How are you managing?


Managing by commanding

Many years ago, when I joined the management team at my previous workplace, I was sent on a Management Development course (Years later, once I changed career, I would follow a Development Management course too, but that’s a different story). I remember how it felt like the antithesis to the way I work. Manager as top dog, Manager as omniscient being who can say what’s what. Think sergeant major. I remember being told:

“You are a manager now. Manage.”

But there was no discussion about what “manage” meant. The one vision of “manage” was command and control. Fellow neo-managers exchanged macho stories:

“They were underperforming, so I let them go.”

“You have to nip that trouble behaviour in the bud.”

So, despite my discomfort, I convinced myself that as a manager now, I should “‘manage”, and that meant commanding. I came back and applied it Rambo-style both at home and at work – and lost at least two babysitters as a result! I probably caused havoc at work too, but they were not able to vote with their feet as my babysitters were.

Luckily for everyone, I did spot that I was being a disaster. And so I switched to a management style one might call “muddling along”, i.e. with no conceptual background but more in keeping with my preference for collaborative working.  You could call it “managing” in the sense that I was coping or getting by. In fact, Ray Ison and Rosalind Armson, systems thinkers, once made a list of verbs associated with the word ‘managing’. They came up with a huge list from surviving, through visioning, allocating, supporting to empowering and delegating (to list but a few). Ray then split these into three rough categories (while making the proviso that other people might classify in a different way): getting by, getting on top, creating space for.*

Aha! That helped me understand that the people training me were embodying a ‘getting on top’ sort of approach, whereas my character would have preferred a ‘creating space for’ approach, so in the meantime I was adopting a ‘getting by’ approach.

Language is such a wonderful thing. You take a word like “manage” which everyone uses every day and understands and unpack it even to the most superficial extent and find that everyone is potentially talking at cross purposes.

My work is subject to performance management.

My workplace is bringing in results-based management.

I wonder what kind of management we are talking about here. What potential do we have for misunderstanding each other?

*This is shared in the book Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, chapter 8 ‘Juggling the M-Ball: Managing Overall Performance in a Situation’, by Ray Ison (Springer, 2010, London)


  1. Hi there
    Just to say this blog really made me smile.


  2. […] in Rome recently wrote a blog that reminded me of another part of Ison’s work.  He created a list of verbs that are […]

  3. […] In my last post, I was thinking about what we do when we do what we do when we do performance management. And I concluded that the way we manage performance at the moment takes loads of time and does nothing to improve performance. (If you want some reflections on what ‘manage’ means anyway – visit this one). […]

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