It’s Time to Challenge Received Wisdom

Posted on 10 December 2020

Why do people go on repeating these mindless mantras of management?

Photo: © endostock—

How much of our present mess is due to constant repetition of ideas about management that have not been explored as they should? I’m always struck by how readily some leaders still rely on ideas and theories going back to the 1930s or earlier, even though today’s environment for business has little in common with that time—outside of media headlines invoking the Great Depression to add to our sense of gloom.

A mantra is, properly speaking, “a word or sound used to aid concentration during meditation.” From that it has come to mean any slogan or saying that is constantly repeated, often as a substitute for thinking deeply (or at all) about an issue.

Management has more than its fair share of such mantras. Many have entered the folklore of leadership and are solemnly taught and repeated as if they contain timeless wisdom. Sadly, many of them are like the sound “Om!:” highly resonant, even evocative, but devoid of any actual meaning.

I think it’s high time that we questioned many of the truisms that we bandy about so glibly.

The answer is better communications!

We don’t have too little communication in most organizations, we usually have way too much. Meetings, phone calls, e-mail messages (usually copied to half the workforce), instant messages—an obsession with “staying in touch” at all times.

Is it all necessary? Not at all. Do people know more as a result? Almost never.

Most of this communication is “top down” and have far less to do with co-ordination or co-operation than with the boss staying in control and knowing what everyone else is doing. A great many bosses spend their lives in terror that their people will talk about them behind their backs: say something that will make them look bad, say things that those further up in the hierarchy shouldn’t get to know about, or (worst of all) show enough initiative to pass them on the corporate ladder. If you tell someone to achieve a result and let him or her alone to get on with it, you have to trust that person. If you demand to be “kept in touch” all the time, you don’t have to give them either trust or freedom to show what they can do without you.

‘Better communication’ is too often treated as a panacea for all management ills. ‘Improving communications’ training is a favorite of consultants and trainers precisely because it’s so vague and imprecise. You can rarely prove whether or not it actually works. Like most kinds of corporate ‘spin’, it sounds good yet has no substance to back it up.

The answer is better Team-working!

‘Team working’ has become a plague. Like termites, it’s creeping in everywhere and destroying initiative, self-confidence, personal responsibility, and creativity. I’m all in favor of working in a team, just as long as it’s truly appropriate; and that means only when what needs to be done cannot be accomplished by individuals working independently.

Mostly, getting a team together slows work and ensures nobody feels individually responsible. All the meetings for ‘co-ordination’ and ‘reporting back’ waste so much time that actual work goes more and more slowly.

Control-freak bosses have found that team working is a great way to interfere and keep all decisions in their own hands. If you set up a team, and convene regular ‘progress meetings’, you can give the illusion of delegation, while checking on everyone in minute detail. In fact, you can probably so tie people up in ‘reporting back’ and ‘sharing ideas’ that you will, in effect, reduce them to obedient toilers while you control exactly what they do.

Forget such nonsense. Team working is far less useful or important than you have been brought up to think. It is not the same as working in a coordinated way. It is not the same as being co-operative and helpful to others. Neither of those needs a team to happen. In the vast majority of situations, the best way to get something done is to give it to an individual and tell them to get on with it without needless interference from you or anyone else.

You have to be a tough guy to survive in business!

You do not. This type of uncivilized behavior is the result of bad management and complacent executives, more interested in counting their money than considering how they earned it. Multiple surveys from the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom suggest that between 15% and 25% of employees report being the victims of persistent psychological abuse at work (and the percentages are much higher in some occupations, like nursing). A great deal of workplace stress is caused by bosses whose characters are tainted with mean-mindedness, egotism, bullying, and tyranny.

Of course, they don’t describe themselves in such realistic and unflattering terms. They use phrases like: “It’s a jungle out there, and you have to be tough to compete.” They joyfully repeat the old saw that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. They promote bullies and brown-nosers, claiming that they have earned those higher positions because of they way that they consistently “bring home the bacon,” conveniently ignoring how these people do it. Top executives are often the most egotistical, bullying, and autocratic people around, and they teach those below them to behave in the same way.

