Looking at management challenges from a systematic theoretical perspective

Taking a full-time MBA study has many advantages. One of them, which I just realised recently, is that I can take good time to look back at all the management practices and challenges that I have encountered, and re-think all of those from a more systematic theoretical perspective. Such process was triggered by a great course at Cambridge MBA – Management Practice.

In the “real-world”, you hardly have time to take a step back to look at the challenges outside the box, because you are always drown into the actual issues and challenges at hand. At least that is my experience. While I was a Project or Team Manager at work, I always spent time on “what” and “how” to resolve certain management issues, but never really had time to think in term of “why”, at least not systematically.

It is amazing to see that many of, if not all, the day-to-day management challenges, can be systematically explained by some well researched theories. One such example is the power distance, a parameter and concept brought up by Hofstede. As Hofstede describes it:

“Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.”

In culture where power distance is big, manager makes a decision and employee will just follow it. On the other hand, where power distance is small, managers tend to distribute the decision powers with the team by consulting them thoroughly for instance. Of course this is never black and white, but to a certain extent. What is really interesting here is that when two teams or organisations from different power distances need to work together.  It won’t be too hard to figure out from theoretical point of view that when low power distance manager leads high power distance subordinate, it will generate some frustrations, and similarly when high power distance manager leads low power distance subordinate.

However, two aspects are not too apparent. One is that such frustration is at both parties, it is definitely two-way, not one way. While a manager feels uncomfortable, the same amount is with the subordinate. The other is that a manager is usually subordinate to his/her own boss, so a manager will experience all the possible frustrations in practice. If only all the managers and employees involved are aware of the difference in power distance, the cross culture teamwork will become much easier, but that is rarely the case. I believe that is exactly where an experienced and knowledgeable manager can make a real difference. He/she can effectively coach the people at both sides on this aspect and help integrate the cultures more effectively.

Different management challenges like this are many. It feels so great when they can be explained by theories, because then you feel much more prepared when next time similar situations are faced, and you can pretty much predict what will happen, and therefore can plan well in advance the necessary actions to make all the stories smooth.