Top Blog: The Nature of Managerial Work

henry mintzberg

As we look forward, we must also continue to remember the past. In our Thinkers50 Top Blog series, we revisit the ideas of our Thinkers.

To celebrate Henry Mintzberg receiving the Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award we take a look at his first classic book: The Nature of Managerial Work.

What managers actually do, how they do it and why, are fundamental questions. There are a number of generally accepted answers. Managers have a vision of themselves – which they largely persist in believing and propagating – that they sit in solitude contemplating the great strategic issues of the day; that they make time to reach the best decisions and that their meetings are high-powered, concentrating on the meta-narrative rather than the nitty-gritty.

The reality largely went unexplored until Henry Mintzberg’s The Nature of Managerial Work published in 1973. Instead of accepting pat answers to perennial questions, Mintzberg went in search of the reality. He simply observed what a number of managers actually did. The resulting book blew away the managerial mystique.

Instead of spending time contemplating the long-term, Mintzberg found that managers were slaves to the moment, moving from task to task with every move dogged by another diversion, another call. The median time spent on any one issue was a mere nine minutes. In The Nature of Managerial Work, Mintzberg identifies the characteristics of the manager at work:

  • performs a great quantity of work at an unrelenting pace
  • undertakes activities marked by variety, brevity and fragmentation
  • has a preference for issues which are current, specific and non-routine
  • prefers verbal rather than written means of communication
  • acts within a web of internal and external contacts
  • is subject to heavy constraints but can exert some control over the work.

From these observations, Mintzberg identified the manager’s ‘work roles’ as:

Interpersonal roles
Figurehead: representing the organization/unit to outsiders
Leader: motivating subordinates, unifying effort
Liaiser: maintaining lateral contacts

Informational roles
Monitor: of information flows
Disseminator: of information to subordinates
Spokesman: transmission of information to outsiders

Decisional roles
Entrepreneur: initiator and designer of change
Disturbance handler: handling non-routine events
Resource allocator: deciding who gets what and who will do what
Negotiator: negotiating.

‘All managerial work encompasses these roles, but the prominence of each role varies in different managerial jobs,’ writes Mintzberg.

Says Gary Hamel:

“Five reasons I like Henry Mintzberg: He is a world class iconoclast. He loves the messy world of real companies (see The Nature of Managerial Work). He is a master storyteller. He is conceptual and pragmatic. He doesn’t believe in easy answers.”

Strangely, The Nature of Managerial Work has produced few worthwhile imitators. Researchers appear content to rely on neat case studies filled with retrospective wisdom and which are outdated as soon as they are written; or general interviews in which managers pontificate generally without being tied down to particulars. The actual work of managing enterprises often goes unnoticed behind the fashion and hyperbole. Pity.


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