'Managing people: Is there an evidence-based approach?'

Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

AN excellent educational system requires many things, much of which are related to curriculum design, teacher expertise, assessment practices and learning resources. However, management is also a major factor in determining educational quality – as it is for shaping behaviour in all organisational contexts. Have you ever experienced poor management, and has it affected your perception, feelings, and behaviour? A rhetorical question in context.

In this series of columns, I explore, analyse and evaluate approaches and theories of management from a cognitive science perspective.

For readers not familiar with cognitive science, it is an interdisciplinary field that studies the mind and its processes, especially those involved in perception, thinking, and memory. It draws on research from psychology, neuroscience, computer science and philosophy to better understand the structure and workings of subjective experience, and how individuals interact with people in their environment.

Through such understandings we may become more able to organise our consciousness, develop better self-regulation capabilities, and enhance our productivity and well-being.

Invariably, there is much that is subjective in managing people as beliefs and valuations come into play, which have emotive content for people. However, there is also a rich base of literature and research to draw upon, and I will attempt to address, at least in part, the following key questions:

1) What are the main approaches to managing people, and what are the underlying assumptions about human nature?

2) Are there better management practices for getting good results with most people, and how does this work?

3) Are there people for which positive practices don’t work, and what are the ‘difficult’ options posed?

Management theories: A summary

While there are many management approaches, they tend to fall into four broad categories

  • Scientific management of the work environment.

  • Contrasting views on human nature.

  • A human relations approach.

  • A focus on the expectation of outcomes.

  • Scientific management of the work environment

This has a long history, originating from the work of Frederick Taylor, which focuses on the systematic analysis of work processes to improve efficiency and productivity.

It also involves such concerns as standardisation of tasks, work study research aimed at streamlining working practices and performance-related pay.

  • Contrasting views on human nature

These theories focus on beliefs about the nature of human beings – an issue that has puzzled philosophers and psychologists for decades and is still a prevalent debate today.

A famous contribution to management practices is Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumes that employees are inherently lazy and require strict supervision, while Theory Y assumes that employees are self-motivated and capable of taking initiative. You can fill in the likely behaviours of managers who hold either end of this continuum, and the implications for those being managed.

  • A human relations approach

This theoretical tradition has its roots in research conducted by Elton Mayo in the 1920s, which highlighted the importance of social and psychological factors in the workplace.

He found that workers’ productivity increased not solely due to changes in physical conditions, but more importantly through social factors in the workplace such as employee morale, group dynamics and interpersonal relationships.

He argued that managers should pay attention to the emotional and social needs of workers and create a supportive work environment to enhance job satisfaction and performance.

  • A focus on the expectation of outcomes

Research has supported the basic principles of expectancy theory. For example, Victor Vroom posited that individuals are motivated to perform based on their expectations of achieving desired outcomes.

This theory emphasised the importance of aligning employee efforts with organisational goals and providing rewards that are perceived as valuable and attainable by employees,

Even from the short summaries above, all approaches clearly have face validity, and are not mutually exclusive.

For example, effective managers must have good knowledge of the working environment and employ appropriate logistics in terms of planning, managing and ongoing evaluation of processes and practices.

However, humans are sentient beings with needs and wants, and will respond to what they perceive as the reality of their relationships with management, especially their line manager. Hence, how managers interact with subordinates is invariably a big factor in terms of shaping their perceptions, feelings and ultimately their behaviour at work.

For example, using McGregor’s framing of Theory X and Theory Y, how managers stand in terms of such beliefs will determine their orientation and interactions with subordinations, and this will be highly consequential in terms of the working realities created.

Furthermore, managers may not even be fully aware of how they are managing staff, as research suggests that the human mind is far from an organised rational decision-making entity. It’s rather scary, but I concur with the psychologist Michael Apter who describes the mind in these terms: “Everyday life, as it is experienced, is a tangled web of changing desires, perceptions, feelings, and emotions that filter in and out of awareness in a perceptual swirl.”

Bandler and Grinder, founders of neuro-linguistic programming, make the summative point: “It’s really important to understand that most people are very chaotically organised on the inside.”

In this context, decision-making about managing people typically gets more subjective and problematic in practice. However, I would argue that significant evidence supports the view that, for most people, a human relations approach works well.

Generally, people respond positively to being trusted, valued and treated with fairness. They also respond well to being listened to about their working preferences, appreciate flexibility, and like appropriate humour. These are the types of behaviours, which if consistently demonstrated across a range of situations, builds rapport, trust and respect. The outcomes in terms of employees’ responses are often enhanced productivity, employee flexibility and conscientiousness, lack of absenteeism and longer-term retention. Employees are also likely to be happier and experience better well-being. Seems easy, right?

However, this approach does not work so well with a sizeable minority of people. While humanistic and positive psychology offer an optimistic view of the human condition (eg people are born with a tendency to be good or at least neutral), which has much merit, existential realities may not fully support this generalisation. If in doubt, watch the news and you will see many forms of inhumanity, and this is not in small measure.

In the next column, I tackle the thorny issues of managing difficult people, and they come in a variety of forms. There are reasons for this but they pose significant challenges for management, especially in the modern context, and morally-laden choices need to be made.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as Advisor, Researcher, and Examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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