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The nature of managerial work


by Henry Mintzberg, HarperCollins, 1973.


In this classic, Mintzberg‘s research showed that managers spend their time "moving from task to task dogged by diversions", rather than taking big decisions. It identified three major managerial roles - interpersonal, informational and decisional, further subdivided into nine categories. This gives a mental structure to what managers actually do.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in April 2005)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)


Young six year old Henry often wondered what his father did at work. It seemed that he sat in an office, signed letters and talked nearly all the time. The topic re-surfaced when he decided to find out what managers really did as part of his doctoral thesis and then subsequently to write a book about it.

Mintzberg was one of the first to establish by research what managers actually do, as distinct from what they or others think they do. They do not spend their time taking big strategic decisions. They "usually move from task to task, dogged by diversions". Mintzberg exploded the perception that managers spend their time thinking, taking time to reach good decisions and attending meetings to discuss the big issues, not the daily nitty-gritty. He found that managers were the slaves of the moment, spending about nine minutes on each task, working at an unrelenting pace, marked by brevity, variety and fragmentation.

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Schools of thought about the manager’s job

Henry Mintzberg reviews eight schools of thought about the manager’s job.

The "classical school" believes that managerial work can be expressed under the acronym POSDCORB: Plan, Organise, Staff, Direct, Coordinate, Report, Budget. It used to be the standard explanation of what managers did. But asks Mintzberg, when do managers sit down and say "now I will plan" or "now I will coordinate"? These words are mere labels, at worst displaying our ignorance and, at best, suggesting what managers ought to be doing, but never what they do.

Next there is the "great man school" which tells stories of the great heroes of business life but, fascinating though the literature of this school is, it says little about what managers actually do. It is rich in anecdotes and poor in general theory.

The "entrepreneurial school" rejects the view that the only way decisions can be made is by rational selection from thoroughly researched and evaluated. In contrast, the entrepreneur innovates upon the basis of new combinations of factors. However, even this does not tell us what he does; how he spends his days.

The "decision theory school" sees management as programmable and well defined on the basis of clear scientific principles, enshrined in formal decision theory. Mintzberg dissents. More often decision taking is a matter of muddling through. It is largely a matter of reacting to conflicting demands, finding ‘satisfying’ solutions, rather than the best.

The "leader effectiveness school" concentrates, not on the job of managing, so much as the persons who are managers, their traits, skills, or as we would say today, their competences.

The "leader power school" concentrates on power and influence, with the manipulative prerogatives of the leader/manager: reward power; coercive power; referent power, which seeks to identify with others; legitimate power, through, for example, place in the hierarchy; and expert power. As in all these schools, there is much to be learnt of value to the way people manage, but still little about what they actually do.

The "leader behaviour school" comes closer to describing what managers do as it considers how they have to maintain some kind of stability in circumstances that lack stability. They monitor and adjust to sustain "moving equilibrium".

The "work activity school" is the one that most nearly represents Mintzberg’s own position. It uses methods like the diary method and activity sampling to see what activities keep the managers busy; thus revealing the content of their activity.

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Some distinguishing characteristics of managerial work

Mintzberg continues by blending his own findings with those of others to seek a picture of common aspects. His facts are detailed and tally with most of one’s own experience or observations.

First, there is the amount of work and the pace of performance required by management work. At the top there has to be added the time away from home and the reduction in the ability to live a normal life. But even if work hours are not extended particularly beyond contract, there is the relentless pace and the multitude of actions which consume every moment. In Mintzberg’s sample, true breaks were few and even meal breaks were the occasion of further meetings. If free time emerged, subordinates soon usurped it. The manager cannot in the nature of the role ever say that his or her work is finished, the pursuit of success doesn’t fit neatly into such categories.

Mintzberg gives examples of his research analysis, on the time taken up by mail (before the arrival of emails), by phone calls, by the totally unexpected. He contrasts the nature of jobs like machine operators, engineers and computer programmers, with that of a foreman who in one count had to deal with 583 'incidents' in a day – he couldn’t even identify activity patterns. The trivial and the significant are side by side and the manager has to switch in a moment from one action and mood to another.

In particular, Minzberg shadowed five chief executives and was able to demonstrate the extreme fragmentation of their workload, looking, for example, not only at the quantity of their mail, but also the degree of complexity or significance of the pieces. He looked at the time spent and nature of verbal contacts in their own office and around the site or elsewhere. His five CEO’s averaged over five weeks 15 minutes at a time on desk work, six minutes on phone calls, 68 minutes on scheduled meetings, 12 minutes on unscheduled meetings, and 11 minutes on tours. Half the observed activities were completed in less than nine minutes. Brevity and fragmentation indeed!

