The Problem with Management by Numbers

By Paul Harvey If you aspire to be an effective manager, the Busyness Paradox has good news! It appears that literally anyone can achieve this goal by following six simple steps. Or maybe nine or…well, sometimes it’s more. But sometimes it’s less! Regardless, the simple bits of advice you need to follow have been identified. And enumerated! Many, many times. Now, if you’re struggling to be an effective manager…I mean, what the heck? Just three or seven or whatever simple things and you couldn’t figure them out on your own? Well, it’s ok. The folks at just about every business-related publication currently in existence have your back this one time. And also several times a day, every day, until we all stop clicking on listicles. Yes, listicles. A combination of “list” and “article” that doesn’t rhyme with any naughty bits of male anatomy. Well, it totally does but that’s kind of fitting if we consider the taboo horse the listicle rode into town on. For decades, listicles have loudly revealed “The 11 [give or take] Sexual Positions That Will Blow Your Mind (Tonight!)” in supermarket aisles. Right above the candy and stuffed animals kids are drawn to like magnets. Creepy. But the listicle has climbed out of bed, put on a suit and shown us the way to managerial ecstasy (Today!) Turns out you just need to do these five things that Elon Musk does. Unless they conflict with any of these three things Elon Musk does or, God forbid, any of these seven things Steve Jobs allegedly said to do. Oh, Covid’s going on too…better add these 10 things Now, you’ll also want to remember to do the four things that all effective leaders do. Wait, the other one said it was 10…hmm. Anyways, do those things and you’re good to go. Because you do have high emotional IQ, right? No? Damn, hold on…ah, ok add these eight beliefs and you’re good. Unless you’re not. In which case you probably haven’t been doing these three things. Well that got complicated quickly. Just like real management! And that’s the thing about these. What they’re saying is simple, isn’t. If you read a lot of these listicles, you’ll notice that almost all of them boil down to one of two things: advice that is obvious to the point of common sense or advice that seems clever and insightful as long as you don’t think too much about its compatibility with your specific situation. To be fair, I get why listicles exist. Times are tough in journalism and listicles pay a lot of bills. Lists get clicks and they’re quick and easy to write…as long as you know the six secrets to writing one! Sorry, make that seven secrets. Wait…Eight? Five? 11?, 14!? Yes, we even have listicles about writing listicles (meta-listicles!) So I don’t begrudge Inc., Forbes, or anyone else if they need to publish the occasional listicle to keep the good articles coming in this age of ad blockers. Except…I really wish they didn’t have to, and I’m guessing many of their writers do too. I won’t deny that listicles can be helpful, as Wired points out in “5 Reasons Listicles are Here to Stay, and Why That’s Ok”. Listicles can also be harmless fun: if Cosmo’s five positions that will rock his world (and yours!) misses the mark, it’s all good. You’ll still get points for trying. Probably. But the workplace is a different matter. With the aforementioned common sense-style listicles, the risk to career and livelihood is probably pretty small. You probably won’t get anything out of them but the advertiser gets a few seconds of your attention (if they slip past your ad blocker) and the publisher, therefore, gets a few shekels tossed their way. Not an example of the fourth estate at its finest but maybe this is what we get for demanding free journalism. The second form of managerial listicle, the sounds-great-in-theory variety is where we often cross the line from “no advice” to “bad advice.” The real secret to management is that there is no secret to management. There just isn’t. Just because something worked for Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or whoever we’re fawning over at the moment means diddly to you, unless you happen to be working at the same company in the same position at the same moment in time with the same people as them. It’s fine to take inspiration from successful leaders and consider their lessons in the context of your unique managerial circumstances, of course. But that’s not really the mindset a headline like “If you want to be successful, adopt these 5 traits of above-average people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates” conjures up. See the issue here? People are complicated. Managing people is even more complicated. If any aspect of management could be distilled into easily digestible, one-size-fits-all lists there would be no market for easily digestible, one-size-fits-all lists. Hence the paradox of the management listicle: they should not, by their own logic, exist and yet they’re one of the few things keeping the business press afloat. And that’s the most depressing part of this: journalists and publishers aren’t to blame for the proliferation of these listless listicles, we are. Every time we scroll past a long-form, deep dive into the messy world of modern management in our rush to click on a “9 Steps to Managerial Bliss” article, we’re contributing to the problem. As we often say, we get the behaviors we reward. So give those hard-hitting articles a read from time to time, and maybe pause your ad blocker while you’re reading them.

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