Cary Cooper, a CMI companion and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster Management School, on the benefit of management books.
When was the last time you read a good book?
I was recently asked to be a judge on the Chartered Management Institute Management Book of the Year competition. Reviewing the various entries and discussing the worth of books to managers, I began to reflect on the value of management books in the digital age. Do managers even need them? Can they make a difference to how we manage? Does the web provide all the information and tools needed in this frenetic world?
From nearly 150 books reviewed in the competition, the winner was Henry Mintzberg’s Managing (FT/Prentice Hall). It was truly a tour de force of management and leadership wisdom. It appealed because the author asked those important, yet realistic, questions about managing in a modern organisation that many avoid. ‘How can a manager think, let alone think ahead, in such a hectic role? How are managers supposed to connect with those around them when the very nature of their job disconnects them from what, and who, they are managing?’
The value of a book
Reflecting on such questions is one of the things that can make a book so valuable. It enables us to cut through those everyday worries to ask the fundamental questions which, in the end, help us understand how to tackle practical, everyday problems. In Studs Terkel’s classic study of motivation at work, he concludes: ‘Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.’
In Working, Terkel interviewed a crosssection of the US population that took into account all occupation groups and social classes. He asked what motivated and drove them at work, which led him to reach the conclusion above. His findings have pragmatic implications for managers wanting to maintain motivation in a team or individual. It is important to show how a team’s effort and input translate into something greater than the individual parts, how there is a wider purpose that each part makes an invaluable contribution towards.
In my opinion, books offer a great opportunity for managers to step away from the ‘paced assembly line of managing’. It allows them to take time out to unwind and reflect on what they are doing and why, and what they could do differently. It is telling that management lessons don’t only come from management books but also from works of fiction as well, where there are many gems and antidotes that can influence behaviour.
A personal favourite is Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, which depicts stressed managers questioning their role. In this humorous take on middle management, one character reflects: ‘I am bored with my work very often now. Everything routine that comes in I pass along to somebody else. This makes my boredom worse. It’s a real problem to decide whether it’s more boring to do something boring, than to pass along everything boring that comes into somebody else and then have nothing to do at all.’ This tongue-in-cheek look at management doesn’t provide any practical tips but shows the danger of stagnating and becoming disengaged from a role, something many practical books avoid commenting on.
More positive management narratives can also be found in fiction. As a young academic, I remember reading a book by Mark Twain that profoundly influenced me in later life. There was one passage that stands out which I have used to guide me in my many managerial roles. It goes: ‘Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can somehow become great.’ This has helped when developing relationships with others, but, more importantly, in the way I attempt to treat others and, given that managing others is about motivating and getting the most out of them, I think it has made me a better manager.
It is for such reasons that I believe managers can also find inspiration outside the management discipline. Going beyond DIY management books and looking at the wider management lessons available can help add perspective. We laugh at The Office, but it represents one of the clearest guides to the do’s, or more preciously the don’ts, of management.
Time to reflect
While I was initially struck by the falling stock of management books, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that management books remain important in providing us with time to reflect on our practice and explore new ideas. I am realistic enough to know that a management book will rarely solve all those everyday organisational problems, but I believe they offer us an opportunity to take account of different viewpoints, and they can also provide intense focus on a particular problem. And, in an age where managers are under unparalleled pressure, I believe we need to continue to reflect on the responsibility it is our privilege to have.
Cary L Cooper CBE is a CMI Companion and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, chair of the Academy of Social Sciences, founding director of Robertson Cooper and author/editor of over 100 books.