Mintzberg comments that many managers seem to court this frenetic and much interrupted pace, because it give them a sense of action orientation and involvement. It creates the danger of superficiality, but a choice comment is that "to succeed, the manager must, presumably, become proficient at his superficiality".

The use of networking is discussed as vital to the managerial job; communications relationships upward, downwards and outside the organisation are all significant as bearers of information, some of which may be vital. Information is gained more quickly and informally than via the "proper" channels.

The manager is not actually the victim of this hectic race. In many cases the initial cause which has led to all these activities is something which he has started and sees as significant.

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The manager’s working roles

This is the key chapter of the book and probably the most well known and helpful to thinking about what a manager is there to do, useful to check the relationship of any of these hectic activities to the roles to be filled. It moves on from the bare content of the work in terms of phone calls, meetings, written and spoken communication and so on and begins to search for the purpose of it all. How does doing all these things contribute to the prospering of the organisation?

The roles are subdivided into:

  • Interpersonal
  • Informational
  • Decisional

Each of these is in turn divided:

Interpersonal roles

  • Figurehead
  • The manager represents the company or part of it. The issues dealt with in this role may not be specifically of value, but human relations and the public image are sustained by a multitude of small actions which together build up a reputation. Internally it is necessary for it to be apparent that the company backs a certain policy in action and with sincerity.

  • Leader
  • The leader role in Mintzberg’s 1973 analysis was the one responsible for the atmosphere of the organisation and the infusing of it with a vision and sense of mission. The leader gives a sense of direction and involvement to the staff. He has to integrate individual and collective goals within the company.

  • Liaison
  • This is a matter of acting as a bridge between various activities and people – often giving something in the hope of getting something in return; cross-departmental liaison can be important; it is also the beginning of the role which links the organisation with the external world.

Informational roles

  • Monitor
  • Managers keep their eyes and ears open for any information, from any source which will help them to clarify situations, solve problems, pick up opportunities, and notice emerging changes - all as a result of their ongoing monitoring of everything going on around them. They are the nerve centres of their organisations especially for information which is not routinely collected.

  • Disseminator
  • Managers share factual and "value" information with appropriate contacts within the organisations, including subordinates. This will include information on the position of others on an issue. Tacit information should be made as explicit as possible, so that those to whom decisions are delegated, may have a reasoned basis upon which to work.

  • Spokesman
  • Here managers transmit information outside the organisation, speaking on behalf of their organisation, for example in a lobbying situation or with a PR purpose. It includes keeping policy influencers and the general public informed. On occasion it may be that their expertise is harnessed in the public domain.

Decisional roles

  • Entrepreneur
  • Here managers are at the proactive, innovative end of their work, acting as the initiators and designers of change. Specific events and ad hoc data may be the stimuli which lead to opportunity seizing or problem solving. Here the manager is a kind of juggler, keeping several projects on course at once.

  • Disturbance handler
  • Managers deal with involuntary situations, only partially within their control, taking charge when a crisis develops. Emergencies arise which will disturb the plans for the future of the business; these may be from within the organisation or from competitor threats. The aim is to bring the organisation back to some state of equilibrium.

  • Resource allocator
  • Making choices about the use of resources is at the heart of strategy making and is a key managerial role. Money, time, material and equipment, staffing and reputations are all involved. The work system and the authorisation of actions are crucial. Prioritisation is the key skill.

  • Negotiator
  • Managers cannot delegate negotiation when their roles as figureheads, spokesmen, or resource allocators are involved - and they will be in most significant negotiations, internal or external. Their involvement is then necessary if the negotiations are to have credibility.

The ten roles suggest six basic purposes of the manager:

  • to ensure the efficient production of the organisation’s goods and services,
  • to design and maintain the stability of organisational operations,
  • to adapt the organisation in a controlled way to its changing environment,
  • to ensure the organisation serves the ends of the persons who control it,
  • to serve as the key information link between the organisation and its environment,
  • to operate the organisation’s status system.

The value of this role analysis is that it gives sense and structure to the fragmented picture of the daily life of the manager. (In the managerial part of my career I sometimes analysed my day under the ten role headings in order to see if my busyness served the purposes of the business, and then bore in mind the results in fixing priorities for the next day.)

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Variations in managers’ work

The situation at any point in time will determine which roles must have pre-eminence. Over time, jobs change, whether by the external circumstances or the style of the manager, so there must be flexibility in the emphasis given to each of the ten roles.

