The past several decades have witnessed a profusion of management books published in the popular press, many becoming best sellers. This trend began during economic hard times when managers were searching for some easy-to-understand cures for their organizations' financial woes. While the economy greatly improved during the 1990s, managers continue to look for new insights that might help them improve their own or their organizations' fortunes. When the economy slowed in the early part of the twenty-first century, managers again began searching for the golden elixir that would save their jobs.
Despite their enormous sales, popular management books must weather a rather severe image problem. They are quite often perceived as hastily assembled tracts attempting to capitalize on a hot (and usually short-lived) management fad, borne of managers' frazzled attempts to overcome obstacles and challenges that do not generalize well for a wide audience, but which hide these faults behind hyperbolic and trendy word spinning. Typically relying as much on their style as on their substance, popular management books are criticized for lacking both empirical and rational justification, assuming factors that one would be ill-advised to assume, and excessively simplifying very complex problems. Lastly, critics skeptically eye the sheer volume of such books, along with the frequency with which new ones arrive in bookstores before sliding into the background, typically just in time for a new generation of popular books to detail the next fad.
On the other hand, fads do indeed become fads for a reason; some observers emphasize that fads (and the books that extol them) need not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, it is those managers and organizations that are able to spot and expediently capitalize on fads while they are useful that end up excelling over time. Moreover, due to the recognizability and popularity of fads, organizations can utilize the hype surrounding them as a springboard to more general and useful organizational learning and management techniques. In other words, a fool will follow a popular management book to the letter simply because the fad it details is hot; a successful manager will utilize fads for what they are worth, no more and no less, and will avoid inflating the wisdom (or lack thereof) of a popular management book. A confluence of the best and most useful elements of fads past can result in increased quality, productivity, and profitability. The important thing is for managers and organizations to remain focused on their actual concerns-what does the organization do? what elements or techniques are and are not appropriate to its goals? and so on. Simply hammering a useless fad into an organization not suited to it, of course, can be disastrous.
Since a systematic analysis of popular-press management books would be an endless odyssey, what follows are brief summaries of six quite popular titles. The purpose is not so much to critically examine the books, since the criticisms, like the books themselves, do not generalize reliably; rather, the more modest goal is to lay the foundation for what a reader can expect from popular-press management books, from which one can deduce the degree of usefulness therein for one's own purposes.
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his book Competitive Advantage Through People has described the potential impact of human resource management practices on competitive advantage. Based on his study of popular and academic business literature and interviews with people from a wide range of the business community, Pfeffer identified 16 human resource management practices that, in his opinion, can enhance a firm's competitive advantage:
Written by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, The One Minute Manager warns managers of the perils of treating employees too harshly or too softly. In the first instance, the employer wins; in the latter, the employee wins. The ideal is to manage employees in a way that both parities win. This aim can be accomplished if managers use three techniques: goal setting, positive reinforcement, and verbal reprimand, each of which can be implemented within one minute.
The use of one-minute goals helps clarify the employees' specific responsibilities and lets them know performance standards to which they will be held. The manager should then frequently review the employees' goal achievements to ensure they remain on target. Moreover, managers should focus their time on catching their employees doing something right, rather than something wrong. Immediate praise should accompany these behaviors. Finally, when seen doing something wrong, employees should receive immediate feedback, indicating exactly what was done wrong and how the manager feels about it. Following the reprimand, the manager should praise the individual as a person, thus establishing a clear separation between the person and the problem behavior.
Written by Spencer Johnson, M.D., Who Moved My Cheese? is a simple parable that reveals profound truths about change. It is an amazing and enlightening story of four characters that live in a "Maze" and look for "Cheese" to nourish them and make them happy. Two mice are named Sniff and Scurry—nonanalytical and nonjudgmental, they just want cheese and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Hem and Haw are "little people," mouse-size humans who have an entirely different relationship with cheese. It's not just sustenance to them; it's their self-image. Their lives and belief systems are built around the cheese they've found.
Most of us reading the story will see the cheese as something related to our livelihoods—our jobs, our career paths, the industries we work in—although it can stand for anything, from health to relationships. In the story, the characters are faced with unexpected change. Eventually, one of them deals with it successfully, and writes what he has learned from his experience on the maze walls. When the reader sees the "handwriting on the wall," he or she can discover for him or herself how to deal with change more effectively. One of the most eloquent of the wall sayings is "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" The point of the story is that we have to be alert to changes in the cheese, and be prepared to go running off in search of new sources of cheese when the cheese we have runs out.
Blanchard ( The One Minute Manager, 1984), along with co-author Bowles ( Raving Fans, Morrow, 1993), recounts an organizational turnaround based on three Native American lessons. This inspirational story of business leaders Peggy Sinclair and Andy Longclaw uses allegory to explain fundamental techniques to boost enthusiasm and performance.
Meet Peggy Sinclair, the newly promoted factory manager who was sent to the worst plant in the thirty-two owned by the company with the expectation to shut it down in 6 months. And Andy Longclaw, who is pointed out to her the first day, in spite of his area's remarkable performance, as a "troublemaker" by one of her executive staff. Sinclair Longclaw patiently shows Sinclair Native American principles that help turn Walton Works #2 from the worst in the company to a workplace recognized by the White House as one of the nation's finest workplaces. Those three important principles are:
Jim Collins' book, Good to Great, is based on extensive research on a set of companies that moved from mediocre performance to great results and sustained those results for at least fifteen years. (The good-to-great companies generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in fifteen years.)
The research team contrasted the good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to make the leap from good to great. What was different? Why did one set of companies become truly great performers while the other set remained only good? The team spent five years analyzing the histories of all twenty-eight companies in the study. After 15,000 hours of digging through mountains of data, Collins and his team discovered the key determinants of greatness—why some companies make the leap and others don't. The findings of the Good to Great study:
Business leaders who maintain that emotions are best kept out of the work environment do so at their organization's peril. Bestselling author Daniel Goleman's theories on emotional intelligence (EI) have radically altered common understanding of what "being smart" entails, and in Primal Leadership, he and his coauthors present the case for cultivating emotionally intelligent leaders. Since the actions of the leader apparently account for up to seventy percent of employees' perception of the climate of their organization, Goleman and his team emphasize the importance of developing what they term "resonant leadership." Focusing on the four domains of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—they explore what contributes to and detracts from resonant leadership, and how the development of these four EI competencies spawns different leadership styles. The best leaders maintain a style repertoire, switching easily between "visionary," "coaching," "affiliative," and "democratic," and making rare use of less effective "pace-setting" and "commanding" styles. The authors' discussion of these methods is informed by research on the workplace climates engendered by the leadership styles of more than 3,870 executives. Indeed, the experiences of leaders in a wide range of work environments lend real-life examples to much of the advice Goleman et al. offer, from developing the motivation to change and creating an improvement plan based on learning rather than performance outcomes, to experimenting with new behaviors and nurturing supportive relationships that encourage change and growth. The book's final section takes the personal process of developing resonant leadership and applies it to the entire organizational culture.
Lawrence S. Kleiman
Revised by Rebecca Bennett
Blanchard, K., and S. Bowles. Gung Ho! Morrow, 1998.
Blanchard, K., and S. Johnson. The One-Minute Manager. New York: Morrow, 1982.
Collins, J. Good to Great. Harper Business, 2001.
Goleman, D., R. Boyatzis, and A. McKee. Primal Leadership. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Johnson, S., M.D. Who Moved My Cheese? Putnam, 1998.
Pfeffer, J. Competitive Advantage Through People. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994.