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Discovering management
Discovering management

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2.2.1 Sources of management roles

The roles that people play in organisations are shaped by three different pulls (see Figure 10). We will consider each in turn.

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Figure 10 Roles within organisations: three pulls

Task and role

Job descriptions usually outline responsibilities and specify functions. As such, they can be a useful guide to the work that has to be done, although for managers they very rarely say much about how you should go about it. Indeed, job descriptions, the formal statement of task, often bear little relation to what managers actually do. Indeed, a pervasive problem with job descriptions is that they do not really enable you to ‘get a handle’ on what the job is all about. There is a real dichotomy between what a manager ought to do (as the job description indicates) and what they actually do during the working day. This dichotomy was examined in the 1970s and 1980s by Henry Mintzberg.

If you ask a manager what he does, he will most likely tell you that he plans, organises, coordinates and controls. Then watch what he does. Don’t be surprised if you can’t relate what you see to these four words.

(Source: Mintzberg, 1975, p. 47)

Mintzberg observed the everyday activities of five North American chief executive officers and discovered that the reality was far removed from expectations. Such managers were typically imagined to spend their time taking rational decisions in an orderly fashion. Instead, their days were highly fragmented and fast paced, with frequent interruptions and changes of activity. A large proportion of their time was spent in meetings, both scheduled and unscheduled. Indeed, almost four-fifths of their time was spent in verbal communication.

Mintzberg identified the chief characteristics of management activity as:

  • fast pace of work
  • many interruptions
  • brevity, variety and fragmentation of activities
  • lots of verbal (rather than written) contacts (note: Mintzberg’s observation occurred before email existed)
  • much time in scheduled meetings.

Out of this whirlwind of activity, Mintzberg went on to identify a range of roles that managers were required to play. The work of a manager was described in terms of ten roles or clusters of behaviours associated with a position (Figure 11): ‘formal authority gives rise to the three interpersonal roles, which in turn give rise to the three informational roles; these two sets of roles enable the manager to play the four decisional roles’ (Mintzberg, 1975, p. 13).

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Figure 11 Mintzberg’s management roles

Interpersonal roles derive from the manager’s formal authority and are characterised by the use of interpersonal relationships:

  • Figurehead – the manager performs ceremonial duties as head of the organisation.
  • Leader– the manager motivates and encourages staff and reconciles individual needs with those of the organisation.
  • Liaison – the manager networks and maintains relationships with stakeholders both inside and outside the organisation.

As a result of his or her interpersonal contacts, the manager emerges as the nerve centre of his or her organisational unit.

  • Monitor – the manager gathers information relevant to the organisation.
  • Disseminator – the manager acts as a conduit, disseminating information to staff.
  • Spokesperson – the manager reports to the outside world on matters relating to performance, legislative compliance and social responsibilities.

Information is not an end in itself but a key input to decision making.

  • Entrepreneur – the manager designs and initiates change in pursuit of continuous improvement.
  • Disturbance handler – the manager deals with crises and unexpected events.
  • Resource allocator – the manager controls and authorises the use of organisational resources, but also determines how work is allocated and coordinated.
  • Negotiator – the manager negotiates with others regarding the commitment of organisational resources.

The strength of Mintzberg’s work is not so much the precise lists of roles he suggests, but that he points to the fact that managers are expected to perform a set of very different sorts of behaviours at different times. They have to be able to adjust their roles and their relationships depending on circumstances.

Mintzberg recognised that the ability to draw appropriately on a diverse repertoire of roles is a key to effective management.

Organisation and role

Of course, the clarity and strength of this roles-orientation towards management is also one of its weaknesses. Roles are typically multidimensional, and may be unclear, include conflicting objectives, or sometimes be simply impossible to enact. The role may be complicated. You might, for example, have a lot of projects or teams to manage, and need to coordinate resources from a variety of sources, and monitor outputs against a wide variety of different timelines. Complication does not necessarily mean complexity. You might simply need to be very good at rational planning in order to be effective.

