In my last post in this series, I argued that “good management” isn’t about knowing what to do.

It’s about knowing when to do it.

For instance, not much is to be gained by pointing out that managers need to be effective decision-makers. Nothing is perhaps more frustrating for an employee than reporting to a manager who either resists making decisions, or is easily paralyzed by indecision. But managers must, must, must be effective delegators too; they can’t do everything for themselves (although some would seem to like to try). Just as frustrating for an employee is the proverbial “micromanager” – or a supervisor who has to make every decision for him- or herself.

The question then, really isn’t whether or not managers need to make decisions, or be able to delegate. More important is knowing when to make a particular decision, and when instead to delegate that responsibility.

 

A scarce commodity…

If this is the essence of “good management”—knowing when to do what—it must be acknowledged that some managers are, in fact, quite capable of doing this, and doing it well.

Unfortunately, there just don’t seem to be that many of them.

According to the Gallup Organization, only 1 in 10 individuals possess the “natural, God-given talent to manage a team of people,”[1] a perception that seems to resonate with most workers.[2]

This shortage—perceived or not—would explain why so many people seem to be so frustrated at their places of work.[3] If it’s not their own boss that’s the problem, then odds are there’s someone in “upper management” who isn’t really cutting it. It might also account for why so many employees have “checked out,” so to speak. As Gallup found in another study, only 13% of all workers are “engaged” in their jobs, while those who are “actively disengaged”—that is, negative, and potentially hostile to their employers—outnumber engaged employees 2 to 1.[4]

This also might explain why the sale of management advice books remains a multi-million dollar industry.[5] Statistically, there just may not be that many good managers out there to learn from, and/or imitate.

 

…but only more paradox

The way in which Gallup accounts for this dearth of managerial talent is problematic, however – especially for anyone who’s ever written a management advice book (and Gallup has published many[6]).

According to Gallup’s reasoning, unless you’re a “natural,” or already blessed with the requisite “God-given talent,” as they put it, there would seem to be little or no hope for you, no matter how hard you try…nor how many management advice books you read.

But Gallup is not alone in their struggle to explain the scarcity of good managers. Indeed, the circular logic on display in Managing for Dummies (2003), for instance, is perhaps representative of the broader industry’s inability to account for the apparent shortage of managerial talent.

For example, on page 10 of their management treatise, authors Bob Nelson and Peter Economy also observe that “good management is a scarce commodity.” But several pages later they can be found insisting that:

“…managers (and managers to be) can easily [my emphasis] discover how to become good managers by following the recommendations in the sections that follow” (p. 24).

Encouraging, to be sure (otherwise, why bother reading further?). But it also begs the question: If good management is as “easily” learned as they say, mightn’t we expect good ones to not be quite so scarce? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t we expect to be well on the way to becoming one after reading their text? And yet even on this latter point Nelson and Economy are quick to caution against any undue optimism. “Simply reading a book (even this one),” they warn, “or watching someone else manage…isn’t enough” (p. 27).

And so the contradiction here is both complete and overt. If plowing through an entire book on the subject (or observing someone manage firsthand) is insufficient instruction in the managerial craft, then clearly becoming a “good manager” must not be so “easy” after all.

 

An art?

One way to account for this scarcity of effective managers is liken managing to a sort of “art” – and many in the management community seem content to do so.

For example, in The First-Time Manager (2012), Loren Belker, Jim McCormick and Gary Topchik write that, “You will find it [managing] more of an art…”[7] In Managing (2009), Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg describes the managerial role as “a good deal of craft with the right touch of art…”[8] And in Becoming a Leader (1989), Warren Bennis often relies on the insights of artists and the like—including the poet John Keats, musician and songwriter Herb Alpert, and novelist Carlos Fuentes—to describe how to best effectively lead people.[9]

Unfortunately, however, this characterization is really no better than Gallup’s. Like being a great poet, painter, or musician, unless you’re already endowed with the requisite talent, or innate gift, becoming a great manager may be all but impossible, no matter how hard you try.

And again, this is as powerful an argument as any for not purchasing a management advice book.

 

A science..?

Still others claim that managing is, in fact, a science.

This would include Frederick Winslow Taylor, the influential American engineer from the early 1900s who is frequently referred to as “the father of scientific management.”[10] Not only did Taylor feel that managing was a scientific endeavor, but one complete with its own set of principles and laws.[11] And in Managers, Not MBAs (2005), Professor Mintzberg hedges his bets just a bit in suggesting that managing is “a practice that combines art, craft, and science [my emphasis].”[12]

The late Peter Drucker, on the other hand, may not have felt that management was a science per se, but he nevertheless claimed that becoming an effective manager might require a strong background in the sciences:

“[Good managers] draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on ethics—as well as on the physical sciences.”[13]

An intimidating list of topics to master, to be sure. Nevertheless, it is a characterization that at least allows for the possibility that managing might be something someone can actually learn, as opposed to requiring some innate set of skills.

Still, Drucker appears less sure of himself once he takes this observation/claim to its logical conclusion:

“A senior executive (or manager), we are told, should have extraordinary abilities as an analyst and as a decision-maker. He or she should be good at working with people and at understanding organization and power relations, be good at mathematics, and have artistic insights and creative imagination. What seems to be wanted is a universal genius, and universal genius has always been in scarce supply.”[14]

And so in the end Drucker also succumbs to this notion of scarcity, and the idea that being a good manager may not be something that just anyone can do.

