The Epidemic of Managing without Soul

21 May 2015

My daughter Lisa once left me a note in a shoe that read “Souls need fixing.” Little did she know…

A tale of two nurses 

When we asked the members of our new health care management class (imhl.org) to share stories about their experiences, an obstetrician told one about the time when, as a resident, he was shuttling between the wards of different hospitals. One stood out: he and his colleagues “loved working there.” It was a “happy” place, thanks to a head nurse who cared. She was understanding, respectful of everyone, intent on promoting collaboration between doctors and nurses. The place had soul.

Then she retired, and was replaced by someone very qualified in nursing, with an MBA. Without “any conversation…she started questioning everything.” She was strict with the nurses, for example arriving early to check who came late. Where there used to be chatting and laughing before the start of shifts, “it became normal for us to see one nurse crying” because of some comment by the boss.

Morale plummeted, and soon that spread to the physicians: “It took 2-3 months to destroy that amazing family…. We used to compete to go to that hospital; [then] we didn’t want to go there any more.” Yet “the higher authority didn’t intervene or maybe was not aware” of what was going on. They were no better.

The Epidemic 

How often have you heard such a story, or worse, experienced one? In the work that I do—studying management and organizations—I hear them often (in a recent week, four times). And no few are about CEOs. Managing without soul has become an epidemic in society: managers who specialize in killing cultures, at the expense of human engagement.

There are schools that teach this, but I won’t name names for fear of insulting colleagues in prominent places. Out of them come graduates with a distorted impression of management: detached, generic, technocratic. They are taught to believe they can manage anything, whether or not they have serious knowledge of the context. This technocratic detachment is bad enough—numbers, numbers. numbers. The worst of it is also mean-spirited, by bullying people and playing them off against each other. One person, bullied for years by a nasty boss, said: “It’s the little things that wear you down.” These managers care for nothing but themselves.

Why do we tolerate this? Why do we allow narcissists with credentials, posing as leaders, to bring down so many of our institutions? Souls need fixing all right.

Part of the problem is that people are generally selected into managerial positions by “superiors” (senior managers, boards of directors), often with no idea about the damage caused by their decisions. And so we often get what have been called “kiss up and kick down” managers—terribly able to impress “superiors” while terribly incapable of respecting “subordinates.”

A hotel with soul 

Last week I was in England for meetings about our International Masters in Practicing Management (impm.org—it’s been designed to reverse this epidemic). We stayed at one of those corporate hotels—I hated it from years ago, no spirit, no soul. I recall the high turnover of staff, and one year when they charged our Japanese participants $10 per minute for calls back home—minutes that a participant from British Telecom estimated to cost the hotel pennies.

Lisa is in England, and so after the meetings we went travelling in the Lake District, a great place to hike. The IMPM is to run in October in a hotel there that we haven’t used before, so Lisa and I volunteered to check it out.

I walked in and fell in love with the place. Beautifully appointed, perfectly cared for, a genuinely attentive staff—this place was loaded with soul. I’ve been in the business of studying organizations for so long that I can often walk into a place and sense soul, or no soul, in an instant. I can feel the energy of the place, or the lethargy; the instant smile instead of some grin from a “greeter”; honest concern instead of programmed “care.” (“We appreciate your business!!” as you wait for someone to answer the phone. This means “Our time is more important than yours.”) 

”What’s it mean to have soul?” Lisa asked. “You know it when you see it,” I replied. In every little corner. I asked a waiter about hiking trails. He didn’t know so he fetched the manager of the hotel to tell me. I chatted with a young woman at reception. “The throw pillows on the bed are really beautiful,” I said. “Yes,” she replied, "the owner cares for every detail—she picked those pillows herself.”  How long have you been here?” I asked. Four years, she said proudly, and then rattled off the tenures of the senior staff: the manager 14 years, the assistant manager 12 years, the head of sales a little less, and so on.

Why can’t all organizations be like this? Most people—employees, customers, managers—want to care, given half a chance. We human beings have souls, and so too can our hospitals and hotels. Why do we build so many great institutions only to let them wither under the control of people who should never have been allowed to manage anything? Management needs fixing all right, and so do the souls of our societies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015  

Forthcoming: how management education can become part of the solution, instead of the problem.  Related TWOGS: “Five easy steps to destroying your organization”, “Celebrating the flawed manager”, and “Managing to lead”. Also see my book Simply Managing, which discusses how else to select managers (on pages 161-164).