Reprinted from UGA Research magazine:
The Science of Good Management
How should you manage your people? A few decades ago, a manager had few options for finding reliable answers to that fundamental question. A management course in college likely used a textbook more catchy than valid. The business aisle at the bookstore probably offered several titles, all written by former CEOs or management gurus, most of whom had moved on long ago from the management's front lines. Practitioner-oriented journals were available, but they tended to emphasize simplistic prescriptions with little justification. Scholarly journals existed too, of course, but they weren't exactly written for the manager in question. In the end, the manager had to rely on his or her own gut, which may produce excellent results but just as often does not.
Today, the situation is better and is further improving by the year. Textbooks have begun emphasizing scientific rigor, substituting catchy formulations with more rigorous theories of motivation and satisfaction. The business titles on Amazon.com are often science-based, using empirical studies in management, psychology, or sociology as jumping-off points for narratives. Likewise, practitioner-oriented journals—such as the Harvard Business Review—synthesize research streams rooted both in the lab and the field. Scholarly journals still aren't written for traditional managers, but more and more companies/–Google, for one—are staffing groups with PhDs who keep one foot rooted in the academic community, with the aim of quickly transforming important research findings into state-of-the-art practice.
All of these trends have triggered a movement toward "evidence-based management"—the principle that business practices should be informed by scientific evidence rather than fads, benchmarks, or intuition. Just as physicians are, or should be, aware of the relevant science when treating a patient, so too should managers be familiar with the empirical evidence when diagnosing problems with morale, motivation, efficiency, or innovation. Unfortunately, the researcher-practitioner gap has always been wider in management than in medicine, partly because of management's slower evolution from a vocational area to a scientific field. The "evidence" in management also remained murky for quite some time, with one study's findings seemingly at odds with another's. Fortunately, the rise of meta-analysis—a technique for aggregating findings across studies—has clarified "what we know" in several corners of the management domain.
So, what do we know? Although incentives are not unimportant, current research suggests that employees are more affected by the work they do—whether there's a purpose to that work, whether they are empowered in doing it, and whether they can craft job tasks to match their strengths. Employees also are motivated by the depth of the relationship they have with their employer—does it go beyond a traditional contract to include mutual investment, customized adjustments, high levels of trust, and a sense of fairness? In terms of managers' own behavior, contemporary models of leadership deemphasize task-focused concepts such as role assignment and procedure creation in favor of articulating an optimistic vision, leading by example, encouraging nontraditional ideas, and developing employees as individuals.
My own experience in teaching undergraduates, MBA students (both full- and part-time), and participants in executive education courses suggests that today's students are more receptive to the science of management than ever before, given that their decisions have long been data-driven. They don't go to a movie because one critic recommends it—they look for the consensus rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes. They don't try a restaurant just because a neighbor had one good meal there—they look to see how many stars is has earned on Yelp. And if they are sports fans, they likely prefer a general manager who makes optimal personnel decisions—in the tradition of Moneyball—based on empirical data and analytics. To paraphrase a director who attended an executive education course this past year, "We can get the soft stuff somewhere else—we come to the Terry College [of Business] to see what the science says."
Of course, if managers really are listening to science more than ever before, the science needs to be good. If the mission of UGA is "to teach, to serve, to inquire into the nature of things," then our inquiries at Terry must be rigorous—boasting careful designs, valid and precise measurements, and cutting-edge analyses. As in many other fields, the number of scholarly business outlets has practically doubled over the past decade, with 172 journals now indexed as "management" by Thomson Reuters. Much of the work they publish is good; much of it is not. Our challenge as researchers and educators is to know which is which. Otherwise, the managers who are now listening to us will take their questions elsewhere.