Understanding Managerial Development: New Evidence?

August 31, 2009

I was excited to see an article on management development in the most recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ), one of the highest quality research journals in the field. The study involved 215 junior level managers and their supervisors.  The well designed study looked at how the developmental quality of managerial assignments and the learning goal orientation of the mangers affected mangers’ end-state competencies. 

Developmental managerial assignments allow young managers to assume unfamiliar responsibilities, develop new directions, address challenging problems, handle external pressure, work with diverse employees, influence without authority, and make high stakes decisions that affect numerous products or services.

Learning goal orientation assessed the extent to which the junior managers actively sought opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge.

Mangers’ end-state competencies assessed things like broad business knowledge, the courage to take a stand, the ability to bring out the best in people, the ability to act with integrity, risk taking, sensitivity to cultural differences, insightfulness, and commitment to success.

Here is a summary of their findings:

  • Managers in developmental assignments achieve higher levels of managerial competencies. 
  • Managers with higher levels of a learning goal orientation are more likely to be in developmental assignments, especially when managers perceive that they have access to on-the-job opportunities.
  • Managers with a strong learning goal orientation gain more competencies from developmental assignments.

The suggestions for aspiring managers are to seek developmental assignments and other work experiences that can contribute to their long term growth.  The advice for organizations is that by identifying individuals with a stronger learning goal orientation and placing them in developmental assignments, they may be able to accelerate managerial development.

Is there really anything radically new here?  Aren’t these practices that leading edge organizations have already implemented?

I am a HUGE supporter of evidence-based management, but I find it difficult to advocate when the relevance of the best research often lags the contemporary practice of management.  Perhaps the role of scientific management research is more to confirm, explain, and document contemporary practice than to discover and develop new models of management.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Hi Bret,

    Again, you and I are aligned! I love reading the research but often have a “no duh” reaction. Current practice and intuitive thought have already convinced us of the research’s truth before it is published!

    So perhaps that is the reason for it. Because we work in this field, it provides us with the confirmation that we are on the right track (well, at least it does that for me!). And, since I work with a lot of engineers and scientists who appreciate evidence that this tough-to-measure, people stuff is grounded in some research, it provides confirmation to them too.

    Thanks for another great post. I always want to hear more from you.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think you are right Mary Jo. The best we can usually do is to examine what is already taking place to confirm if it works. That does have value because sometimes we are able to show that what is being done in practice is not as effective as some might think. So right – the people stuff is very tough to measure! Thanks!! Bret

  2. Joseph Logan says:

    “Perhaps the role of scientific management research is more to confirm, explain, and document contemporary practice than to discover and develop new models of management.”

    Well, yes, I also have that impression upon reading the research, but I think there is an “either/or” trap here. There is probably a value to confirming that current practice works–diffusion of practice from leading organizations to lagging (?) ones–but would we really want to abandon the search for new models of management?

    Authors in the journals are challenged both in seeing dissemination of new models into practice and in publishing highly nonconformist models. Perhaps the argument here is to augment the “well, duh” articles with some that develop new models *and* culminate in prototyping in actual organizations.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Appreciate your thoughts, Joseph. As someone that has to try to conduct and publish research, I can tell you that in my opinion the practical application is the least important consideration of the editors and reviewers of the top journals. They are VERY focused on explaining, but often times the explanations are about things that really don’t matter. We have locked ourselves into a charade of incrementalism and I don’t see us getting out of it anytime soon. Just like organizations, POWERFUL forces for the status quo. Thanks!! Bret

  3. Wally Bock says:

    For years I’ve said that leadership is an apprentice trade. You learn it on the job. You learn it by watching the masters, listening to what they have to say and then trying things yourself. After you try them you use feedback to adjust your performance the next time out. That’s why this study seems to say.

    You ask about the role of “evidence” in “evidence based management.” One key is in this post. You define the research as a “well designed study.” That’s crucial.

    One of the problems with “evidence based management” is that a lot of the so-called evidence is crap. Studies are poorly designed and horribly presented. Correlation is mixed up with causation. Context is not accounted for. Findings appropriate for a specific situation are presented as universal truth.

    Another problem is that same one that afflicts evidence based medicine. A technique that is a best practice in a one clinical setting simply may not be appropriate for a different one.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Wally, as always you are right on. There are almost no real causal studies – it is just too difficult to establish in field research. I really appreciate reading studies where the authors are very conservative about the findings and offer plenty of caution for interpretation. That said, I still prefer this research with all its limitations over the million person studies, which are not studies at all but simply opinion surveys. Thanks Wally!! Bret

  4. Michael Ling says:

    Hi Bret,

    There is so much stuff getting recycled in almost anywhere you look. I don’t think there is anything special about the academia that it could be exempted from this phenomenon.

    The approach I’d take is take away the part that is new, learn it and move on. It’s not worth the time getting in bed with stuff I don’t like unless I have a better reason.

    Best Regards

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Michael, I think you are right. It is a little more difficult to recycle academic stuff, so what we do is chop what exists into smaller and smaller pieces. We will modify a concept slightly, give it a different name, and start a new stream of research. All of that actually does have some value, but it makes EBM harder. Most of the positive stuff – happiness, flourishing, thriving, engagement, well being – is just a big mess. And you are hearing that from someone that does research on the positive! Thanks once again for your comment! Bret

  5. Wally Bock says:

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


    Wally Bock

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    This is an honor I value and sincerely appreciate, Wally. And your comments always make anything I write so much better than its original form. Thanks!! Bret

  6. jim sellner says:

    Thanks for this. My niche is Zoomers (50+) & Super Zoomers (60+) who are still actively contributing in the workplace.
    So this research is good.
    What needs to happen is for older workers to be taught why & how to transfer our experience & skills to younger people and why & how to develop our Emotional Intelligence so we can navigate the generational gap.
    This would be a win-win outcome.
    dr jm sellner PhD,DipC.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Jim, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I have never heard the terms Zoomers and Super Zoomers, but I agree with you these are very valuable workers! All generations have so much to offer each other, but the communication is key. thanks!!! Bret