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1.2 Management roles

Henry Mintzberg proposed an alternative approach to defining what management is about. Instead of describing in theory what managers should do, he studied what managers actually spend their time doing. This led him to describe management in terms of the different roles that managers undertake. The ten major roles that he identified are discussed in 1.2.1 below.

1.2.1 The roles of managers

'Mintzberg shows a substantial difference between what managers do and what they are said to do. On the basis of work activity studies, he demonstrates that a manager's job is characterised by pace, interruptions, brevity, variety, and fragmentation of activities, and a preference for verbal contacts. Managers spend a considerable amount of time in scheduled meetings and in networks of contacts outside meetings.

The fragmentary nature of what managers do leads to the suggestion that they have to perform a wide variety of roles. Mintzberg suggests that there are ten managerial roles which can be grouped into three areas: interpersonal, informational and decisional.

Interpersonal roles cover the relationships that a manager has to have with others. The three roles within this category are figurehead, leader and liaison. Managers have to act as figureheads because of their formal authority and symbolic position, representing their organisations. As leader, managers have to bring together the needs of an organisation and those of the individuals under their command. The third interpersonal role, that of liaison, deals with the horizontal relationships which work-activity studies have shown to be important for a manager. A manager has to maintain a network of relationships outside the organisation.

Managers have to collect, disseminate and transmit information and have three corresponding informational roles, namely monitor, disseminator and spokesperson. A manager is an important figure in monitoring what goes on in the organisation, receiving information about both internal and external events and transmitting it to others. This process of transmission is the dissemination role, passing on information of both a factual and value kind. A manager often has to give information concerning the organisation to outsiders, taking on the role of spokesperson to both the general public and those in positions of influence.

As with so many writers about management, Mintzberg regards the most crucial part of managerial activity as that concerned with making decisions. The four roles that he places in this category are based on different classes of decision, namely, entrepreneurs, disturbance handler, resource allocator, and negotiator. As entrepreneurs, managers make decisions about changing what is happening in an organisation. They may have to both initiate change and take an active part in deciding exactly what is to be done. In principle, they are acting voluntarily. This is very different from their role as a disturbance handler, where managers have to make decisions which arise from events beyond their control and unpredicted. The ability to react to events as well as to plan activities is an important managerial skill in Mintzberg's eyes.

The resource allocation role of a manager is central to much organisational analysis. Clearly a manager has to make decisions about the allocation of money, people, equipment, time and so on. Mintzberg points out that in doing so a manager is actually scheduling time, programming work and authorising actions. The negotiation role is put in the decisional category by Mintzberg because it is 'resource trading in real time'. A manager has to negotiate with others and in the process be able to make decisions about the commitment of organisational resources.

For Mintzberg these ten roles provide a more adequate description of what managers do than any of the various schools of management thought. In these roles it is information that is crucial: the manager is determining the priority of information. Through the interpersonal roles a manager acquires information, and through the decisional roles it is put into use.

The scope for each manager to choose a different blend of roles means that management is not reducible to a set of scientific statements and programmes. Management is essentially an art and it is necessary for managers to try and learn continuously about their own situations. Self-study is vital. At the moment there is no solid basis for teaching a theory of managing. According to Mintzberg, "the management school has been more effective at training technocrats to deal with structured problems than managers to deal with unstructured ones."'

Source: Pugh and Hickson (2007) pp. 30-31.

If you are a manager, how many of Mintzberg's roles do you perform? Which ones are you good at and which ones do you struggle with? (If you are not a manager, try to think about this in relation to a manager whose work you know well.)

Which of the two descriptions of management (functions or roles) do you find more helpful? If you have experience of rural development, try to identify how this has influenced your answer.

Mintzberg's roles were intended to provide a better description of management in practice than the classical list of management functions. Rather than spending their days planning and organising in an orderly fashion, many managers live hectic lives in constantly changing contexts. Hence, they have to be adaptable and responsive, not just pro-active and controlling.

Moreover, managers are not just involved in managing the internal resources of their organisation, but also spend a great deal of time in maintaining contacts with other people, both within and outside the organisation. This is partly because they need to be aware of any changes in the environment which may affect their (part of the) organisation, an activity known as 'boundary scanning'. Managers in business need to be aware of what their competitors are doing, of trends in consumer demand, and of changes in the economic environment. Managers in public sector organisations or NGOs in rural development may need to monitor prices and activity in certain (local or wider) markets, progress with a cropping season, political developments relevant to their organisation, what other organisations are doing and so on.

Mintzberg's analysis is also valuable in highlighting the importance of various forms of information to an organisation. Information may be seen as a resource to be set alongside personnel and capital.

However, what managers actually do is not necessarily what they want to be doing or should be doing. Even if Mintzberg's respondents were all pursuing good management practice, recognition of his ten roles does not invalidate the importance of planning, organising, leading and controlling. Some of Mintzberg's roles express 'how' managers inform their plans, lead and motivate their staff etc. Others (eg disturbance handler, negotiator) could even be seen as skills that managers need to develop, so as not to get sidetracked from the strategic priorities of their position and of their organisation.

Important - urgent!