‘People are a business’s most important asset’ is a cliché which business leaders across the spectrum continue to spout. One hopes that they’d like to believe it, but HR practices often fall short of the cliché. How and why?

Why don’t people do what they’re supposed to do?

Let’s turn the tables. When Ferdinand Fournies wrote his magnum opus, ‘Why don’t employees do what they’re supposed to do?[1] in the 1980s, the practice of HR was enjoying a respect which it probably hadn’t experienced since the heyday of Frederick Taylor’s ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’ (1911). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was being widely taught on supervisory-management courses, along with Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene (two-factor) Theory[2] of job satisfaction.‘Interaction management’ was the rage, promoting such memorable checklist principles as ‘Listen and respond with empathy’.

The 1980s also unveiled the promising realisation that human behavior could not be neatly cataloged and expected to respond to a checklist of principles and prompts, like Skinner’s rats in a cage. So along came situational leadership theory[3]which proposed that management behaviours – the way we handle people – are a function of the circumstances in which we are managing. These circumstances are as much about the people being managed as they are about our preferred leadership ‘style’. In short, there are more (and less) appropriate ways to deal with people, given their different levels of knowledge, skill, and experience – what Hersey and Blanchard called the ‘maturity level’ of your employees.

An understanding of this background – what is often called ‘motivation theory’ – is important to an understanding of the complexity of the job of supervising and managing people. Toss into this mix an understanding of how teams form and become effective (see Bruce Tuckman’s research[4] in the field of group development), and you begin to understand why organisations have so many ‘people problems’. Managing people is a tricky business.

Yet some leaders get it right, are loved and respected by their people, while others just continue to manage. This, too, was another important shift in the debate of 1980s management theory and practice. The big corporates used to send their high-flyers on a ‘management development program’ to hone their people skills, but by the 1990s the talk was all about leadership. Is there a difference, and does it make any difference? Well, yes and yes. Take a look at the typical chart flashed up in a supervisory-management training course of the 80s:


Management Leadership
Concentrates on doing things efficiently – doing things right Creates a vision – doing the right thing
Managers have subordinates Leaders have followers
Managers are productive and effective Leaders are inspirational and charismatic
Manages the complexity of tasks and the organization structure Manages the changes, internal or external
Managers control subordinates Leaders empower followers
Projects are managed People are led
Organizes teams, allocate resources, build and execute plans to achieve the objectives Aligns the organization to the vision
Analyses the issues by breaking them down into smaller problems and then solve each one (top-down approach) Synthesizes put together all the issues and solve them holistically (bottom-up approach)


There are variations of these characteristics, of course, but most aspiring managers/leaders were taught that the functions of management are to plan, organise and control/coordinate, while a leader inspires and motivates. Also, a manager’s power and authority is derived from his position and role and can be taught and learned, while a leader’s authority is innate in their approach to people, focuses on Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and is fundamentally about organisational change.

Now, here one might be tempted to make some sort of value judgment about which is ‘better’: management or leadership? The thinking reader will hopefully conclude that both are necessary for the organisation’s success and growth. Many a charismatic leader has risen to heights in an organisation through being ‘a really nice guy’ without the ability to plan and organise his way out of a paper bag. Such individuals usually have the important skill of being able to assemble a strong team of managers under them to carry out the day-to-day control of the business, and these managers are often quite happy to do so: they like working for this guy!

This is not to suggest that management skills are less important. The type of leader I described above is often subject to the ‘Peter Principle’[5], which warns that managers rise to the level of their incompetence. If it is true that competent employees will continue to be promoted until they reach a level where the job requirements are beyond them, in which position they will remain ‘forever’, then all organisations will tend to be led and managed by incompetent people. This is evidently not the case – although some may argue the opposite.

Of course, there are solutions to the paradox of the Peter Principle. Ensuring that the promoted employee is fully equipped with the knowledge and skills to perform competently, through further education and training, is one obvious solution. Recruiting people into the organisation with the required knowledge, skills, and experience is another.

1Peter, Laurence J.; Hull, Raymond (1969). The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York: William Morrow and Company. p. 8. ISBN 0-688-27544-3.

2Fournies, Ferdinand (2nd ed. 2007). Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To and What You Can Do About It. ISBN-13: 978-0071486156; ISBN-10: 0071486151

3Herzberg, Frederick (January–February 1968). “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” (PDF). Harvard Business Review. 46 (1): 53–62. OCLC 219963337

4Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of Organizational Behavior 3rd Edition– Utilizing Human Resources. New Jersey/Prentice Hall.

[1]Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965) ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.


Properly planned and executed recruitment and training are fundamental to the success of any business, and have rightly been given the attention they deserve over the last few decades. Yet many organisations continue to recruit and select badly, and to neglect – or waste – resources directed to training and development. Why?

Much of the answer lies in ignoring – or not understanding – the fundamental building blocks that must be put in place before starting on a process of recruitment and training. How confident are you in ticking the following boxes?

  • You’ve defined the organisation’s purpose and strategic goals, short-term and long term.
  • Your people have a good idea of your product and service range and benefits, and you know who your target market is – otherwise known as your customers.
  • You’ve created an organisational structure which will service the needs of the business and its customers.
  • You’ve set up a process for evaluating the effectiveness of the business and its people. In other words, you’ve established financial benchmarks and ratios, and a performance management system which fairly measures each employee’s performance and progress; and
  • You’ve implemented a compensation system which fairly rewards the effort and contribution of each employee.

Now, perhaps, you can start to think about hiring some people to fit the organisation that you’ve planned for. Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.