The best managers do it under the radar

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Corporate culture makes it harder to manage, not easier, says management journalist Simon Caulkin. He looks at research by Professor Julian Birkinshaw of London Business School, whose latest book Becoming a better boss provides evidence that supports this view.

Forget robotics, the internet and big data. The most important technology in the world today is for getting things done through other people, and it’s called management. There is, however, a puzzle at the heart of it. We know what good management looks like – so the mystery is: Why is it so rare?

This is the question that Julian Birkinshaw sets himself in his new book Becoming a better boss: why good management is so difficult. The book emerged from earlier work at London Business School on employee-centred management, which in turn started from the insight – and unwritten truth – that management is always written from the point of view of the manager, never the managed, and this of course is part of the reason that it so often goes wrong. Perhaps this is why, as Birkinshaw put it in a previous book, large organisations are full of fear and distrust and are ‘with notable exceptions – miserable places to spend our working lives.’

As to what good looks like in management terms, there is simply too much evidence to argue with. Long-term corporate success is built on investing in people and fostering high levels of corporate engagement. Yet despite all the evidence in its favour, precious few managers act on this knowledge.  There is, in short, a gap between knowing and doing. Birkinshaw doesn’t buy the usual excuses: that there isn’t time, managers are too busy meeting targets and the company doesn’t care what happens. The real reason, he posits, is that managing this way is an unnatural act. To start with, it’s systemic. It involves seeing work through the employees’ eyes – unfamiliar and difficult. It also requires an understanding of the manager’s own frailties and biases - disconcerting to say the least. And finally it means wrestling with the pathologies and limitations of the organisation in which they work, which is energy sapping and thankless.

As the facilitator of many mid-level corporate management experiments, Birkinshaw sorrowfully accepts that, however, positive, most of these make little difference: they overcome the corporate immune system’s first line of defence only to run up against an impermeable second or even third line. However, despite the huge inertia in organisations, Birkinshaw remains pragmatically optimistic. Although bureaucracy is tiresome, the fact that so many processes are taken for granted means that there’s usually cover for a determined middle or junior manager to ‘just do it’ in their own department or unit while staying under the radar.

Learning to manage in this way needs practice, feedback and reflection. First, it involves combatting the knee-jerk reaction, especially in tough times, to fall back on command and control, and do what we know engaged workers want – give them freedom, systematic information and the liberty to make mistakes. One tip: make and stick to a ‘not to do’ or ‘stop doing’ list of tasks or assignments that could and should be delegated to others. The second necessary element is giving credit to others – again difficult when so much of getting on in the hierarchy is about grabbing rather than sharing credit. Working yourself out of a job is one useful ploy; another is packaging work into projects into which people can throw themselves. These two are balanced and combined by self-control, a mastery of your own emotions and instincts so that as far as possible you can counter the known biases of power – and everyone’s enormous capacity for self-delusion.

Managing unnaturally involves courage as well as unfamiliar thought processes. But the reward is not just greater organisational effectiveness. It also contributes to wellbeing and happiness – and crucially makes it easier for others to tread the same path in the future. This, perhaps, is where the future of organisation lies: reinventing management, one person at a time.

About the author

Simon Caulkin is a management journalist, best-known for his weekly column in The Observer newspaper which he wrote for 16 years, from 1993 to June 2009. For more information and articles see Simon’s website, http://www.simoncaulkin.com/

This article originally appeared in Professional Manager, Winter 2014, p.74. Reprinted with permission of the copyright-holder, Think Publishing.

Books

Birkinshaw, J. Becoming a better boss: why good management is so difficult. Jossey-Bass, 2013

Birkinshaw, J. Reinventing management. Wiley, 2010.