Management 101: It really does work

Steve Kelman spotlights new research that shows several "best practices" do indeed measurably improve organizational performance.

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): restructuring business processes.
  • Set clear, and challenging yet realistic goals.
  • Build trust and commitment among your employees.
  • Elicit employee participation in organizational decision-making.
  • Provide feedback to employees about how they are doing.

Do those management practices make sense as ways to improve an organization's performance? Many of us probably think so, but in truth, most of us don't really know anything about whether such practices really work beyond instinct, anecdote and preconception.

This is why God invented scholarly research. Now three public administration academics, Nathan Favero and Ken Meier of Texas A&M and Larry O'Toole of the University of Georgia, have published a fascinating paper on such questions. It carries the straightforward title of Goals, Trust, Participation, and Feedback: Linking Internal Management with Performance Outcomes, and appears in the new issue of the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, the leading scholarly journal on public management.

There are two challenges to doing research that can shed light on whether following these practices in fact improves performance. The first is gathering information on an organization's performance, and hopefully similar information from a number of organizations so their performance can be compared quantitatively. (One reason there is more research on the impact of management practices on business firms than government organizations is that getting data to capture and compare performance of companies -- such as stock price or return on assets -- is far easier than for government.) The other challenge is getting information about what practices organizational leaders actually use.

If you can do both of those things, then your strategy as a researcher is fairly straightforward. You compare the performance of organizations that use a practice with those that don't, and see if there are any patterns of difference. (You need to hold constant, or in research jargon control for, differences between the more and less successful that may be correlated with success, but not caused by different management practices. So, for example, schools with privileged students are likely to perform better than those with disadvantaged kids, independently of whether the schools follow the management practices being investigated.)

The first challenge is easier in the public sector if there are organizations with a lot of units delivering the same service. Two prominent examples are schools and hospitals. And, before this paper came out, there was already a cottage industry of scholars (including Meier himself) analyzing data on schools' performance on standardized tests. Of course this isn't a perfect measure, but compared to many others, it's not bad at all.

The bigger problem is measuring use of these various management practices. Sending in outside observers to look is incredibly costly, and precludes analysis of any large number of cases. Asking managers to self-report their behavior is plagued by the grade inflation and distortion to which self-reports are prone.

Favero and colleagues came up with a great idea: they gathered information on principals' behaviors by using an existing survey that asked not the managers but the people being managed -- their subordinates (teachers) -- about them. One of several questions to measure goalsetting, for example, was, "My school has clear measures of progress for student achievement throughout the year." For feedback, it was, "School leaders visit classrooms to observe the quality of teaching at this school."

The data for the paper all come from New York City schools. And what did the researchers find? When you put all four Management 101 practices together, and added the various controls, three of the four practices had a noticeable impact on improving student test scores.

By a considerable margin (the researchers were able to compare the relative impact of one practice compared to another on test scores), the most helpful of the four practices was goal setting. Furthermore, the impact of the other practices was strengthened when done in conjunction with goal-setting. Chalk one up for performance measurement.

Guess which practice actually had a negative impact on test scores? I suspect it will surprise many readers that it was trust/commitment building, measured by questions such as "School leaders communicate a clear vision for the school" and "I trust the principal at his/her word." Interestingly, this was similar to a finding I had in research on the impact of management practices in a totally different context, anti-crime partnerships in British local government. Hard to know why, but perhaps spending time on this didn't accomplish anything, but took time away from more useful practices.

There's more. The authors also looked at measures of school success other than test scores -- such as attendance, parental satisfaction with the school, and even school violence (they were able to get data for all these) -- and likewise found that the Management 101 practices were also related, though more weakly, to success on those dimensions.

Many readers of this blog of course work for organizations whose performance cannot be measured as well as schools, especially in a way that allows comparisons across a large number of units. Yet these findings are still relevant to you. Of course, not all organizations are the same, and we can't be certain that techniques that work well in schools would work in your organization. But, in the absence of contrary information, it is not a bad bet. We should all thank these three scholars for their work. All you federal managers out there, let's move from knowledge to action.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.