What qualities characterize high-performing managers? Last week in High Performance Leadership we covered Power Is the Great Motivator, David McClelland and David Burnham's classic HBR article on this topic (originally written in 1976, revised in 1995 and republished in 2003.) The authors reach three primary conclusions that run counter to some conventional wisdom on effective managers. (The article is rooted in McClelland's motivational needs theory, which suggests that people are driven by needs for power, for achievement, and for affiliation, i.e. a desire to establish relationships with others.)
1) High Achievers Aren't Necessarily Good Managers
People with a high "need for achievement, the desire to do something better or more efficiently than it has been done before," do not necessarily make good managers, because "they focus on personal improvement and doing things better by themselves." They also "want concrete short-term feedback on their performance." But effective managers achieve superior results not merely by performing well themselves but by motivating others to perform well, and they often receive little if any direct feedback.
I'm struck by the fact that so many aspects of our educational system identify and promote high achievers, essentially creating a managerial class that, by virtue of its emphasis on individual accomplishments and its association between success and direct feedback, may be poorly prepared to actually manage. In McClelland's 1995 update, he notes that SAT results...
...relate little to how competently those people manage in the workplace later in life. People who scored exceptionally well on SATs often later functioned poorly as managers, and people with only average scores often made the best managers.
In the same passage, McClellan also noted that a high need for achievement is important to effective management in a small organization or sub-unit, but I still find his initial conclusion compelling--managers focused on their own achievement may view colleagues and subordinates as obstacles to be overcome rather than as forces to be marshaled.
2) Good Managers Have a High Need for Power and a Low Need to be Liked
McClelland and Burham also concluded that effective managers had a higher than usual need for power, coupled with a relatively low need to be liked by others:
[M]ost of the managers...were high in power motivation compared with the average person. This finding confirms that power motivation is important for management. (Remember that, as we use the term, power motivation refers not to dictatorial behavior but to a desire to have impact, to be strong and influential.) The better managers, judged by the morale of those working for them, tended to score even higher in power motivation. But the most important determining factor of high morale turned out to be not how their power motivation compared with their need to achieve but whether it was higher than their need to be liked.
This resonates with my experience. The very best managers I know have exceptional people skills and use them to great effect, but those skills are employed in service to the manager's larger goal of influencing and motivating others, not simply to generate warm feelings.
3) A High Need for Power Doesn't Necessarily Translate into Displays of Power
Uninhibited self-aggrandizement or abuses of authority shouldn't be mistaken for a good manager's strong need for power. McClellan and Burnham determined that the most effective managers were mature and disciplined, which minimized their displays of power and reinforced their focus on achieving organizational results:
Mature people can be most simply described as less egotistic. Somehow their positive self-image is not at stake in their jobs. They are less defensive, more willing to seek advice from experts, and have a longer-range view. They accumulate fewer personal possessions and seem older and wiser...
[T]he best managers possess two characteristics that act as regulators--a greater emotional maturity, where there is little egotism, and a democratic coaching managerial style. If an institutional power motivation is checked by maturity, it does not lead to an aggressive, egotistic expansiveness. That means managers can control their subordinates and influence others around them without having to resort to coercion or to an authoritarian management style.
McClelland and Burham are aware that they're raising some controversial issues, but they think their critics are making a key mistake:
Our findings seem to fly in the face of a long and influential tradition of organizational psychology, which insists that authoritarian management is what is wrong with most businessess... But much of the apparent conflict between our findings and those of other behavioral scientists in this area stems from the fact that we are talking about motives, and behaviorists are talking about actions. What we are saying is that managers must be interested in playing the influence game in a controlled way. That does not necessarily mean that they are or should be authoritarian in action. On the contrary, it appears that power-motivated managers make their subordinates feel strong rather than weak.
I think it's notable that McClelland and Burham insisted on using the word "power," rather than softening it to something like "influence" or "impact." We're more comfortable with these latter terms--"power" makes many of us feel uncomfortable. And I believe that's precisely the point--until we get comfortable with it, we're going to undermine our own effectiveness as managers and leaders.
Photo by brokenchopstick. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.