Dr. David Kohl

“The heart of administration is not the indulgent exercise of power nor the pursuit of privilege, but the opportunity to solve problems with others.”

The Practical Manager -- By David F. Kohl




     The purpose of this book is not to make you a better manager through a menu of rules or a particular philosophy of organization, but by helping you clarify and increase your understanding of the specific dilemmas of managing. While many management books are based on theories of organization, or “scientific” principles of human interaction or some other overarching context, this book proceeds from the view that the world is a messy and confused place. So, instead of starting with a grand theory and proceeding to details with a logical development, we start (and end) with the specific dilemmas and confusions facing the manager as he or she works to focus employee efforts towards accomplishing some useful goal. It will be up to you, the reader, to relate such insights to your own personality and values as you wrestle daily with the art, not the science, of management.


     Before we begin, however, there is an important perspective it would be useful to clarify. This is the concept of control. A manager does not directly control people. Even Kindergarten teachers do not control their little charges. Nor, even in the slave owning days did those Simon Legree overseers control people absolutely. People are autonomous creatures. Even in the most coercive environments managers or bosses or dictators don’t make people do things. The most they can do is make alternative “choices” for action so unpalatable that people “choose” to act in certain ways which the manager/boss/dictator desires. The individual always has a choice in the matter, even if it is sometimes a terrible and demeaning choice. We may say of an individual or a situation, “He had no choice.” But in fact such statements are just a kind of shorthand, and ultimately,  a rather misleading shorthand, meaning that the person had a very unattractive option – death, physical punishment… or a time out in the corner.


     Terminology is always important because it shapes the way we think. It provides a guiding context for our reasoning. In the case of management if we talk in terms of “control” we not only are in danger of overlooking the reality that subordinates have a choice of actions, but there can be a tendency as well for a manager to slide into a mindset which focuses too much on coercion through punitive alternatives. This may be in part an unfortunate legacy of an earlier age when human muscles were more important than human minds. Loading coal into a railway car with a shovel does not seem to require much in the way of mental agility or personal commitment and so the simple, blunt use of coercive alternatives (getting fired, physical punishment, etc…) could be seen as both reasonably effective and reinforcing the false idea that the overseer “controlled” his workers. This environment and the resulting mind set logically led to the idea of efficiency experts, wonderfully exemplified by the father in Cheaper by the Dozen, who would investigate an industrial task being done by physical laborers and work out for these poor mindless souls how best to perform the task.


     With the late 20th century rise of knowledge industries, however, the separation of mental and physical workers and the concomitant pattern of thought revolving around “control” began to erode. In knowledge industries but also increasingly in the more traditional industrial sectors, a new model of management has emerged. Most simply put it is one characterized by partnership in place of hierarchy. Although management still sets the strategic goals it relies on the subordinates to tell it how to best achieve those goals. In fact, the often substantially superior technical knowledge of staff over that in managerial ranks may even usefully inform the selection of strategic goals at times. In such a workplace environment, an attempt to use coercive alternatives rather than encouraging mechanisms to produce productive effort on the part of subordinates is not only massively inefficient, but actually counter-productive. It makes as much sense as a boxer amputating one of his arms in order to get into a lower weight category.


     This new context for business and industrial organization has many implications for organizational structure and individual behavior, such as the importance of policy transparency, regular and timely communication throughout the organization, and encouraging an enlightened individual association with and loyalty to the organization, its goals, and its style.  Relatively unexplored in this new terrain, however, is the manager’s role. And most especially the importance of the manager’s self awareness of how his or her personal issues and reactions to work situations  can either productively develop the manager-subordinate partnership or impede, even destroy, it.  In short, the key to managing others in this new organizational world is to learn first to wisely manage yourself.


     There can be no effective self management without substantial self knowledge. While self awareness has long been important for the individual in psychotherapy, it has less been considered in management. And strikingly different from self knowledge gained in the cloistered confines of a therapist’s office, much of a manager’s occasion for self knowledge is triggered in the hurly burly of an often contentious and invariably action oriented work environment. While anecdotes and stereotypes abound both in the workplace and in the literature – the nitpicking boss from hell or the incorrigible subordinate who is a genius at gaming the system – such stereotypes provide little real guidance and support of a practical, day to day nature to help managers productively interpret daily work situations and dilemmas. Practical Management seeks to fill that void by helping managers to identify, understand and positively manage their reactions to those situations which can otherwise lead them to either want to tear their hair out or physically strangle a subordinate…or possibly even a superior.  


     Like the management style it espouses, this book aspires to be a partnership – both between reader and author and, hopefully, among readers as well. As each chapter is posted online, considered reader comment and reflection will be welcomed and, if agreeable to the commenter, posted in the chapter’s Comment and Reply section. The author’s two primary goals for the book are to provide useful insights on management issues and to ensure respectful and worthwhile dialog on the art of management.




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