Using uncivilized, bullying, and sadistic approaches to leadership may look as if it will deliver better profits that the nice guys get. In the short-term, that may occasionally be true. But beyond that, it will hurt the organization and produce a bad-smelling reputation amongst employees, customers, suppliers, and everyone else needed to make the place work.

Toughness is not the same as aggression or egotism. You do need to be resilient, that’s for sure, but often that’s mostly because of the jerks you have to put up with.

We have to do this to compete!

This is total idiocy! Responding to competition in this way means little more than doing more of what everyone else does; and that’s a one-way street with a ‘No Outlet’ sign at the end of it.

The Law of Diminishing Returns ensures that competition by means of cost cutting, staff reductions, overseas outsourcing, and the like will only work for a limited time. Once everyone is running headlong down this same track, additional cuts must swiftly become so deep that they start to harm the business itself. You cannot go on finding “savings” for ever from a finite set of resources. There is always a limit. The closer you get to that limit, the less return you get for the same level of savings.

Organizations and their leaders have been engaged in a gigantic game of ‘chicken’. They’ve pushed one another further and further down the road of short-termism and pure expediency, afraid to be the first one that blinks or jumps out of the way of the approaching train. In their arrogance and folly, they have challenged one another to stay longest on a path that has produced only misery on a truly colossal scale.

There is always an alternative—in this case, a far better one. Doing more of the same can be replaced by doing something different, which offers an almost infinite range of possibilities that is unlikely to run out in anyone’s lifetime. All it takes is courage and clear-headedness. Shouldn’t we demand both of those from any leader?

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Ilja Preuß says:

    I agree that communication and team work are often not well-enough understood and too often used in a mindless way.

    Still, your arguments really aren’t arguments against *better* communication and/or team work, they are arguments against *more* of *badly implemented* communication/team work. Having less of it is just one remedy, and an inferior one to actually improving the implementation, in my opinion.

    For the record, I’m not a consultant making money by training people, just a software developer who likes to work in a place where work is fun - and where improvements in communication and team work have in fact improved both productivity and fun.

  2. CK says:

    Boy do I whole-heartily AGREE!!! It is my belief that these bosses (I’d hardly call them ‘leaders’ in the true sense of the word) found out at an early age as a means to get their way. The school-ground bullies are now the bosses! Why? Because it WORKED!

    As to the nursing profession … I can’t speak in regards to the working environment. I had a Great Uncle (WWI vet) that would go to the VA Hospital. It wouldn’t be long before he would have the nurses ‘eating out of his hand.’ He stated that most of the people there were demanding!

    As an example, the patients would ring the buzzer demanding water, etc. He, on the other hand would wait until he saw a nurse walk by and request for water (or whatever) - when they had the time and wasn’t busy - and then thank them!

    It got to the point where the nurses would ‘jump’ to assist him despite their busy schedule. The old saying goes “you catch more flies with honey then you do with vinegar.” People tend to like to do things for others when shown kindness and sometimes go out of their way.

    As to the saying “It’s a jungle out there!” - there is a book published (that I have yet to read … it’s on my list) named “The Power of WE.”

  3. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Ilja Preuß: I hear what you say, but stick by my contention that a lot of communication is not necessary (especially group communication), whether it is done well or badly (though well is clearly a great improvement).

    Part of the problem is that some people like a lot of contact, while others don’t. This should be purely a matter of personal choice and leaders should be able to respond accordingly; but various management gurus and consultants have made such a fetish of communication that it gets rammed down everyone’s throats, like it (and need it) or not.

    It’s also a great time-waster. Only this week I spoke with a senior manager who is the most amiable of people. He had just come from a meeting. I asked what it had been like and he said, “Boring and pointless—as usual.” When that’s the response from even a loyal and positive person, you know you have got it wrong. And how long do many people spend every day wading through needless—usually cc’d—e-mails?

