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Discovering management
Discovering management

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2.1.2 Exploring what managers actually do

What really moved the debate about management activity forward was the work of researchers in the 1980s who sought to analyse the actual work that managers did. One such researcher was Henry Mintzberg. Another was Fred Luthans (1988).

What really moved the debate about management activity forward was the work of researchers in the 1980s who sought to analyse the actual work that managers did. One such researcher was Henry Mintzberg. Another was Fred Luthans (1988). Luthans (working with Rosencrantz and Hennessey) looked at a diverse sample of managers, drawn from all levels within a wide range of organisations. The categories derived from Luthans’s observations have overlaps with earlier writers, but there are some important differences of focus and emphasis.

In analysing his observations, Luthans was able to describe what he saw in terms of 12 categories of management activity. He then grouped these into four main areas. The 12 activity categories are shown in the first column of Table 1, and the four main areas into which they can be classified are shown in the second column. The reference to ‘real’ in the heading is to emphasise the fact that their sample was more varied than Mintzberg’s.

Table 1 The activities of real managers
Descriptive activity categoriesMain areas of real managers’ activities
Exchanging informationCommunication
PlanningTraditional management
Decision making
Interacting with othersNetworking
Motivating/reinforcingHuman resource management
Managing conflict
Staffing Training/developing
(Source: adapted from Luthans, 1988, p. 28)

Luthans and his colleagues went further than merely categorising activities. They analysed the frequencies of the different categories of behaviour, and tried to correlate this with success and with effectiveness. Success was defined in terms of speed of promotion, a definition which might itself be questioned. Effectiveness was rather harder to measure, but they did so in terms of high levels of satisfaction and commitment by subordinates, combined with high quantity and quality standards of performance. A key finding of their research, perhaps because it is counter-intuitive, was that ‘successful’ managers, i.e., those who were rapidly promoted, had little in common with effective ones!

Of the four broad activity categories in Table 1, only networking was associated with success. The top third of managers in terms of success were doing significantly more networking than the bottom third. And they spent much less of their time on the traditional management and human resource management categories.

Effective managers spent their time rather differently. The biggest contribution to effectiveness came from communication, followed closely by human resource management. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that very few managers, a mere 10 per cent of the sample, were in the top third for both success and effectiveness. And this minority balanced their time in line with the sample as a whole rather than spending more or less time on a particular category. (Luthans does not comment on whether those who fell in the bottom third on each measure also divided their time in this way.)

Luthans’s research raises two crucial points for all managers.

  1. First, the categories seem to relate better to the range of activities which most managers actually find themselves doing. The focus is primarily on types of activity rather than formal functions or responsibilities.
  2. Second, the successful/effective distinction is a really interesting one, as indeed is Luthans’s definition of ‘success’. It suggests that different views of what is important may be held by different people, and that these ways of thinking can impact significantly on the organisation and the behaviour of managers. Luthans makes the point that organisations might do better to promote those who were effective than those who were good at socialising and politicking.

Stop and reflect

Which managers tend to be promoted most rapidly in your own organisation? Is it those who are most effective in achieving organisational objectives, or those who are most successful at being noticed? What is the likely impact of this on organisational effectiveness?

This brief overview of different ways of specifying the range of things managers actually do ends with a brief mention of the more recent categorisation of Buchanan and Huczinski (2004). They suggest three sets of management (and leadership) functions:

  1. creating an agenda
  2. developing people
  3. execution.

Managing is a complex activity. Any attempt to split it into a small number of categories will have weaknesses as well as strengths. But this last set of categories has the virtue of distinguishing three obviously different dimensions of what managers, or indeed leaders, do.

This reading has illustrated the complexity of the management role and the interplay between the functions of management and the activities that managers do. The tension between being a successful manager and an effective manger is an important point in thinking about the role and purpose of managers.

Feedback on Activity 4

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Luthans surfaces a question that you will need to ask yourself about your own aims, aspirations and ambitions as a manager, namely:

  • Do you want to be effective or do you want to be successful as a manager? (Be honest!)

OK. You probably want to be both. In which case, on the basis of Luthans’s analysis of managerial work, how are you going to manage your own activities and workload to achieve both these ambitions? As ever, managing involves complex choices and the negotiation of inherent tensions and ambiguities.