 

Ask the guy in the orange apron

So what is managing, exactly? An art? A science? A “God-given” talent?

Or is this a skill that most of us will probably never be able to master?

Well, let’s just take a step back for a moment. If “good management” boils down to knowing when to do something, as I’ve argued, how do you determine “when” that is? Like when to make a decision, or when to delegate it?

Or, in other words, how do you figure out when to do something, if you don’t know when to do it?

Fortunately for us, this question (which would seem to be a paradox in it’s own right) really isn’t all that difficult to answer. I mean, I know what I do when I don’t know what to do, if you follow me.

I ask someone for help.

That’s right. If I’m unsure of what needs to be done—or better yet, if I don’t know when to do one thing versus something else—I’ll just ask someone who I think might be able to tell me.

For example, consider an experience I had not so long ago hanging a shelf. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I needed a drywall anchor, or a toggle bolt to secure it to the wall I had in mind (or just some really big nails). In other words, I didn’t know when the use each type of fastener was appropriate. So I did what I normally do in this sort of situation: I went to my local hardware store, and asked someone.

And not surprisingly, the guy I talked to was able to tell me. (A drywall anchor, it turns out).

So why not apply the same logic here?

If I, as a manager, am unsure whether to make a decision for myself, or to delegate that responsibility (so as to avoid being seen as a micromanager), why not just ask someone?

To be sure, I’d want to approach somebody who is perhaps familiar with the nature of the job or project I’m working on, the specific capabilities and talents of the individuals to whom I might delegate that decision, and maybe even have some knowledge of how all of this fits into the organization’s broader goals. But nevertheless, why wouldn’t I ask somebody? That’s the approach that worked so well for me with that shelf, after all.

Which sounds great…at least in theory.

In practice, however, not so much. What might work at the Home Depot may not be quite so effective—or nearly as appealing—in the complex political environment that is the modern American workplace.

And this is for reasons that I suspect are already creeping into the back of your mind.

I mean, really – who, amongst those you work with, do you feel most comfortable approaching with any sort of question about how to best do your job? Or, to put it even more bluntly: Who do you most enjoy admitting your weaknesses/deficiencies/ignorance to at work?

Because that, in effect, may be exactly what you are doing.

Consider it: All of us in the course of our careers will have questions, or experience uncertainties when it come to how best to do our jobs. And yes, on some occasions these questions will concern topics that no one expects us to be familiar with, or know the answer to. For example, nobody really expects a chemist to know how to write a patent the first time he or she has to put one together. But a chemist with a question about chemistry? That’s another matter entirely. (I don’t think my former employer would have thought much of me if I didn’t know how to perform a simple distillation, for instance.)

The same certainly holds true for managing.

If I’m managing a bunch of chemists, then I should probably know a thing or two about chemistry (and maybe something about the patent application process, as well). But if I, as their manager, have a question or some concerns regarding how to manage them? Well, that’s where things get really sticky. And it certainly can’t be all that easy to just “figure out” for yourself – or at least not if Gallup’s research is any indication. According to their studies, only about 18% of all managers are currently getting it right.

So how would a manager figure out whether to make a decision, or delegate that responsibility in a particular circumstance? Who would you, as a manager, ask for help with something like this (or be willing to admit your ignorance to)?

Your colleagues or co-workers?

Your subordinates?

Your boss..?

 

Next in the series: “My door is always open”

 

 

Endnotes

[1] “State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders.” The Gallup Organization. 2015. http://www.gallup.com/services/182138/state-american-manager.aspx.

[2] “Three in four workers report managers’ lack of leadership skills,” by John Eccleston. Personnel Today. Posted May 3, 2012. http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/three-in-four-workers-report-managers-lack-of-leadership-and-skills/. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

[3] “Workplace Frustration is the Silent Killer According to New Book ‘The Enemy of Management,’” by Mark Royal and Tom Agnew. Posted Nov. 4, 2011. http://www.cnbc.com/id/45080681. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

[4] “State of the Global Workplace.” The Gallup Organization. 2013. http://www.gallup.com/services/178517/state-global-workplace.aspx.

[5] In 2011, the combined sales of the top ten books on managing and/or leading exceeded 675,000 copies, making the publication of management-advice books an approximately $20 million-plus industry for that year alone. Data provided under license by Nielsen Bookscan, 2012.

[6] These include: 12, The Elements of Great Managing (2006); First, Break All the Rules (1999); and Strengths Based Leadership (2008). For more titles, please go to: http://www.gallup.com/topic/gallup_press.aspx.

[7] Belker, Loren and Jim McCormick and Gary Topchik. 2012. The First-Time Manager (6th ed.). New York: AMACON, p. 3.

[8] Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., p. 10.

[9] Bennis, Warren. 1989. On Becoming a Leader. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, p. 138, 97, and 128, respectively (page numbers from 2003 edition).

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Winslow_Taylor. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

[11] Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1919. The Principles of Scientific Management.

[12] Mintzberg, Henry. 2005. Managers, Not MBAs. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., p. 92.

[13] Drucker, Peter F. 2003. The Essential Drucker. New York: HarperCollins, p. 13.

[14] Ibid., p. 201.