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Managing and managing people
Managing and managing people

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4.1 The nature of the job

The pressures of managerial life and the generally fast pace of managerial work mean that few managers have any real opportunity to reflect on the nature of their job. Even if they do, it is not easy to make sense of the work that a lot of managers do. Research in the USA found that the manager’s day included a series of short, unconnected activities. At first sight, a lot of the things that managers spend their time doing don’t seem clearly connected to the achievement of their goals.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, ‘What effective general managers really do’, John P. Kotter examined the seemingly inefficient ways in which many managers appear to work. He kept records of what they did and he found that their activities are brief, fragmented and frequently unplanned. They spend 70% or more of their time in the company of other people, sometimes with outsiders who seem to be unimportant. They hold lots of very brief conversations on seemingly inconsequential matters, often unconnected with work, and they do a lot of joking. They ask many questions but rarely seem to make any ‘big’ decisions during their conversations. They seldom tell people what to do. Instead, they ask, request, persuade and sometimes even intimidate. Do these descriptions fit anyone you know (perhaps you, or your boss, or the head of your organisation)?

Kotter says this behaviour is ‘less systematic, more informal, less reflective, more reactive, less well-organised, and more frivolous’ than a student of management would ever expect. However, he says the behaviour can be explained. He suggests that the two main dilemmas in most senior managers’ jobs are:

  • working out what to do despite uncertainty, great diversity, and an enormous amount of potentially relevant information
  • getting things done through a large and diverse set of people despite having little direct control over most of them.

Thus, the seemingly pointless and inefficient behaviour is, in fact, an efficient and effective way of:

  • gathering up-to-the-minute information on which to base decisions
  • building networks of human relationships (networks that are often very different from the formal organisation structure) to enable them to get their decisions implemented.

Kotter’s explanation is just one way of making sense of the seeming chaos of what managers do. Various other ways have been suggested. We will next consider two which we see as very useful.