Does It Matter What Managers Do?

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Business Strategy Review, 2001, Volume 12 Issue 2, pp 50-58

Does It Matter What Managers Do?
Colin Hales
After half a century of research, we now have a fair idea of what managers do. This differs both from the “heroic selfimage” idealisation and from the sanitised “management science” idealisation. Despite IT and all the talk of empowerment, management as a profession in its own right is, if anything, becoming more, not less, widespread. What managers do therefore matters simply because so many people are doing “management” as their main role. But does what managers do matter in terms of its effects on the people being managed, and, if so, how? The answer is obviously yes, but the central message of this article is how little we know through systematic research about this – particularly given how much preaching there is on how to do it well. We now have a reasonably clear picture of what managers do. But does it matter what they do and, if so, why? The cynical, not to say nihilistic, tone of this question should not detract from its importance. Unless we believe that managers’ behaviour is intrinsically interesting or self-evidently relevant, what Business Strategy Review © London Business School

matters is its effects. Much research has been devoted to organisational structures and to managers’ decisions and decision-making processes, as well as relating performance measures to outcomes that are essentially financial. There is, however, surprisingly little research on the effects of managerial behaviour on the people being managed. Throughout this article, when we refer to the effects of what managers do, it is these effects on the people being managed that we are concerned with. What Do Managers Do? Some Answers Half a century of research has given us a coherent and illuminating body of evidence on what managers do. The activities common to all or most managers are: ●

Acting as figurehead, representative or point of contact for a work unit. Monitoring and disseminating information. Networking. Negotiating with a broad constituency. Planning and scheduling work. Allocating resources to different work activities. Directing and monitoring the work of subordinates. Specific human resource management activities. Problem-solving and handling disturbances to work flow. Innovating processes and products.

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Does It Matter What Managers Do? 51

Technical work relating to the manager’s professional or functional specialisation.

These generic activities are applied across a wide range of concerns. Managers themselves often emphasise four in particular: ● ● ●

These variations occur across individuals, jobs, functional specialisms, levels of management, forms of organisation, industries/economic sectors and national cultures. (For a more detailed review of the above evidence, see Hales 1986, 1999, 2001.) What Do Managers Do? Some Unanswered Questions However, this body of evidence is by no means the last word. A plethora of different categories, taxonomies, conceptual frameworks and perspectives confirms the suspicion that what we know about managerial work rather depends on how we go about finding out. More important, there are also questions that this body of research has failed to answer or, indeed, ask. First, it is still not clear which activities are exclusively “managerial” – as distinct from other behaviours in which managers may engage, and activities which are concerned with “managing” but are carried out by non-managers or undertaken by everyone as part of their daily lives. The question “what do managers do and no-one else does?” remains unanswered. Second, the descriptions of managerial work have been treated as largely unproblematic, as if what managers must spend their time doing is self-evident and we do not need to delve further into it. The question “Why do managers do what they do?” has received scant attention from researchers. Third, although the many documented...
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