A few weeks ago, I re-posted a two-part opinion piece in which I criticized management advice books, a genre of the self-help literature that occupies whole shelves at most brick-and-mortar bookstores.
These texts just aren’t worth the time you might spend reading one, I argued.
Yet as I also acknowledged, what they set out to do isn’t as easy as it sounds. Coming up with useful advice a manager might actually put into practice is next to impossible – or at least the way most writers approach the subject.To drive this point home, I put out the call out to you, dear reader, to see if you could do any better.
What is it, I asked, that good managers do—or do well—that makes them “good”?
So this week, a post based on your feedback.
The problem with management advice books is that they’re rife with contradiction and paradox.
For each and every bit of apparently useful advice you might come across, there always seems to be an equally valid “pearl of wisdom” that obviously contradicts it. This creates paradox, which a manager must then somehow navigate. Remarkably, instances of this occur within a single text.
- In Losing My Virginity (2004), Richard Branson writes “Throughout my business life I have always tried to keep on top of costs… The Virgin Group has survived only because we have always kept tight control of our cash (p. 263).” But in the very next breath he argues: “I also know that sometimes it is essential to break these rules and spend lavishly.”
Not very helpful…but the question I asked, of course, was could you do any better?
What do managers actually do?
For some you, the biggest challenge to coming up with useful advice of your own was identifying things that were actionable – that is, guidance a manager might act on, or a behavior in which they might actually engage.
For instance, one reader suggested that good managers “build trust.” While I couldn’t agree more, as “advice” it just isn’t specific enough, is it? For instance, when a manager walks out their office door in the morning, what can they do, or in what way might they behave which would then build trust between themselves and their employees? As is it stands it’s just too abstract.
Once you got over this conceptual hurdle, things seemed to get a little easier for you. So based on your input (as well as my own voluminous reading of the management advice literature), I now submit for your consideration:
“The Supposed, YET DEEPLY FLAWED Ten Commandments of Good Management“
These are the things both you and most management advice books mistakenly believe are nevertheless critical to being an effective manger. They are NOT, as you shall soon see. In fact, they are about as helpful to managing as slipping on a banana peel.
But first, the ten misguided “commandments”:
- 1. Make decisions
- 2. Delegate
- 3. Hire and fire
- 4. Monitor and/or evaluate employees
- 5. Motivate employees
- 6. Instruct, train, or provide needed expertise for employees
- 7. Mentor
- 8. Communicate
- 9. Set goals, provide vision, and/or lead
- 10. Ensure group, departmental, or organizational success
(Think I’ve missed something? Submit it in the comments section below. Or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Contradictions, contradictions, and more contradictions
At first glance, they seem sound enough, right? But there’s a big problem here.
For each and every presumptive commandment, one or more others from the list contradicts it, or otherwise argues for behaving in precisely the opposite way. This has the unfortunate effect of rendering them all cumulatively worthless.
For example, consider commandments #1 and #2: Make decisions, and delegates.
Clearly managers need to be able to do both if they are to be effective. While some might argue that delegating is the very essence of good management, others would have us believe that so important is being decisive to a manager’s role that it’s better to make a bad, or ill-informed decision, as opposed to no decision at all.
But here’s the thing: In order to delegate effectively, a manager must necessarily give up some decision-making power too, to the extent that it allows for a task’s completion. To do otherwise—that is, to assign some responsibility to an employee and then insist each and every decision necessary in carrying it out be approved by the delegating manager—can’t truly be considered delegation.
So these two “commandments” contradict each other. You can’t obey one without breaking the other. Taken together then, they’re utterly useless.
Consider another example:
In the opinion of most, commandments #3 (hire and fire), #5 (motivate), and #6 (instruct/train) are all critical to good management. But when faced with an underperforming employee, what’s a manager to do? Obey #3 and fire the employee for underperformance? Or is the problem one of motivation, which is a manager’s responsibility to provide? Or, perhaps this employee simply needs more or better training – which again is a manager’s responsibility? There is no clear course of action here. Each commandment seems to contradicts the other two. To be truly useful, a manager also needs to when—or under what circumstances—to adhere to one as opposed to another.
Some vital bit of information is missing – and without it, these “commandments” are not only useless, they may actually make managing more difficult.
It’s not wrong, but it’s not right either
This is where I seem to have lost some of you in my previous posts. So let me be clear: When viewed in isolation, outside the context of the others, these 10 commandments would seem to offer at least some insight. Indeed, most managers at some point probably do all these things – and it’s hard to imagine them behaving otherwise. So they’re not “wrong” necessarily.
But nor are they “right” either, if you follow me.
Sometimes the best thing for a manager to do is to make a decision. But sometimes that’s absolute worst thing they can do – if, for example, their decision is not only wrong, but their employees tried to warn them of as much. So it depends on the circumstances. Again, this is the critical point, so let say it one more time:
What may be the best thing to do in one situation could be the worst action to take in another. More important to good management is knowing the “when,” not the “what.”
Consider commandments #4 (to monitor) and #5 (to motivate).
At times it is obviously important for a manager to monitor their employees and their work closely. In that way, it is possible to know if they are performing at an acceptable level, or instead need guidance, support, or help. But at other times keeping a close eye on employees is the absolute worst thing a manager can do, especially if it comes across as surveillance, and a lack of trust. Indeed, it is now widely understood that excessive scrutiny by manager can have the effect of de-motivating an employee, and thus harming their performance. So the thoughtful manager might be forgiven for wondering if employee productivity can be elevated through more observation, or less.