    If it works for you and makes your place of work more fun, that’s great. I hope it goes on that way. Just realize that it doesn’t work for everyone—and probably not for anyone all of the time. My complaint is with forced communication done on an ideological basis, not with good communication done when it is needed and not otherwise.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: Thanks for your comment. Please see what I wrote in response to Ilja as a summation of my concerns with over-communication and communication used as a means of control. Keep reading, my friend.

  5. CK says:

    Having a meeting just to have a meeting IS pointless! A meeting should ONLY be caled if there IS something to talk about or resolve!

    In reference to e-mails … One time in class we were talking about spam. Everyone hates spam and how they block the outside intruders. I, on the other hand, explained that spam can be an INTERNAL issue as well! I receive so much INTERNAL spam that it bogs down my account! But of course there is some that DO have information in it that I may need. So I really can’t just block it!

    As to team work … I laugh when I hear “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” I have come to respond “But there are FOUR ‘I’s in initiative!” I see teams as well as individuals being effective ONLY if they are empowered to take “initiative” to resolve issues on their own!

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: All excellent points. Thanks for making them. Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Hayli says:

    Constant communication and pointless meetings have long been a way for employee productivity to be surveyed - an indirect, but not-so-subtle, form of micromanagement. It’s so ironic because these are the very things that take time away from being productive.

  8. Wally Bock says:

    Congratulations! I chose this post as one of the top five posts from the business blogs for this week on my Midweek Look at the Business Blogs. You can check out my comments on this and the other four posts at

    Wally Bock

  9. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Hayli: Good point! Thanks for the comment. Keep reading, my friend.

  10. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Wally Bock: Thanks! Keep reading, my friend.

  11. Bay Jordan says:


    I think you make some valid points, but your headline led me to expect more. You start off by saying that management hark back to practices from the 1930’s which is often very true. However, the solution to that is not to improve communication but to change management practices!

    For example one of the most blatant example of management blindly following old habits is the rush to lay off people as soon as there is any kind of downturn in the economy. It was reported the other day that 1 MILLION PEOPLE have lost their jobs in the PAST 3 MONTHS. If you take the cliche of an average family being 2.2 kids that means 4.4 million people have been affected!! If that doesn’t suggest laying people off is a fashion trend, I don’t know what does! Especially now after decades of “right-sizing”!

    This suggests that there is a yawning chasm between economic and commercial sense, because management seems to have no concept that these actions are exacerbating the whole economic climate, which has to have a greater commercial effect than the downturn would have had to begin with.

    Research also shows that companies that layoff people take longer to bounce back when the economic tide turns. This will be even more ture if these companies were supposed to be “right-sized” before all this.

    I accept that sometimes redundancy may be unavoidable, but the unthinking, knee-jerk fashionable reaction with so little effort to find feasible alternatives makes me mad. Honda UK’s recent shutting down production until February when they will review the situation, is an exception and the first positive sign I have seen for this, but others need to follow suit. That is where I am focusing all my attention at present. There are other optons that can mitigate the impact of the economic downturn.

    If any of your readers want to learn more or rally to the cause I recommend that they go to my new website as a start.

  12. Bob says:

    Thank you for some very evocative points. The right balance of group participation and individual responsibility is essential. I have found many cases where the staff has felt historically disenfranchised, and often a group setting and joint decision making is the first corrective step. That said, it is a sagacious boss/director/who uses the group to identify individuals willing and capable of assuming more responsibility and producing results.

  13. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bob: Thanks for a perceptive comment. Keep reading, my friend.

  14. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bay Jordan: We’re in violent agreement, I think. One article cannot cover all the areas in which received wisdom is at fault. I was focused on one area; you have added another. Your comment makes an important point un showing that short-sightedness in decisions goes way beyond fashions in management style and techniques.

    Knee-jerk layoffs have been with us before. They’re usually one of the clearest signs of inadequate, incompetent management at the top of any organization. I’ve always thought it’s like realizing that you’re badly in debt and responding by taking all your ready cash and setting fire to it to help you see what to do.

    Thanks for the link. Keep reading, my friend.

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