Narcissistic, calculating or tedious? Balancing our working styles using Henry Mintzberg’s triangle

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

14 Nov 2019

14 Nov 2019 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

“Managing is neither a science nor a profession; it is a practice, learned primarily through experience, and rooted in context.” Henry Mintzberg, Managing, 2009

When Canadian management guru, Henry Mintzberg, published his 2009 book, Management, he was revisiting old ground. Back in 1973, his book, The Nature of Managerial Work, had made a significant contribution to the literature by focusing for the first time on what managers actually do

By tracking the working lives of chief executives, he identified his famous management ‘roles’, a blueprint for how managers and leaders operate by moving between the 10 roles summarised below. For example, if we’re recruiting and mentoring a new staff member, we’re in leader mode; if we’re at an industry conference, we’re a ‘monitor’; if we’re knocking heads together, a ‘disturbance handler’. The trick – as a manager – is to have the self-awareness to understand the roles, what they mean and to balance their deployment in the right time at the right place. 

Mintzberg’s managerial roles

  • Interpersonal: roles that involve coordination and interaction with employees
  • Informational: roles that involve handling, sharing, and analysing information
  • Decisional: roles that require decision-making

Thirty years and a lifetime’s work later, he decided to retrace his steps, acting once again as a fly on the wall in organisations of all sizes and types, and across sectors and continents, to test his original thesis. As well as revisiting the roles – defined in 2009 as competencies which need to be deployed in “dynamic balance” – Mintzberg also shared a new vision for practice-based management with his art-science-craft triangle, similarly based on balance and self-awareness. 

Management as art, craft and science 

Railing against what he considers to be a false – at least in practice – distinction between management and leadership, and basing his thinking once more on how managers really spend their time, Mintzberg tells us that management is a practice that takes place where art, craft and applied science meet:

  • Art produces ideas, insights and vision based on intuition; 
  • Craft is about learning from experience, working things out as we go along; 
  • Science provides order through the analysis of knowledge and data. 

Art, science, craft and how we behave at work

Mintzberg also realised that different combinations of these three categories are a means of identifying different management styles

  • Art represents an insightful management style grounded in intuition; focusing on visions and ideas.
  • craft is an engaging management style based upon experience.
  • Science a cerebral style, deliberated and analytical.

He points out that there are myriad combinations of management styles, and criticises his predecessors for attempting to pigeonhole managers into specific categories when, in truth, one size doesn’t always fit all. 

Thinking about our personal styles in this way does, though, allow us to consider the effects of how we behave at work – for good and ill. Again, it’s a question of balance: no one style should be dominant, and there are definite disadvantages to relying on one particular style:

Too much focus on applying the science? Then being cerebral might tip over into the calculating.

Too much art? A focus on insight, the creative and insightful to the exclusion of all else can become narcissistic

Too much craft? Those among us who are stuck in the engaging style, finding it hard to beyond their own personal experience, can become tedious.

Even a combination of two styles, without the third, can be problematic. 

  • Styles excluding craft result in disconnected managing.
  • Styles ignoring science result in disorganised managing. 
  • Styles excluding art result in dispirited managing.

The best place to be is inside the triangle, aware of our default management styles and the influence they might have on others. 

Mintzberg also strikes a note of caution about context. Understanding our personal styles cannot be done in the abstract. Like that elusive search for authenticity, we need to be alert to the situation and context in which we’re operating. Mintzberg challenges Goleman’s notion of the manager as the ‘chameleon’, believing instead that we’re at our most effective when we are a natural ‘fit’ with our work contexts. A degree of flexibility and adaptability is necessary, but trying to be someone or something we aren’t is not the best way to manage:

“Recently, a professor of education asked me what I thought about the current American practice of appointing retired army officers to head up school systems. Good idea, I replied, and let’s have schoolteachers run the army.”

Where do you sit on the triangle? Try Mintzberg and Patwell’s diagnostic to find out.

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