The Epidemic of Managing without Soul

25 May 2016

I will be doing a live Facebook conversation June 1st at noon (EST). I posted this TWOG a year ago (21 May).  Since this has been one of the most popular TWOGs, I repeat it here, with some editing, as a main subject for that conversation. To receive a notification when the broadcast goes live, follow my Facebook page and add any question you would like to ask.

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 incoming members of our health care management program (imhl.org) to share stories about their experiences, an obstetrician told about the time when he was shuttling as a resident between the wards of different hospitals. He and his colleagues “loved working” in one of them. 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 qualified in nursing, with a masters degree in management. 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 at the start of shifts, “it became normal for us to see one nurse crying” because of some comment by the new manager.

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; [later] 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.

The Epidemic  How often have you heard such a story, or experienced one? In the work that I do—studying management and organizations—I hear them often (in one week when I first wrote this, four times). And no few are about CEOs. Managing without soul has become an epidemic in society. Many managers these days seem to specialize in killing cultures, at the expense of human engagement.

Too many MBA programs teach this, however inadvertently. Out of them come graduates with a distorted impression of management: detached, generic, technocratic. They are educated out of context, taught to believe they can manage anything, whereas in actual fact they have learned to manage nothing. Such 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, pushed around for years by a nasty boss, said: “It’s the little things that wear you down.”

These managers focus on themselves. You can tell them by their references to “my department”, “my hospital”, as if they own the place because they manage it.  Some, of course, say “our department”, but you can pretty easily tell whether they are sincere. And when they get to the “top” of some non-business organization, they prefer to be called “CEO”, as if they are managing a business. Please understand: managing without soul is bad for business too.

Why do we tolerate this? Why do we allow narcissists with credentials, posing as leaders, to bring down so many of our institutions?

Part of the problem is that people are generally selected into managerial positions by “superiors” (senior managers, boards of directors), often without understanding the damage caused by their decisions. And so we often get what have been called “kiss up and kick down” managers—able to impress “superiors” while denigrating “subordinates.”

A hotel with soul  Last year I was in England for meetings about our International Masters Program for Managers (impm.org—it’s designed with soul, for soul). We stayed at one of those corporate hotels—I hated it from years ago, no spirit, no soul. I recalled the high turnover of staff, and the time 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 was in England, and so after the meetings we went travelling in the Lake District, a great place to hike. The IMPM was to run a few months later in a hotel there that we hadn’t used before, so we 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 hotel was loaded with soul. I’ve been studying organizations for so long that I can often enter one and sense soul, or no soul, in an instant. I can feel the energy of the place, or the lethargy; the genuine smile instead of the grin from some “greeter”; honest concern instead of programmed “care.” (“We appreciate your business!” as you wait for someone to answer the phone. Translation: “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. Soon he was there, in no rush to cut the conversation short. 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.

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? Souls need fixing all right, and so does a lot of managing.


Inn on the Lake,  Ullswatter U.K.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016, 2015. See my book Simply Managing, which also discusses how else to select managers (on pages 161-164). There are many TWOGS related to this theme: “Five easy steps to destroying your organization”, “Celebrating the flawed manager”, “Managing to lead”, “Managing scrambled eggs”; “Enough leadership; time for communityship”; “Time for management education”; “The Harvard 19”; “Jack’s turn.”