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Faculty Insights

How Managers Shape an Employee's Work Experience

By Wisconsin School of Business

September 17, 2014

Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpet player, reportedly once said that he never really played anything that had not already been played by Louis Armstrong. It was a grand compliment to an innovator that helped define jazz as a musical art form and the trumpet as one of the principal tools of that art form.
For many of us who choose to consult, speak, and teach about management, our Louis Armstrong is Peter Drucker. Much of what we have to say are riffs on Drucker’s research and writings.
A few years back, I ran across this quote from Drucker’s classic 1954 book, The Practice of Management:
“A manager develops people. Through the way he manages he makes it easy or difficult for them to develop themselves. He directs people or he misdirects them. He brings out what is in them or he stifles them. He strengthens their integrity or he corrupts them. He trains them to stand upright and strong or he deforms them.
Every manager does these things when he manages – whether he knows it or not. He may do them well or he may do them wretchedly. But he always does them.”
Strong words indeed… “corrupts them… deforms them.”
I often start off management programs I facilitate with this quote to drive home the notion that the management of others is serious business. There is an old adage that people do not leave their jobs or leave their companies; most of the time, people leave their managers. Drucker’s quote certainly lends credence to this adage.
I think the adage is probably a half-truth, but in this case, half is a lot. People leave their jobs for plenty of reasons. Some of those reasons, like leaving a job for another job with better insurance coverage, managers have really no influence over at all. Other reasons, however, like someone’s desire to learn new skills or pursue new career opportunities, can be impacted quite a bit by the quality of their manager. This is why managers should strive to be good managers, to get to the “brings out what is best in them… strengthens their integrity… trains them to stand upright and strong” side of Drucker’s equation.
The discussion of management often takes a backseat nowadays to the discussion of leadership. Just scan business titles on Amazon to see it’s true. That’s a shame. Not that leadership is not a worth topic to study, because it certainly is. But I think the simple art of managing people deserves continued discussion, debate, and research.
Some research has shown that the most difficult workplace transition someone makes in their career is when they move from an individual contributor to a first-time manager of people. When I share this tidbit of information with veteran managers and leaders, they typically agree. So what makes this transition so hard?   For some of us, it was the awkward moment of suddenly having to manage a group of people who were peers the day before. For some of us, it was taking on a whole new set of responsibilities, like conducting performance reviews and delivering pay messages. For some of us, it is a whole new set of paradoxical expectations like managing individual and team performance simultaneously or encouraging and judging others in the same moment.
When someone takes on the role of manager, or even for those of us that have managed for many years, I think discussion of Drucker’s quote should be a required annual task. It can serve as a reminder for both new and old managers alike that when we take on that role, it comes with serious responsibilities and great opportunities to positively impact both business results and the engagement of those who work for us.