Saving Management From Our Obsession With Leadership

Lofty notions of leadership have captivated our collective imagination — and we’ve underappreciated and underinvested in the everyday management skills that organizations desperately need.

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For decades, business thinkers and the executives who look to them for insight have elevated the visionary, inspirational leader over the useful yet pedestrian good manager. But evidence all around us suggests that we devalue management practices at our peril: What we’ve come to denigrate as mere management (done by those who are merely managers) is incredibly difficult and valuable.

It becomes all the more vital during times of disruption and crisis. Take the COVID-19 pandemic: Whether we’re talking about navigating supply chain disruptions, operating safely on the front lines, or simply keeping doors open for customers, businesses have desperately needed people who know how to coordinate action, solve technical problems, and deal skillfully with the myriad human challenges that employees and other stakeholders face. The same goes for organizations involved in developing, manufacturing, distributing, or administering vaccines and treatments. To meet the moment, we’ve needed managers who can keep things running and support employees — not leaders who give stirring speeches but remain detached from day-to-day operations.

The so-called Great Resignation has been quite telling in this regard. The people quitting in droves haven’t done so because their company’s top executive is insufficiently visionary or inspirational. Rather, people have quit lousy jobs — jobs that lack autonomy, variety, or opportunities to grow; jobs that pay poorly and don’t reward performance fairly; jobs that aren’t clearly defined and structured; jobs that lack guardrails that prevent chronic overload and frustration.1 They’ve also quit their direct bosses, whose lack of everyday managerial competence, trustworthiness, inclusiveness, and care is no longer tolerable.2 And they’ve quit organizations that have breached their psychological contracts with employees by violating the unwritten rules of trust, fairness, and justice.3

While the number of workers who have left jobs has been extraordinary, particularly in certain sectors, the reasons aren’t new and shouldn’t surprise us. Organizational researchers have been studying turnover for decades. The causes cited today — including the low job satisfaction, commitment, and engagement associated with poor management — are the same ones identified in hundreds of individual studies and multiple meta-analyses. In the decade before the pandemic hit, for example, the percentage of highly engaged employees never exceeded 22% among millions surveyed, and the relationship between low engagement and high turnover was well documented.

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References

1. M. Schwantes, “Why Are People Quitting? Burnout’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg,” Inc., Sept. 14, 2021, www.inc.com; A. De Smet, B. Dowling, M. Mugayar-Baldocchi, et al., “‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The Choice Is Yours,” McKinsey Quarterly, Sept. 8, 2021, www.mckinsey.com; and T. Smart, “Study: Gen Z, Millennials Driving ‘The Great Resignation,’” U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 26, 2021, www.usnews.com.

2. De Smet et al., “‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’?”; “2021 People Management Report,” PDF file (Westwood, Massachusetts: The Predictive Index, 2021), www.predictiveindex.com; and “The Great Resignation Research Report,” PlanBeyond, accessed May 31, 2022, https://planbeyond.com.

3. D. Sull, C. Sull, and B. Zweig, “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan. 11, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

4. J.K. Harter, F.L. Schmidt, S. Agrawal, et al., “The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes: 2020 Q12 Meta-Analysis: 10th Edition,” PDF file (Washington, D.C.: Gallup, October 2020), www.gallup.com.

5. A. Zaleznik, “Leaders and Managers: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review 15, no. 3 (May 1977): 67-84.

6. K.M. Kniffin, J.R. Detert, and H.L. Leroy, “On Leading and Managing: Synonyms or Separate (and Unequal)?” Academy of Management Discoveries 6, no. 4 (December 2020): 544-571.

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14. Judge, Piccolo, and Ilies, “The Forgotten Ones?” 36-51.

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16.J.R. Hackman and G.R. Oldham, “Motivation Through the Design of Work: Test of a Theory,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 16, no. 2 (August 1976): 250-279; and Rubenstein et al., “Surveying the Forest,” 23-65.

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21. As described in J.R. Detert and C. Black, “Defining Moments: Anxious Alastair,” Darden Business School case no. UVA-OB-1259 (Charlottesville, Virginia: Darden Business Publishing, 2018).

22. J.R. Detert and B. Taubenfeld, “(I Think) I Know Why You Did That: The Risky Business of Inferring Intentions,” Darden School of Business case no. UVA-OB-1348 (Charlottesville, Virginia: Darden Business Publishing, 2021).

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26. See, for example, R. Folger and M.A. Konovsky, “Effects of Procedural and Distributive Justice on Reactions to Pay Raise Decisions,” Academy of Management Journal 32, no. 1 (March 1989): 115-130.

27. S. Kerr, “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B,” Academy of Management Journal 18, no. 4 (December 1975): 769-783.

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29. R.M. Kramer and R.J. Lewicki, “Repairing and Enhancing Trust: Approaches to Reducing Organizational Trust Deficits,” The Academy of Management Annals 4, no. 1 (January 2010): 245-277; and P.H. Kim, D.L. Ferrin, C.D. Cooper, et al., “Removing the Shadow of Suspicion: The Effects of Apology Versus Denial for Repairing Competence- Versus Integrity-Based Trust Violations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 1 (March 2004): 104-118.

30. T. Simons, “Behavioral Integrity: The Perceived Alignment Between Managers’ Words and Deeds as a Research Focus,” Organization Science 13, no. 1 (January-February 2002): 18-35.

31. D. Sull, S. Turconi, and C. Sull, “When It Comes to Culture, Does Your Company Walk the Talk?” MIT Sloan Management Review, July 21, 2020, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

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