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Business News/ Specials / What to read about managing people
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The best books on managing employees emphasise the need to motivate them

Management theory is moving away from the idea of “command and control”—of executives acting like military officers—towards the idea of the manager as coach, (Photo: Mint)Premium
Management theory is moving away from the idea of “command and control”—of executives acting like military officers—towards the idea of the manager as coach, (Photo: Mint)

The role of manager is a relatively new one. It began with the creation of large companies and state bureaucracies during and after the industrial revolution. Management still seems to be more of an art than a science. That hasn’t stopped thousands of writers from trying to define the skill. Some management books belong in the stacks of “self-help" tomes in airport bookshops; others draw lessons from successful businesses and executives; a few, like the works of Charles Handy, are devoted to wry and philosophical observations.

All managers need to be aware of the writings of C. Northcote Parkinson, who not only observed that “work expands to fill the time available" but coined in 1957 the “law of triviality": meeting time is often taken up by the least important subjects. Would-be bosses should also understand the “Peter principle", established in the 1960s by Laurence J. Peter, a management guru: managers will be promoted until they reach a job at which they will prove to be incompetent.

Management theory is moving away from the idea of “command and control"—of executives acting like military officers—towards the idea of the manager as coach, bringing out the best in their teams. This approach suits a world in which companies are dependent on workers’ creativity and morale. Here are five books that will enhance the education of a 21st-century manager.

Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research. By Dennis Tourish. Cambridge University Press; 312 pages; $32.99 and £24.99

A good place to start in studying management is to understand how much nonsense and jargon-filled waffle has been written on the subject. Dennis Tourish, an academic, shows that the rot started in the early 20th century with Frederick Winslow Taylor, the exponent of “scientific management" who used back-of-the-envelope calculations rather than detailed analysis. He relied on a much-cited study of the Hawthorne electric plant, which collected data from just five employees, two of whom were replaced when their answers were deemed unsatisfactory by the researchers. Some management experts are continuing as Taylor began. One recent study found that 70% of management papers contain too little data to allow for independent verification. Reading Mr Tourish’s book (reviewed here) acts as an inoculation against academic claptrap.

The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses and Corporate Bullshit. By Martin Lindstrom. John Murray Learning; 256 pages; $28.00 and £14.99

Business executives complain about government bureaucracy, but all too often the real cause of their frustration is their own company’s red tape. Budgets require junior managers to travel at 6am and stay in out-of-town hotels; rules pointlessly forbid employees from keeping personal items on their desks; reporting requirements waste time and distort behaviour. Then there are the meetings at which the staff take minutes and waste hours. Martin Lindstrom suggests rules to cut down on time wasting, from listening to what junior staff have to say about improving working conditions to limiting meetings to half an hour. We reviewed the book here.

The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean. By David Bodanis. The Bridge Street Press; 336 pages; $26.00 and £20.00

Some managers may believe that treating staff fairly is all very well, but simply won’t work. “Nice guys finish last," as Leo Durocher, a baseball manager, once said. David Bodanis, best known for his books on science, counters this notion. When Durocher was manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1969, Mr Bodanis points out, the team famously blew what looked like an insurmountable lead in the National League East in part because he alienated the players. In contrast, Paul Starrett, a builder who paid his workers well and cared about their safety, constructed the Empire State Building in just 13 months. Even investors notice the impact of over-aggressive managers. When Steve Ballmer, the hard-charging and bad-tempered chief executive of Microsoft, left the company, the share price rose by 7.5%. Ruling by fear will fail in the long term, Mr Bodanis argues. We reviewed his book here.

The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. By Amy Edmondson. Wiley; 256 pages; $32.00 and £24.00

Reinforcing the point made by Mr Bodanis, Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, writes about the disastrous results that can occur when staff are intimidated. She cites the examples of the Columbia space shuttle and an air crash off the Canary Islands. In both cases junior employees felt unable to question poor decisions by their superiors. The same was true of Volkswagen, where engineers were too frightened to tell their bosses bad news about the emissions of cars manufactured by the company. The result was a scandal. Ms Edmondson writes that companies need to create a culture of “psychological safety", so that employees can warn of mistakes. Managers should take suggestions seriously rather than criticising or threatening employees who make them. Here is our review.

Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building. By Claire Hughes Johnson. Stripe Press; 432 pages; $30.00 and £21.99

Unlike books that fashionably draw management lessons from pursuits that have little to do with business, like playing tennis, “Scaling People" is a practical manual by a businesswoman. Claire Hughes Johnson was chief operating officer of Stripe, a digital-payments company, from 2014 to 2021. Over that period the number of employees grew from fewer than 200 to 7,000. Ms Hughes Johnson imparts what she learned about how to manage them. She advises readers to create what she calls an operating system: documents, standards and processes that provide a framework for making decisions and improving performance. She gives tips on how to run meetings, conduct performance reviews and ensure that star employees do not burn out. Underlying her advice is a principle: that what is implicit should be made explicit. Managers should make clear, for example, whether a particular decision will be made by consensus or by decree. Although, as the book’s title implies, Ms Hughes Johnson draws her lessons from the fast-growth world of Silicon Valley, many of them apply to companies that have already achieved scale or hope to. We provide more detail about the book here.

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. By Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Harper Collins; 240 pages; $24.99 and £20,00

Many of the themes in the previous four books are brought together in this pithy and entertaining one (featured here) by two American technology executives. They advocate removing constraints that prevent employees from working efficiently: endless meetings, excessive emails and unrealistic deadlines. Workers need sleep and holidays. Offices should not feel like prison camps. The authors also dismiss the grandiose mission statements of companies that promise to “change the world" and “disrupt their industries". Serving their customers well is a more realistic and achievable goal.

Also try

The Economist has written about the growing complexity of executives’ roles and about how to make hybrid working a success. Here we examine the price that Britain’s economy pays because the quality of managers in the country on average is mediocre. Here are some numbers whose significance managers ought to know (one is the right number of bosses for an employee to have, for example). Surrendering to fashion, we drew lessons from whatever team would win the football World Cup in 2022, which was just about to begin when this column was published.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Updated: 27 Sep 2023, 11:03 AM IST
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