OPINION: What you think you know about managing is wrong

5 minute read

As a manager, you’re ‘in charge.’ Right?

You’re the boss – the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho. You’re ‘the decider.’

This means 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.

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

Nevertheless, should push come to shove, both you and your employees probably agree that it’s your opinion that rules the day should their be any difference of opinion, not theirs. After all, this is how things need to be if your organization is to have even a chance of succeeding. The alternative would seem to be organizational chaos, and undoubtedly lead to the failure of the business.

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. Google, The Gallup Organization, Harvard Business School, and researchers associated with The Wharton School have all determined that managers are far more effective—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, acting like your employees are the boss of you.

Consider Google’s study. Their most effective managers were found to possess most, if not all, of following 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 more effective managers scored higher on a variety of productivity measures, including collaboration, ‘getting work done,’ and innovation, according to Google. These workgroups also experienced lower turnover, and greater job satisfaction.

Gallup investigation resulted in similar conclusions. Well-managed employees—that is, workers who are more engaged in their work—were determined to outperform their industry peers in a variety of measurable ways, including[2]:


·      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 as their counterparts. Teams in the top quartile of engagement were also three times as likely to succeed as those in the bottom quartile, averaging 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 to be actively disengaged.

·      Workgroups whose engagement put them in the bottom quartile averaged 62% more accidents than workgroups in the top quartile.

·      Workgroups with an inordinately 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. Gallup determined this is best accomplished by adopting various managerial practices and behaviors, which they refer to as the ‘12 elements’ of great managing. Their list is not so different from Google’s, however. Copyright prevents me from reproducing it in its entirety, but, for example, Gallup argues that having a manager who provides workers with clear job expectations, encourages career development, and taking employees’ opinions seriously.

Ultimately, however, what is critical is the common, underlying theme of both lists; the specifics of each is unimportant. And that theme is: Good management consists of doing things for your employees, not doing things to them.

That’s worth repeating.

Good management means doing certain things for your employees – like listening to them, getting them the things they need to their job, and being ready to help them when they ask for it. It is not about attempting to direct, control, or otherwise tell employees what to do.

Research associated with The Wharton School reinforces what may already be obvious to you. Again, these investigators recognized that ‘enthusiastic’ employees—or those highly engaged in their work—outperform their less motivated counterparts (by anywhere from 20 to 40 percent by some measures).[3] Critical to getting these hoped-for levels of enthusiasm from employees, they determined, is to satisfy three (3) basic employee ‘needs’. This includes the need for:

·      Equity – Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully by their employers, these researchers found – particularly regarding compensation. But equitable treatment also included a desire for a safe work environment, and humane working conditions.

·      Achievement – The opportunity to take pride in one’s work is also important to most workers, according to these researchers. 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.

·      Camaraderie – Workers are happier and more satisfied when warm, interesting, and cooperative relationships develop between themselves and their co-workers. That feeling, these researchers determined, is often the consequence of successful cooperative effort.


Again, doing things for your employees, not doing things to them.

Consider that none of these studies suggest that issuing more directives is the key to being a better manager. Nor is telling your employees how to do their job, or delegating more work to them, or evaluating their performance seen as important – even though these behaviors are amongst those most closely associated with the management role. No – effective management appears to consist almost exclusively of doing things for employees—that is, supporting them.

The results of Harvard’s study might be summed up with this one word as well: Support.

For this investigation, freshman managers were surveyed as they transitioned into the role, and it was support that they specifically singled out as being absolutely critical to their being effective. In fact, this was the term these managers frequently relied upon 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…”


They also realized this is what their employees expected of them too (again, my emphasis):

“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, in other words, good management means avoiding most of those stereotypical managerial behaviors.

Directing, delegating, monitoring, and criticizing have little if anything to do being a successful good manager.

Nor is flexing on one’s authority. Instead, managers are most effective, and their organizations more successful, when they view their role as one of support.

So what does this means for you, as a manager?

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

Unless you already recognize that your job is to support your employees—not expect their unquestioning obedience—then 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.

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