Mintzberg did, however, find that among the vast arrays of variation in managerial jobs there were some natural groupings. He offers eight job types, and connects them with the relevant selection from the ten roles:

  • contact man – liaison, figurehead
  • political manager - spokesman, negotiator
  • entrepreneur – entrepreneur, negotiator
  • insider – resource allocator (smooth internal running)
  • real-time manager – disturbance handler (operates in the present moment, tends to live a hectic, fragmented life)
  • team manager - leader
  • expert manager – monitor, spokesman
  • new manager – liaison, monitor (while he gets to grips with the unfamiliar job)

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Science and the manager’s job

Is it possible to programme the work of managers in the way that F.W.Taylor did for coal and iron ore shovellers? Mintzberg accepts that there is scope for the programming of certain aspects of monitoring and dissemination of information, for example. However, even then, he regarded management as an art, not a science, and saw that the very nature of the work of managers, being often undocumented, hindered the application of scientific method. There was a role for planners to provide managers with simple models to reduce the time pressures. But elegance has to give way to the exigencies of the moment. Some ideas are expressed in this chapter which are fully presented by the author many years later in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning.

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The future of managerial work

Although so much has happened since Mintzberg wrote this chapter, it remains relevant. He links together all the ten managerial roles and shows how understanding these might help the manager to get out of the loop of being overburdened with work. But the tendency then, as now, was to be driven by the current and tangible elements of the work, even though the nature of the issues faced by organisations might require reflection and a far-sighted perspective. A useful two pages of self study offers managers a series of questions aimed at identifying their roles and how they fulfil them.

One question asks whether the obligatory duties of the job need redefining, to ensure that areas which are not obligatory can be addressed and lead to a higher level of success for the organisation.

This self study leads to ten points for more effective managing. Conscious attention is recommended to dealing with the problems rather than accepting them as part of the job. So there must be a deliberate attention to thinking through issues like better information sharing to enable subordinates to take more of the load, not hoarding it or fearing to release it as too confidential. Similarly the superficiality which characterises much management work can be reduced if a better understanding is achieved of delegation, which does not have to mean abdication.

It is suggested that the obligations of the job which tend to get in the way of creativity, could be used creatively as opportunities for wider purposes, such as using a ceremonial duty to lobby for some advantage or to tap a new source of information. The manager must also make sure that he or she can distinguish between real obligations and ones that have become traditional.

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Teaching management

Mintzberg has an interesting section on the teaching of management, which reads like a sketch for his book on the MBA approach, written about 30 years later. He believed in 1973 that the case study method was introduced because the business schools realised that they were not able to teach explicitly the specific managerial talents. So practice was simulated in the hope that it would help the real learning on the job. Many schools of management turned to teaching theory, which again was not about the job of management per se, but more about economics, psychology and mathematics. However useful it could be, such teaching had little bearing on the things the manager is called upon to do in the job of management.

Learning is most effective when the learner practises the skill and receive experienced feedback. From a study of the ten roles, Mintzberg suggests eight basic sets of managerial skills that might be taught. They are skills of developing peer relationships, leadership skills of dealing with subordinates, conflict resolution skills, information processing skills, skills in decision making under conditions of ambiguity, resource allocation skills, entrepreneurial skills and the skills of introspection. This last is essential if managers are to learn by themselves as they carry out the job

He also questions the "trait theory", which assumed that all managers exhibited a common set of traits and that these could be measured.

The book closes with 80 pages of appendices which go into the detail of the research, and in doing so expand the understanding. The study of the five chief executives is illuminating, giving details of the actual work being carried out and putting some extra substance on to the earlier chapters in the book.

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Henry Mintzberg has developed his thinking over the past thirty years or so, but the root of the matter was there in 1973. The book gives a thoughtful structure to the work of management, which I used on courses when the book was published, and still use in the 21st century.

Managers at all levels can benefit by having a wide perspective on what they are in their posts to do and the main categories of action which should have priority, depending on their particular situations.

The plea for the introspective manager is familiar since Donald Schon wrote his book on The Reflective Practitioner. Readers of this summary who are overwhelmed by a frenetic pace, which does not allow a thoughtful approach to the job of managing, will understand what this book is about. One point that came out for me in the detailed appendices was that in the midst of the daily melee, sometimes a top manager would spend ten minutes discussing a matter, then reached a decision and communicated it in the right directions and in the right way. The whole thing may not have taken half an hour, but could have repercussions for years. If it was a good decision, then that is the essence of what makes a successful manager. Not the hundreds of trivial matters, but the occasional significant issue, rightly handled. Managers are there to make a difference.

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