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The Truth About Managing People

By Stephen Robbins

Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 211 pages, $29.95

We've all heard that teams can create positive synergy, but best-selling management writer Stephen Robbins warns teams can produce negative synergy as well.

"Increases in group size are inversely related to individual performance," he warns in The Truth About Managing People.

"More may be better in the sense that the total productivity of a group of four is greater than that of one or two people, but the individual productivity of each group member declines."

The reason is social loafing. It was first discovered in the 1920s, by German psychologist Max Ringelmann, who compared the results of individual and group performance in a rope-pulling task. He expected that three people pulling together on a rope would exert three times as much force as an average person, and similarly eight people would exert eight times as much pull. But groups of three people only managed two-and-a-half times the average individual performance and groups of eight just four times the solo rate.

Mr. Robbins says social loafing may result from a belief that others in the group aren't carrying their fair share. When someone views colleagues as lazy or inept, he might reduce his own effort to establish equity. Another explanation could be dispersion of responsibility: With nobody specifically responsible, some people coast on the efforts of others.

"Where you use teams to enhance morale or improve co-ordination, you need to also provide means for identifying and measuring individual efforts. If this isn't done, you have to weigh the potential losses in productivity from using groups against any possible gains in worker satisfaction," he warns.

The book contains 63 "truths," most of them research-backed notions that might initially seem surprising but that make sense after Mr. Robbins offers his explanations. Some samples:

Happy workers aren't necessarily productive workers. The correlation between satisfaction and productivity tends to be quite small, according to a careful review of the evidence. More importantly, the connection is probably the reverse, that productivity breeds satisfaction. "If you do a good job, you intrinsically feel positive about it," Mr. Robbins notes, and that might also lead to positive feedback and other rewards. So instead of focusing solely on how to increase satisfaction in your workplace, help employees to become more productive through training, job design, better tools, and eliminating barriers that impede them from doing a first-rate job.

Charisma can be learned: Common characteristics of charismatic leaders include self-confidence, a strong vision that proposes a future better than the status quo, the ability to articulate the vision, strong convictions in the vision, and the willingness to enact radical change. Managers seeking to boost their charisma, therefore, need to project a powerful, confident and dynamic presence; articulate an overarching goal; and communicate high performance expectations and confidence in others' ability to meet those expectations.

Experience doesn't necessarily count. Some people may have spent many years in a job, but their learning stopped early on. In even the most complex jobs, Mr. Robbins notes, learning typically ends after about two years. Look for people who have had a diversity of high-quality experiences that are relevant to the new situation they will face.

Not everyone wants a challenging job. A study in the 1970s found that only 15 per cent of rank-and-file workers wanted their higher order needs satisfied through a challenging job; Mr. Robbins doubts that number has increased beyond 40 per cent today, even adjusting for changing work attitudes and the growth in white collar jobs. "Don't feel you have a responsibility to create challenging jobs for your employees. For many people, work is merely something they have to do to pay their bills," he advises.

The book is easy to read and quite inspiring. Each "truth" is explained in just a few pages, and the author explains how to apply each idea in your own workplace. In Addition: The 24-Carrot Manager (Gibbs-Smith, 103 pages, $30.95) by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton is a quick, easy-to-read guide to the power of using recognition -- or office carrots -- to motivate employees, with lots of practical ideas. It is designed as a follow-up to their previous book, Managing With Carrots, and does offer some new material, but I found the initial effort better and sufficient for most readers. Harvey Schachter is a freelance writer based in Battersea, Ont.

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