Scholars have been examining the role of relationships in managerial work for decades. Managers are not individual contributors, after all. They lead projects, operate business units, and coordinate activity — in short, they get things done through others.
Back when social theorist Max Weber explained how bureaucracies function, managers did all this largely by relying on formal authority over subordinates.1 Since then, they’ve expanded their toolkits to include other forms of influence, such as calling in favors, drawing on shared values and experiences, and offering (or at least implying) reciprocal back-scratching.2 Such exercises in social power are rooted in the relationships managers have with others in the organization — their bosses, direct reports, and peers.3
Does being an effective manager require these relationships? Modern observers tend to assume that it does — and that the broader and deeper the relationships a manager maintains, the better. But is that really true? Existing research provides limited insight, because it focuses mainly on traditional managers — employees who have developed or will develop relationships within their organizations — and excludes people who do the same work without having established those connections. So we took a different approach. We looked at an atypical but long-standing practice in Europe that has now spread to the U.S. and elsewhere: giving independent contractors temporary management roles within companies.4 While this sort of arrangement isn’t the norm, it also isn’t rare. Survey data suggests that as many as 14% of independent contractors in the U.S. are doing work that is labeled managerial (although it’s not clear whether some of that is manager-level work done in individual contributor roles).5 And a number of companies are in the business of placing contractor-managers, with each reporting tens of thousands of placements.
1. See M. Weber, “Bureaucracy,” in “Max Weber: Economy and Society,” eds. G. Roth and C. Wittich (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1978).
2. Classic studies include H. Mintzberg, “The Nature of Managerial Work” (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); and R.M. Kanter, “Men and Women of the Corporation” (New York: Basic Books, 1977). For more recent studies, see L.A. Hill, “Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992); H. Mintzberg, “Managing” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009); and P. Osterman, “The Truth About Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2008).
3. J.R.P. French and B. Raven, “The Bases of Social Power,” in “Studies in Social Power,” ed. D. Cartwright (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, 1959); and P.M. Blau, “Exchange and Power in Social Life” (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964).
4. R. Feltham and D. Hughes, “Interim Managers: Distinguishing Personality Characteristics of Managers on Short-Term Contracts,” International Journal of Selection and Assessment 7, no. 4 (December 1999): 209-214.
5. T. Anderson and M.J. Bidwell, “Outside Insiders: Understanding the Role of Contracting in the Careers of Managerial Workers,” Organization Science 30, no. 5 (September 2019): 869-1123.
6. InterimExecs, Cerius Executives, and Globalise are examples of such companies.
7. Our survey instruments are available upon request.
8. In our second survey, we made use of an adapted scale to measure the French and Raven bases of social power, drawing on the following work: T.R. Hinkin and C.A. Schriesheim, “Development and Application of New Scales to Measure the French and Raven (1959) Bases of Social Power,” Journal of Applied Psychology 74, no. 4 (August 1989): 561-567.
9. See, for example, S.P. Doyle, R.B. Lount, S.L. Wilk, et al., “Helping Others Most When They Are Not Too Close: Status Distance as a Determinant of Interpersonal Helping in Organizations,” Academy of Management Discoveries 2, no. 2 (June 2016): 155-174.
10. Other researchers have similar findings. See Anderson and Bidwell, “Outside Insiders”; and S.J. Barley and G. Kunda, “Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).