Book review: Myths of Management – what people get wrong about being the boss

Written by Colin Talbot on 26 October 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

A new book examines the myths about management in a way that could help many aspiring or experienced managers

Ask any group of physical scientists – from physics, chemistry and biology and all their sub and inter-related divisions – what are the top 50 scientific ideas and you’d get a pretty consistent picture of what they think we know about the universe and how it works.

Of course there would be some disagreements about what’s most important, but there would be fairly little disagreement about what is ‘true’ – at least for the moment.


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Try the same experiment with any group of social scientists – or indeed any of their sub-divisions – and you would be unlikely to get anything like the same level of consensus. Indeed some would reject the whole notion on the grounds that all “science” is merely subjective interpretation.

It’s all the more welcome therefore to see two social scientists who specialize in an ‘applied’ social science field – organization and management – to try to do some work on consolidating what we think we know about management. They explicitly start by saying they are not purporting to say anything ‘new’ – indeed they emphasize that the tyranny of the ‘new’ is an affliction of much management writing.

Don’t be misled by the above discussion though – this is a book mainly aimed at managers themselves, or readers simply interested in management, not academics or students. It’s very well written and accessible, without any unnecessary jargon.

Stern and Cooper start by making the fundamental point that management does matter. It’s almost ubiquitous in human organizations and it matters how good, or bad, it is. This is important because the emphasis on ‘managerialism’ has sometimes provoked a backlash against management – and in fact a lot of the book could be read as debunking the myths of managerialism rather than management.

Although their ‘hook’ is about debunking myths, they actually spend most of their time presenting the positive evidence about what really matters and what actually works in management. It makes the book both a useful effort at consolidation and at the same time a really good work of popular presentation.

The book explores 43 ‘myths’ ranging from the self-serving (‘it’s tough at the top’ and ‘heroic leaders can change entire organizations on their own’) through the over-hyped (‘big data will fix everything’; ‘leadership must be transformational’ or my personal favourite, ‘hierarchy is finished’) through to the daft and complacent (‘who needs employees anyway?’ or ‘we have woken up to the problems caused by prejudice’ – spoiler, we haven’t).

The ‘myths’ section of the book ends with the 44th myth – that there are only 43 ways to get things wrong. Whilst this may seem a bit trite, it’s still very true.

All of the ‘myths’ are presented with minimal but useful links to evidence – this is not some academic tome overloaded with citations just to show how clever the authors are and how much they know.

In a final section the authors present 9 insightful interviews – “fireside chats” – with 10 leading management thinkers (5 of whom are women).

Like any attempt at a summary there are things that I might not have included, or missing, or underexplored. My own gripe would probably the absence of the ‘competing values’ approach developed by Quinn and Cameron which I have used extensively for 30 years –  both as a theoretical tool and as a way of helping managers understand their own and others actions.

This is an excellent book for aspiring, new or experienced managers. And I can think of quite a few academics and journalists who would benefit from reading it too. Highly recommended.

Myths of Management – what people get wrong about being the boss; Stefan Stern and Cary Cooper; Kogan Page 2017

About the author

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government.at Cambridge and Manchester.

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