What do Managers do?

This spring I’m taking a class called “Organizational Behavior,” which is one of the least engineering-y classes in my program, but so far it’s been about as interesting as it could be — which is really interesting.

A question I remember wondering a lot growing up as a math major (and hearing repeatedly from others) is “What the heck do managers actually do?” One of my readings for class provides the best answer I’ve heard, and not only that, I think it’s a good answer.

The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact (PDF), by Henry Mintzberg in 1990.

In short: people think managers organize and plan things, but in practice they are information arbiters. Their formal authority gives them several important interpersonal roles, which give them unique perspective and information, which give them important decision-making responsibilities. A key insight is that most of the information that flows through managers is verbal (for a few reasons, read the article) and is very difficult to organize in a formal/written system (which is what we’d need to do to replace them with robots or otherwise outsource them).

Also worth noting: managers in the real world are highly reactive and rarely able to actually plan or reflect: “superficiality… is an occupational hazard of the manager’s job.”

Comments are closed.