Sunday, May 30, 2010

Are “Classic” Management Theories Still Relevant?

I was in a meeting recently and we were discussing the potential impact of a new management initiative we were about to launch. I made a reference to “the Hawthorne Effect”, and half the room, mostly the gen Xers and Ys, had no idea what I was talking about. The crickets were deafening.

Now THAT was a senior moment.

It did make me wonder about the staying power of management models, processes, skills, and conventional wisdom and ask myself a few questions:

1. Should a good management or leadership theory stand the test of time? At the end of the day, will the competencies required for great leadership ever really change from what was required for Hannibal to lead his men across the Alps?

2. As practitioners in management & leadership development, if we don’t build a foundation of “givens” within our profession, don’t we run the risk of always chasing after the latest fad or flavor of the month?

3. Do we need to keep coming up with new labels that basically mean the same thing (e.g., delegation > empowerment > distributed leadership )?

4. What was the greatest thing before sliced bread?

5. After they make Styrofoam, what do they ship it in?

To some extent, I would have to say “yes” to the first three questions (#4 & #5 courtesy of Steven Wright). There are way too many people in our field that are not true professionals – they don’t do their homework, and rely too much on their own personal experience. They’re the ones who tend to jump from one fad to the next, enthusiastically promoting each one with an almost religious passion.

However, there’s also a danger of not keeping up with the times and sticking with models or skills that really have outlived their usefulness. At best, you run the risk of coming across as a dinosaur when you explain a management model that was developed in the 1920’s to a group of Millennials. Even worse, you may be relying on models that really don’t apply in today’s world.

As for coming up with new names that mean the same thing as something else…. So what? Is there really anything wrong with that, as long as it’s been repackaged in a way to make it more appealing to a new generation? I’m thinking we’re better off keeping our mouths shut, instead of trying to prove how smart we are. Besides, when you’re over 40, it’s not good a good career management strategy to be caught saying things like:

- “same old same old”
- “we’ve tied that before”
- “back in the day”
- “when I was your age”
- “I can remember when we didn’t have”
- “The greatest thing since sliced bread”

Getting back to Hawthorne…..

According to my Google Analytics statistics, this blog has a lot of gen X and Y readers, so chances are, you’ve never heard of the Hawthorne Effect. Here’s an explanation, from

It’s a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment. Individuals may change their behavior due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables.

This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.

So can we still rely on this study to guide our decisions today? To some extent, I’d say yes. If you put a lot of focus and attention on something, people will realize it’s important and change their behavior accordingly. It’s called “inspect what you expect”. That part still fits.

However, today’s workers and working conditions are VERY different than the early factories of the 1920s. In today’s knowledge-based society, employees are much more used to being treated with respect (hey, it’s all relative) and having more autonomy in how they perform their work. The rate of change has also accelerated, so we’ve built up more of a change tolerance and immunity to the effect of small changes.

It’s also important to note that later research into the Hawthorne effect has suggested that the original results may have been overstated. In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago reanalyzed the original data and found that other factors also played a role in productivity and that the effect originally described was weak at best.

Yikes, in some ways, it seems like management and leadership advice is about as useful as advice from nutritionists and health experts. Is coffee bad or good for you?

So what’s a practitioner do to? I’d recommend:

1. Be a lifelong student of leadership development

2. Read and respect the classics and keep up with the latest

3. Periodically question conventional wisdom and keep an open mind to new ideas

4. Never start a sentence with “when I was your age….”

5. Drink all the coffee you want. (-:

How about you? Can you think of a "classic" management model that's timeless, or one that no longer is relevant?


patmcgraw said...

Great post - but regarding #3 I would like to respectfully disagree.

You ask "so what?" - and my response is that effective communication goes down the drain, and the less experienced will focus on new terms (aka 'shiny objects').

If people are to invest in their own education in order to remain relevant, learn the concept and the name of the concept - creating new names for old things is a waste of energy and counter-productive.

LD Guy from MN said...


I really enjoyed reading this post. It points out that all the best 'discoveries' have not happened in just the 'last few years'. We do need to be aware of the 'classics' because of the solid foundation they provide. This is not to say that significant new findings are not occurring today. The great thing about learning is that it does not ever have to stop and that as one continues to be engaged in its pursuit the benefits continue to accrue. So thanks Dan for reminding me of some great things I need to keep in mind when it comes to learning.

michael cardus said...

thank you for encouraging any generational leaders to avoid using "when I was your age", "already tried that", etc...
this will only move to enflame many employees.
As far as leadership models I have been reading Elliot Jaques and Requisite Organization (1996).
His view are seen a controversial and have much of the same flavors of autonomy and accountability that are prevalent in leadership models.
I as a consultant and coach have seen and also been victim to ideas that sounded great, yet when I researched and tested the models they fell short.

Peter A. Mello, Weekly Leader said...

Hi Dan;

As usual, I enjoyed your thought provoking post.

I guess that I'm one of those people that puts a lot of faith in my own experience as a leader even though I've been fortunate to benefit from some incredible programs on the subject.