Again, it is not that one commandment is correct, and the other one incorrect. Both are potential appropriate. But it depends on the circumstance. Navigating the contradiction—that is, figuring out to when to do what—is the crucial piece.
And this, as I argued in those previous posts, is where management advice books inevitably disappoint.
Don’t ask us
In Managing (2009) Henry Mintzberg acknowledges the paradox created when managers try to adhere to commandments #1 and #2. He refers to this as the “dilemma of delegation.” But how to best navigate it? When it comes to delegating, Mintzberg concedes, sometimes you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
In The Management Bible (2005), Bob Nelson and Peter Economy grapple with the inherently paradoxical nature of commandments #4 and #5:
“[M]easuring 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.”
The Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit (2005) argues that training (#6), motivating (#5), and terminating employees when appropriate (#3) are all important managerial responsibilities. But when to do what, exactly? That’s for the reader to somehow figure out for themselves.
In The First-Time Manager (1981), training employees (#6) and acting as a mentor (#7) are both touted as being critical to managing well. But workers who are advised at every turn by an over-involved manager not only internalize little of what they are told, they’re also at risk of disengaging from their job mentally and emotionally. As the authors of The First-Time Manager concede, employees do not always respond well “to being told what to do.”
In Manager 3.0 (2013) Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin urge managers to “communicate, communicate, communicate” (commandment #8) but also be “a leader whom people want to follow” (#9). But genuine communication involves listening as well, so managers face a peculiar dilemma should their employees disagree with them for whatever the reason. Does that manager revise their directives based on employees’ feedback – that is, “listen”? Or should they stick to their guns and “lead”? Karsh and Templin can only say to search for “the balance between power-hungry authoritarian and friendship preserving pushover.”
When, not what? You don’t seem to know either
So thanks for your input. I appreciate it.
The bad news, of course, is that you proved no more capable of coming up with coherent management advice than any of those worthless texts out there. Sorry. And if you think those “Ten Commandments” are at all helpful in any way to being a better manager, strike them from your memory. Good managers don’t even need to be able to do all these things.
In fact, I’d argue you can still be a great manager without doing ANY of them.
If there’s any good news, I suppose, it’s that you’re hopefully even more convinced you don’t need to waste your time reading a management advice book (or at least not one currently in publication; wink, wink.)
They simply don’t live up to their promise.
As business theorist Chris Argyris sums it up in Flawed Advice and the Management Trap (2000):
“[M]ost of it (management advice) does not work… It is simply too full of abstract claims, inconsistencies, and logical gaps to be useful as a concrete basis for concrete actions in concrete settings” (p. vii).
In a future post, I will of course explain what good management really is in the context of all this. So look for that soon.
But in the meantime, let’s address that 10th and final commandment. (Thought I’d forgotten about that one, hadn’t you?)
Where’s the paradox here, you might be wondering?
To illustrate why focusing on the success and/or profitability of your business may be a mistake for managers, I turn to the scribblings of management guru extraordinaire, Peter Drucker:
- In The Essential Drucker (2001), he writes:
“Whenever a business has disregarded the limitation of economic [my emphasis] performance and has assumed social responsibilities it could not support economically, it has soon gotten into trouble.”
But as he later also insists:
“There is no doubt regarding management’s responsibility for the social impacts of its organization. They are management’s business.”
Contradiction? Paradox? Whatever it is, it’s not at all clear whether a manager should remain focused on the bottom line, or include other, non-monetary considerations.
Drucker’s flip-flop is doubly significant—and troubling—for another reason, though. Here he seems to be struggling with the profit motive, the very foundation of any for-profit business operating in a competitive market. And if one who many consider the greatest management thinker of the 20th Century isn’t able to navigate this paradox, well…
We might rightly wonder just how much it is that we, collectively, understand about “good management” at all?
 I should point out that there is some precedent for this list. In Notes on the Theory of Organization (1937), social scientist Luther Gulick argues that planning, organizing, structuring, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting should be a manager’s primary concerns – which he referred to by its acronym ‘POSDCORB’ (From Shaftiz, Jay and J. Steven Ott, Classics of Organization Theory (5th edition). 2001 (Harcourt), p. 79-87.
 Mintzberg, Henry. Managing. 2009 (Berrett-Koehler), p. 173&174.
 Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy. The Management Bible. 2005 (Wiley), p. 145.
 Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit. Subject Advisor: Christopher Bartlett. 2004 (Harvard Business School Press).
 Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik, The First-Time Manager (6th edition). 2012 (AMACON), p. 66&133.
 White, Richard D. “The micromanagement disease: Symptoms, diagnosis, and cure.” Public Personnel Management 39.1 (2010): 71-76.
 Belker, McCormick, and Topchik., op. cit., p. 133.
 Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin, Manager 3.0. 2013 (AMACON), p. 77&70.
 Ibid., p. 207.
 Drucker, Peter. The Essential Drucker. 2001 (CollinsBusiness), p. 59.
 Ibid., p. 52.
 The Economist. 2005. November 19: 71-73.
 For his part, Drucker seems only capable of equivocating on this important point:
“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” (p. 62).