going to get my support.

I guess the key underlying thing is: Is [a manager] a caring person and supportive?

I didn’t get religion right afterward [promotion]. But there was a greater awareness that they [subordinates] thought that I should work for them.[4]

According to some of the best available research into good management practices, acting like you’re ‘in charge’ is simply not going to make you an effective manager. It may actually do more harm than good. 

Better for you to be understanding, listen, and offer your support. When you do this, you will be at your most effective, as a manager, and your organizations will be most likely to succeed. Or as the Wharton study bluntly sums things up:

Companies profit when managers give employees what they want.[5]


So what does this means for you?

Well – maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how you think about the management role.

Unless you already recognize that your job is to support your employees—not expect their obedience—the one thing you think you know about managing is wrong.


[1] Google’s ‘Project Oxygen’ Report was first made public in 2008, and later updated in 2018. It is available as a free download at https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-evolution-of-project-oxygen/

[2] Wagner, Rodd and James K. Harter. 2006. 12, The Elements of Great Managing, New York: Gallup Press.

[3] Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. 2005. The Enthusiastic Employee. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

[4] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[5] Sirota, et. al.

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