In general, how managers carry out their roles, the demands they experience, the constraints they are faced with, and the choices they make are all conditioned by the expectations that others have of them. The roles you undertake are not performed within an organisational vacuum. Many of these expectations never appear in job descriptions, but their impact is nonetheless powerful. A manager who moves from one organisation to another, or from one sector to another, may well discover that the expectations of staff, colleagues and directors are wholly different. Being capable of playing a range of roles in one context does not mean that such an ability is automatically transferable to another.

Such problems point to two related comments about the nature of management roles:

  1. The roles that organisations expect their managers to play may be unclear or inconsistent. The term ‘role ambiguity’ is often used to refer to such situations of uncertainty about what is expected of a person in a particular role.
  2. The manager’s role has to be consistent with the commonly held idea of the organisation. There is always an element of organisational dependence in management roles. A manager plays an important part in making or remaking the idea of the organisation, but cannot usually act completely independent of it.

The issues of the clarity and consistency with the organisation’s ‘way of doing things’ affect how any manager has to interpret his or her role.

Another set of problems concerns the tensions that can arise between the expectations that different people in an organisation have of the same manager – often referred to as role conflict. The requirements of a role include elements that appear to be in conflict with each other. An HR manager might have the dual responsibilities of championing the employee perspective and managing a programme of redundancies. A manager in a production department might be asked to sustain output with a seriously diminished team while ensuring that quality standards are met and reducing team levels of absence due to stress. Managers often report to two different people within the organisation with conflicting priorities, or may have a range of internal customers with competing requirements. Complexities within the context can create a complex role. Sometimes the context imposes constraints on a role which leave little or no room for taking necessary actions. For example, some child protection workers in the UK currently complain that legal, bureaucratic and resource constraints make it impossible for them to do what is necessary to protect the children for whom they are responsible.

Person and role

It is important not to lose sight of your own contribution to the ways in which you enact and perform your various managerial roles. Sticking solely to the script of the role or the demands of the organisation overlooks the fact that people have expectations of you as a person. The sort of person you are also shapes the roles you play as a manager.

What kind of person you are influences the way in which you take up a particular management role and the kinds of roles you take up. Some people find it easy enough to give orders; others are happier working through consensus. Some people are at their best in a crisis; others generally prefer an ordered life. The truth of this is obvious if you think of the people you work with – especially where the same job is or has been done by different people.

The fact that who you are shines through in the roles you undertake as a manager is inevitable. Whether it works for or against you, for or against your organisation, depends on the situation. Where your experiences, aptitudes and values match the requirements and expectations of the job, you will carry out the role with confidence and satisfaction. It will be ‘doing what comes naturally’. On the other hand, where you are expected to be and do things that, in varying degrees, clash with your experience, aptitudes and inclinations, you are likely to encounter difficulties and tensions.

Tensions between person and role can be made far worse if people fail to recognise the discrepancy between what they preach and what they practise. This discrepancy can be a potent source of cynicism and frustration – which can bedevil the whole area of management.

This also raises the dilemmas associated with too close a fusion between role and person. It touches on some of the potential risks and dangers in the ideas associated with roles – for example, encouraging people to behave in ways that are not authentic. Isn’t it important to be wholeheartedly committed to our roles? ‘Wholehearted commitment’ usually means that person and role have become indistinguishable. This is fine when things go well, and correspondingly difficult when they do not.

Take the example of the manager who says that she has worked 112 hours a week for the organisation, that is, all her waking hours. This person has fused self and role, so that there are no distinctions. She has taken on a role of total commitment to the organisation. What would you expect her feelings to be about the organisation? What about the feelings of other people in the organisation about her role?

She may feel that she is not properly appreciated or that other people do not do enough; that she is fully satisfied through her work or that she is much loved and supported by her colleagues and friends. Those working for her may find her oppressive or inspirational.

The dilemmas here are that the roles, the personal and the organisational, become too closely aligned. Criticisms of role become criticisms of person; issues of reasonable difference become issues of loyalty and disloyalty.

It is important, therefore, to maintain a clear separation between person and role in our thinking. This is obvious in relation to other people but it also applies to managers themselves: commitment is fine, but being able to detach ourselves from our roles is also a necessary and important ability.