Management is NOT about ‘Doing it to People’

Simon Black – 

A typical definition of management and leadership is:

Managing: gets the most efficient utility from people & resources;

Leadership: gets people to do things they would not otherwise do.”


In a nutshell those previous statements on management and leadership summarise conventional wisdom  accrued since 1900, first through either traditional  ‘scientific management’ methods or later ‘human relations’ approaches. The latter approach, pioneered by Elton Mayo, was apparently devised to counteract the rigidity and hierarchies of the former. Unfortunately both approaches have the same defective focus – ‘doing it to people’. They are both a reflection of a command-and -control mindset which many would percieve as ‘managerialism‘.

There are two basic reasons for hiring people – to do the work and to improve the work (a tag line which I attribute to the psychologist and author John Seddon). Managerialism involves neither activity – so why do we have managers and leaders? A leader’s job is to enable workers to do those two things and provide a context for understanding that activity.

Improvement comes from understanding the system and making meaningful improvements to ensure better outcomes. ‘Doing it to people’ does not achieve this, but simply adds new layers of new ‘work’ – appraisals, briefing meetings, writing reports, filling in forms. Worse still this work assumes that for people to be effective they need to have stuff ‘done’ to them – like an inoculation for inherent bad characteristics – perhaps laziness, lack of intelligence or (potential) insubordination. This is the darker side to a manager’s mindset.

Whilst most managers and leaders do not want to be working for the ‘dark side’ and genuinely want the better for their teams, they must understand that if they follow the scientific/human relations approach the consequences of their actions are: de-motivation, a loss of dignity, a diminished sense of purpose, and reduction of productivity in their staff. In other words the effect on their team is just as if they actually had a negative attitude towards those people. In other words their staff will not like it and work will be negatively affected.

In knowledge industries, additional contributions to the total cost of this disruption is hidden, for example losses of skilled workers, high staff turnover and recruitment and so on. In conservation projects these costs can be proportionally high and the impact on project continuity and sustainability huge.

The choice is clear: managers and leaders need to find a better way…


Hanlon G. (2015) The Dark Side of Management: A secret history of management theory, Routledge

Roscoe, P. (2015) How the takers took over from the makers. Times Higher Education, 26 November, p48

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

Conservation Success & Continuous Improvement: accumulation of small gains

Simon Black – 

The recovery of endemic bird species in Mauritius has been notable in enabling the downlist of several Mauritian species on the IUCN Red List. In the case of the Mauritius Kestrel and the Pink Pigeon the recovery was from a handful of surviving individuals. How has this level of recovery been possible?

kestrel populationCarl Jones, who has led the Mauritian programmes for over 30 years, was quick to enhance his own knowledge of kestrel breeding with techniques which had previously proven successful in efforts in New Zealand and the USA. He has used a better way. Instead of imposing a command-and-control structure on his teams, he has developed a ‘system’ and more importantly, he appears to be applying systems thinking in the way that he manages the team. Every part of the system; habitats, diet, supplementary feeding, breeding facilities, nest locations, monitoring, predator eradication, bird behaviour, technical skills, equipment.

When we look to other sectors we see approaches which are reminiscent of the Mauritian philosophy. To some extend the levels of improvement seen in the GB cycling team over the past 10 years are a comparative illustration.

“We considered everything, even the smallest improvements, to give us a competitive edge. It was the accumulation of these small details that made us unbeatable.” Dave Brailsford, Team Chief, GB Cycling  – Gold Medal winners, London 2012 Olympics

So what does this mean for us in pursuing changes and improvements in our own conservation projects? It suggests to me that any organisation would benefit from a culture of learning and continuous improvement; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that it will overcome the factors over which you have no influence. Carl Jones puts this down to understanding the species, their ecology and threats. As Juran (1989) said – focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many to achieve your purpose then, as Senge (1990) urges, always keep an open mind to unexpected outcomes and be ready to understand what else needs to be done to improve

It is the size of influence which is important. The smallest things can be significant influencers. Conservation leaders need to be ready to spot and act upon opportunities when they arise.


Groombridge, J.J., Bruford, M.W., Jones, C.G. and Nichols, R.A. (2001) Evaluating the severity of the population bottleneck in the Mauritius kestrel Falco punctatus from ringing records using MCMC estimation. Journal of Animal Ecology, 70, 401-409

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality, The Free Press, NY

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Improvement and Learning: is this a core competence for conservation leaders?

Simon Black –

Why is improvement and learning a core area of capability for a conservation leader? Surely training people, sharing information, building knowledge and overcoming failure is a natural mindset for a capable scientist or field practitioner?

In truth you need to manage morale in your team because disappointments, unexpected failures and unwelcome new threats can arise. This means that you must ensure that success and failure are an opportunity to learn, not a moment to crush the spirit of team members. If you seek knowledge – what is being achieved (results), how things are done, how to improve – then you will encourage your team members to do the same. They will bring you their  difficulties and errors rather than hide them. This will give everyone a chance to reduce problems. It will also give space for people to enquire more deeply into failures, their causes and solutions, rather than dwell on dissappointment, negativity,  blame or self-loathing. Energy will be expended where it is needed.

Of course, people sometimes screw up. But you first need to check –  is this because they are in error (neglect) or is it because they lack capability (not trained, lack of experience, or inadequate resources)? If it is the latter, it is YOUR problem not theirs – you put them in a position to fail, so do something to prevent this happening again.

Remember to give a focus to people that makes sense to them. Don’t set improvement targets – these are just number plucked out of the air. Instead, think about what current work output (results) is actually telling you, then understand whether improvements can be made. Always focus this effort on the species and ecosystems of concern – how would this improvement help…?

  • Be receptive to (and seek out) alternative solutions.
  • Let staff to challenge, share & learn from mistakes, without fear.
  • Expect—and support staff to strive for—high standards.
  • Expect the project (and its needs) to evolve through time.
  • Understand risk factors and make suitable contingencies.
  • Work on system not people; celebrate success, learn from failure.
  • Focus improvement on biodiversity & work output (not ‘targets’)
  • Recognize difference between neglect and lack of capability
  • Let people experiment with methods to improve performance.
  • Let people ask for training and provide it on a just-in-time basis.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead. Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.

Good performers will fail in a bad system

Simon Black –

Examples of failing systems are numerous, although often the finger of blame is pointed at the people who are at the sharp end.

In a blame culture managers will identify the problem as being the people at the sharp end. Blame is both self-fulfilling and self-deluding: it does not help us to understand what has gone wrong and why, because we are basing our judgement on a misplaced assumption  ‘people are the problem‘.

There is a neat way to define the power of the system, versus the expectations placed on people, in a quote attributed to Geary Rummler:   

“Put a good performer in a bad system
and the system wins every time”

So should we blame the manager? Well, simply, yes, because their job is to manage the system (and to improve it). In fact, that is pretty much all that their job should involve. As a coservation leader you must set up the goals, roles and work for your teams so that they are able to deliver the purpose of the conservation programme – and so that they know whether they are achieving this or not.

Further reading:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Rummler G. and Bache A. (1995) Improving Performance: how to manage the white space in the organization chart. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.