There are some fundamental building blocks that existed before any leadership theories were ever discussed. Many of these continue to be relevant today and will probably be long into the future. But the tools that we use to exercise leadership have changed and will continue to change over the ages.

It's almost like constructing buildings. Materials get stronger and tools become more productive; however, engineering/physical science properties like gravity don't change.

In it's simplest terms, leadership has always been and will always be about influence and effect and the theories involved in explaining and exercising it are tools of the craft.

Finally, in episode 52 of the Weekly Leader podcast I interviewed Charlene Li about her new book, Open Leadership. We discussed how new communication and collaboration technology tools are having a dramatic impact on how we relate, manage and lead. This doesn't mean that the fundamental's of leadership are changing. It just means that we have to be adaptable, which has always been another important hallmark of the craft.

Thanks again for all of the great content you produce here at Great Leadership!

Fair Winds,
Peter A. Mello
Weekly Leader
twitter:@petermello and @weeklyleader

John Hunter said...

Classic management ideas are definitely very valuable today. It is amazing how little use of long known good leadership lessons actually takes place in organizations. You don't need to discover secrets to improve just read ideas others ignore as not new (or whatever justification they use for ignoring it).

James Castellano said...

Since each of us is uniquely different, it is imperative that leadership and management models are forever changing and evolving.

Leadership is a personal venture at first, and we all learn differently. Having cookie-cutter theories will only hold back inovation.

There are a few cornerstones that will maintain their relevance over time. I believe the key is understanding who we are teaching and build a program around them.

Dan McCarthy said...

It’s great to hear from five leadership pros, all with awesome takes on the topic:

Pat –
Thanks, I get what you’re saying, and often feel the same way. I was just questioning if it’s worth calling it out – at the risk of coming across as close-minded to new ideas. Also, as Peter points out below, perhaps it really is a refinement of an old theory.

Dave –
Thanks. I like your point about learning.

Michael –
Thanks for the recommendation – controversial is good.

Peter –
Thanks, I love the contraction metaphor, it helps make sense of it.

John –
Thanks, well said.

Wally Bock said...

Like the post, Dan. The challenge is always to tease out the parts that are valid today. Here are my four reminders.

Fads come and go almost instantly.

Technology changes rapidly.

Habits change slowly.

Human nature doesn't change.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
I LOVE those reminders. Perfect. Thanks.

Eclecticity said...

I kinda like the "classic" McGregor's Theory X/Y and how it can be explained using the self-fulfilling prophesy model / circle.

I think. ;-) E.

Jason Seiden said...

Dan, I love going back to the originals. I frequently quote Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise, and his Theory X and Theory Y managers in programs.

And Milgrim, Ashe, and the social psychologists whose work showed us exactly how people behave in groups.

There's a faulty assumption that many make that if it's not new, it's not relevant.

But like architecture and painting, knowledge seems to go through phases... we spend decades dressing up the "classics" without really changing them, until someone comes along and does something so novel that it forces us to redefine "classic."

At which point the whole process starts over again.

Michael McKinney said...

Good post as always Dan. I would say amen to Peter Mello and Wally Bock. Right on target.

Tim said...

Love the post Dan.

I especially agree that there are way too many people in the field who aren't "true professionals," who don't know the history or science of the field.

I was disappointed recently when a well-known training and development society highlighted a paper that was essentially marketing masquerading as research. After investigating just a little bit, was clear that the "research" would have never survived even the slightest peer review, but there it was, claiming to have "statistically" disprove one idea, and providing support for another (that - surpise - they were selling a book on).

It concerned me, because as long as this type of thing exists - and in some cases is highlighted by us - we'll have difficulty in being taken seriously as a profession.

Thank you for calling this out!

davidburkus said...


Great post. Sorry I am just getting to it now. I'm a millennial and I know about the Hawthorne Effect. However, the fact that my peers didn't was shocking to me. So shocking in fact that I started my blog/podcast just to teach classical theory.

Theory will always be relevant. Even those elements of theories that have been proven invalid are still relevant (if for nothing else than that we get to see what didn't work). As Peter said early, it's like construction. Each new theory builds on others and, without know what it is building on, its hard to even comprehend the new ideas.

Dan McCarthy said...

E -
Funny! I wonder how many managers would even notice if we mashed our therories.

Jason -
Look at you, with the name dropping. Nice. Let's hear it for Gen X!

Michael -
Thanks. It won't be the last time Wally and Peter are right on target.

Tim -
Great point! I'm guilty of publishing that self-serving stuff too. Beware of "research" conducted by companies that sell the solutions.

David -
Good idea. Kind of a classic rock podcast.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Laura Schroeder said...

I seem to remember something from b school called MBWA (management by walking around). I always thought it sounded kind of annoying and thought they should call it, MBL (management by listening) or something like that.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
That's awesome! Thanks.

Laura -
Oh yeah, me too. And I REALLY didn't like the title "The one minute manager" - but the concepts were actually pretty good.

Anonymous said...


Dear, as far as i now Hawthorne Effect is the begining of human relations theories that criticize unhumanistic nature of classic theories!