Preconceived ideas about management


As very often happens, Paul Hebert, the Managing Director for i2i and writer of Incentive Intelligence, writes something that resonates deeply with my held beliefs. In two related posts, one on his blog and one in Fistful of Talent, he touches upon the issue of the meaning of the word “management” and how it is perceived, especially in comparison to the word “supervisor”. Here is the gist:

… I checked the online dictionary to compare the definition of supervise and the definition of manage. The interesting thing? The root of supervise is all about “vision” – overseeing, watching. The root of manage is about controlling, training … After viewing these definitions, I believe we’ve got too much management and not enough supervision.

Managing = External Locus of Control

When “managing” projects to you “tell” people what to do, when to do it by and how to do it?  Most would say sure because  – “I’m the manager and my butt is on the line if we don’t deliver.”

Supervising = Internal Locus of Control

Supervising however means watching – overseeing and correcting when something goes awry.  In this case the real locus of control is with the individual with the supervisor allowing them to do their work, their way (obviously with some constraints such as time/cost.)

I have written before about the fact that I believe that language matters, especially in the world of management.  I have puzzled about the different definitions of the word manger. I tried to explain why I think management and leadership are different things and that opposite to what some think, it is not true that you manage resources and lead people. I am also part (although humble) of an attempt to reinvent management as management 2.0.  God knows, I am an advocate of losing control and stopping with management by rules.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we don’t only have a problem with our habits, our ingrained assumptions and our language and usage of words. The words themselves – leader, manager, and supervisor – have lost their original meaning and are full of the preconceived ideas that stand behind them. I think Hans Rosling opening statements (which I shortened) for his amazing TED talk, are appropriate:

About 10 years ago, I took on the task to teach global development to Swedish undergraduate students … And I started in our medical university, Karolinska Institute, an undergraduate course called Global Health … I thought, these students coming to us actually have the highest grade you can get in Swedish college systems — so maybe they know everything I’m going to teach them about. So I did a pre-test when they came. And one of the questions from which I learnt a lot was this one: “Which country has the highest child mortality of these five pairs?”

And I put them together, so that in each pair of country, one has twice the child mortality of the other. And this means that it’s much bigger a difference than the uncertainty of the data. I won’t put you at a test here, but it’s Turkey, which is highest there, Poland, Russia, Pakistan and South Africa. And these were the results of the Swedish students. I did it so I got the confidence interval, which is pretty narrow, and I got happy, of course: a 1.8 right answer out of five possible. That means that there was a place for a professor of international health and for my course.

But one late night, when I was compiling the report I really realized my discovery. I have shown that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than the chimpanzees. (Laughter) Because the chimpanzee would score half right if I gave them two bananas with Sri Lanka and Turkey. They would be right half of the cases.

But the students are not there. The problem for me was not ignorance: it was preconceived ideas.

Our problem today is not ignorance as much as the fact that the words, loaded with preconceived ideas, represent ideologies. In his book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, author Dan Ariely Writes:

“Once we take ownership of an Idea – Whether it’s about politics or sports – what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more than it is worth. And most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology – rigid and unyielding”.

And as we know so well from politics, once the discussion is about ideology, everybody tends to forget the original question. And in our struggle with words like management, supervision and leadership, loaded with preconceived ideas as they are, we forget what we are trying to achieve. As someone wrote in a Linkedin discussion I am taking part of:

To convince managers to change from obsolete 1.0 to 2.0 is like to convince Luis XIV to change to republic – I’m afraid a revolution is necessary!

I debated with myself how to finish this post, because I try to keep the blog focused on practical suggestions and specific issues to consider. And I have no bottom line for this post. I guess, just raising the issue is part of the solution! Any thoughts/ideas?


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