Management Dichotomies: Simple Thinking in a Complex Environment

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.

Peter Drucker

The great management guru Peter Drucker sums up management very well in the above quote.  Managing other people has been a challenge for humanity from the very beginning.  Moreover, the quest for the best methods and tools continues today as we move into a more complex world.  I worked with a group of managers recently that listed all the tools and even tricks that they have tried to get employees to want to come to work, do the work assigned, and do a good job.  The consensus within the group was that about 80 percent of their efforts failed while 20 percent actually increased the production of their employees.  We spent most of the afternoon discussing the Pareto principle or the idea that 80 percent of your outcomes arise from 20 percent of your efforts.  However, as we have discussed in previous posts, the discussion began to incorporate dichotomies:

  • “This technique always works while this other never works.”
  • “Employees are always this way and are never that way.”
  • “I only use this approach because it is right and the other is wrong.”

Managers have the challenge of dealing with competing demands and needs on a regular basis.  When there is complexity, it is easy to categorize the world or available options into two alternatives.  Given that managers have a multitude of factors and concerns to deal with, they are easily impacted by “black and white” dichotomies.   What are some common management dichotomies that we would benefit from altering? A simple one is management style.  Management style is the way that managers and leaders make decisions and relate to subordinates.   Three factors that impact management style include:

  • Control – empowerment
  • Manager – leader
  • Star – not star

Control – empowerment

Most managers early in their career select their personal style of decision making and work oversight. Considerable research as well as general discussion has gone on over the last four decades regarding the merits of a less controlled or more empowered workforce.  Many of us in an effort to define our own position or style will think of work oversight as being controlling or not or decision making as being centralized or decentralized.    A completely uncontrolled workforce just as a completely controlled workforce would yield less than optimal results.  Employees need balance and most of excel the most somewhere in the middle .

Manager – leader

Time and again, I hear employees in leadership positions talk about if a person is a leader or not. Usually, the comment is not as related to position as ability.  Leaders come from different groups and levels in an organization and do not always possess the requisite title. In many ways, leadership is a continuum that starts with being a recognized worker and culminating with becoming an organizational leader.  There are phases and stages between and it does not make sense to think of someone as being simply a leader or not.

Star – not star

Organizations are filled with average employees.  As shocking as it may sound, even if an organization is an industry leader, it has a central tendency or average employee that is representative of most employees in the organization.  In an attempt to identify those that are “stars” or very high performers, it is easy to think about people as being a “star” or not.  Although a very finite number of employees are stars (less than five percent), we may at times forget that the bulk of our workforce comes from the middle of our performance spectrum. We leave the needs and capabilities of these employees out at our own peril.

It is important to remember that we have to manage in the gray areas where employees need a mix of control and empowerment, managers grow to leaders, and employees are not stars, but provide consistent and regular production.