Why managers shun management books

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 14, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling, Leadership

Have you ever noticed that experienced managers rarely read management books? At first I though this might be because they don’t have the time or just don’t like reading. Yet many are voracious newspaper readers. They will get up early in the morning to get through one or more newspapers.

Here’s one explanation. Most management books provide a set of rules in the form, “for this type of behaviour, involving these types of people, in this type of situation, do this.” The problem with these types of rules is they can only be generalisations and when things move fast, and they’re complex, progress can only be effectively made with knowledge of specific situations. In the moment these specific situations (experience) help the manager create new generalisations made for the current situation. This context-specific knowledge is a combination of understanding what happened to get here, what’s happening now and what the manager (and the group) would like to see happen. This specific and detailed understanding comes from stories. Stories from the manager’s experience, from her colleagues, the people involved in the situation and those who want to make progress.

So why do managers read papers and avoid management books? Because newspapers contain stories of what’s happening now, in the past and in the future. They are detailed and specific and help build a manager’s situational awareness, their repertoire and their ability to act.

Management authors are beginning to wake up to what practitioners want and are now writing books replete with stories and even advocating the need to understand and work with stories in business. A quick browse in Amazon’s top selling management books and I can see four books that illustrate this point: Blink, Made to Stick, A Whole New Mind, The No Asshole Rule.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

5 Responses to “Why managers shun management books”

  1. Johnnie Moore Says:

    This makes lots of sense to me. I can’t stand the “management porn” at airports.
    I wonder if there’s any statistic to support your view that management book-reading is inversely-related to experience :)

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Of course my observations are purely anecdotal :-)

  3. Matt Moore Says:

    I was doing some web work the other week and I was listening to the HBR podcasts. It was the “7 secrets of leadership this” and the “4 core principles of leadership that”. After a couple of hours I felt myself turning into the Pointy-Haired Boss from Dilbert – “I must go off & commit random acts of leadership on someone!!!”
    N.B. If you look at the classic self-help literature such as Dale Carnegie – he is brilliant at working in stories & examples (and also identifying when not to use a technique).
    And there is some good stuff in the HBR podcasts – it just needs a little extraction.

  4. Andy Says:

    Hi – was once told about a cartoon from the US that depicted two doors along a corridor. One marked “Heaven”, the other marked “lectures about heaven”. Outside the door marked “lectures about heaven” was a large throng waiting to get in. The door marked “Heaven” was empty. As a consultant you can get seduced in the theory and the voyeurism of business. As a line manager you respect “heaven”.

  5. Ian Glendinning Says:

    An alternative view …
    Yes any practitioner worth his or her salt in a complex field involving humans (not just managers) will see the limitations of “prescriptive theory” and the value of narrative and practice.
    Trouble is there is a backlash effect, some experienced managers therefore presume any “theory” is a dirty word; any kind of conceptual thinking and understanding therefore being for wimps, rather than the kind of “decisive” action real (macho) manager go for.
    Understanding is never a bad thing, but it is never a substitute for action either …. could be my motto.
    PS Love Johhnie’s “management porn” for what I’ve seen dubbed as “airport bookstall texts” from my time at MBA school.

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