Article Review: Why Do Managers Do What They Do?

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British Journal of Management, Vol. 10, 335-350 (1999)

Why do Managers Do What They Do? Reconciling Evidence and Theory in Accounts of Managerial Work Colin Hales
Westminster Business School, University of Westminster, London NWl 5LS, UK This article seeks to show that there has been surprisingly little interest in developing a causal explanation of the consistently documented common characteristics of managerial work and attempts to sketch out such an explanation. It is argued that researchers In the field have either contented themselves with description and correlation or have given priority to explaining variations, whilst theories of management have tended to suggest that managerial behaviour can be inferred, unproblematically, from the character of the broader management process rather than engaging with the evidence on these behaviours. Even recent and explicit attempts to conceptualize managerial work have not satisfactorily woven theory vtith evidence. The outline of an explanatory account which is offered attempts to link the common characteristics of managerial work to the ambiguous and problematic nature of managerial 'responsibility' and the way in which all managers both draw upon and, by their actions, reproduce resources, cognitive rules and moral rules, from within the social systems in which they are located, which define and facilitate that responsibility. Well-documented generic managerial activities, substantive areas of work and characteristic features of managerial work are all shown to be accountable in these terms.

If the question 'what do managers do?' (Hales, 1986) has - or, at least, had - an air of naivety, insolence, even redundancy, about it, then the question 'why do managers do what they do?' seems positively querulous. For, whilst an answer to the former question - albeit a somewhat incomplete and ambiguous one (Grint, 1995; Hales, 1986; Martinko and Gardner, 1985; Stewart, 1989) - has gradually crystallized over nearly 50 years of research, there have been surprisingly few attempts to answer the latter. In particular, the question of why managerial work exhibits a number of consistent common characteristics, as well as manifold variations, is one which has attracted surprisingly Uttle attention. A central reason for this is that it lies in the gulf which has continued to separate, on the one hand, research on managers and, on the other hand, management theory. © 1999 British Academy of Management

As the first part of this article seeks to show, research studies of managers and management theory have been, and remain, poles apart. On the one hand, research studies were slow to rhove away from the purely descriptive, and have invariably focused attention on the divers variations in managerial work, rather than the commonalities. Therefore, where studies attempted to move beyond the demonstration of correlation to offering an explanatory account, it is variation Which they have sought to explain, rather than sirnilarities - implying that these similarities are spmehow self-evident - and explanations have tended to take the form of reductionist or localized accounts. On the other hand, management theory has tended to be more concerned with the characteristics and dynamics of the management process as a whole, and has carried the implication that specific managerial practices may be inferred logically from these, without addressing


C Hales systems in which managers are located, and by the way in which managers both draw upon and reproduce these resources and rules in establishing the otherwise problematic nature of that responsibility. How the central common characteristics of managerial work may be accounted for in these terms is sketched out.

or engaging with research evidence on these practices. In short, what is lacking in this body of theory and evidence is an explanatory account of the generic characteristics of managerial work. There are a number of...
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