90 Percent of Managers Are Unproductive

Ninety percent of managers are busy but not productive (Bruch & Ghoshal, 2002). That statistic is shocking, and it’s probably downright terrifying if you are a manager because it means that in all likelihood, you are a bad manager.

The statistic comes from researchers Bruch & Ghoshal who observed managers and documented their behaviors at a number of large organizations in the 1990s.

“For the past ten years, we have studied the behavior of busy managers in nearly a dozen large companies, including Sony, LG Electronics, and Lufthansa. … Our findings on managerial behavior should frighten you: Fully 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. In other words, a mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.” (Bruch & Ghoshal, 2002)

Note: Although ProductivityReport.org is dedicated to research in personal productivity, people who are managers might struggle specifically with how to be a more productive manager. Becoming a more productive manager may be one of their personal productivity goals. While this post might not speak directly to non-managers, the takeaways are insightful for anyone who has to deal with a bad manager.

What Makes Managers So Unproductive?

Most managers, they say, spend their time micromanaging and concerning themselves with details of operations, when operations can run smoothly without oversight. They get caught up in fighting fires, trying to help their teams resolve the most pressing immediate problems they face. Or they tackle small tasks that are insignificant to the big picture. They entertain emails, phone calls, and meetings that aren’t driving any sort of innovation or change. They tend to procrastinate and therefore miss windows of opportunity. Many managers work a 12-hour day without ever conquering their to-do lists and still manage to do nothing of real value. Why?

Bruch and Ghoshal studied employees at Lufthansa, during the company’s journey from near bankruptcy in 1991 to turning a profit of 2.5 billion DM ten years later (Germany adopted the euro in 2002). The Lufthansa case is notable because the best and most productive managers had meaningful affect on whether the company turned itself around.

The researchers classify managerial behavior in four ways:

  • disengagement
  • procrastination
  • distraction
  • purposefulness.

The first three describe what bad managers do, while purposefulness is what makes a manager productive.

Procrastinators “feel insecure or fear failure.” This insecurity doesn’t necessarily come from within, although it could. It might come from a company culture that doesn’t praise good work but instead only admonishes people when things go wrong. In that kind of culture, a manager might learn that whenever she takes initiative, she’s shot down, and so she stops.

Disengaged managers have focus but lack energy. “Disengaged managers have strong reservations about the jobs they are asked to do; as a result, they approach them halfheartedly,” Bruch and Ghoshal write. Disengaged managers don’t acknowledge problems.

Distracted managers truly don’t understand the difference between being busy with being productive. They are the ones who are quick to react, but they do so without any reflection. They therefore can be very active and involved, work long hours, and have a long to-do list, but they’re not at all strategic. Bruch and Ghoshal say about 40 percent of managers exhibit this kind of behavior.

Traits of a Good Manager

Good managers think about the business in a larger sense than just the daily work of their teams. Good managers find ways to move the whole business forward, sometimes over a long term. To do it, they need focus and energy.

Energy comes from “personal commitment,” which I interpret as taking pride in one’s work. To have energy, however, also means knowing how not to burn out. There’s a leading theory about how burnout takes place called Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Theory (1998). I’ve written about conservation of resources before.

In short: We all have resources or energy within us to do our work and get through all the stresses that come our way. Every time we work or face stress, we use some of our resources. As those resources deplete, we need to take breaks to stop our bank of energy from further depleting, or to build it back up again. There are all kinds of breaks we can take, everything from stepping away from the desk for a morning coffee to taking a six-week sabbatical. If we try to keep going when we don’t have enough resources to handle what’s before us, we end up making mistakes, doing sloppy work, and cracking under pressure.

Focus, for managers, starts with knowing what the manager’s role is supposed to be. Again, managers aren’t supposed to simply oversee business as usual. Business as usual should happen with or without them. The role of the manager is find ways to move the business forward and help it achieve its mission statement or bottom line. Focus is carrying out that role with clarity. Bruch and Ghoshal say it rather elegantly:

“Think of focus as concentrated attention—the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion. Focused managers aren’t in reactive mode; they choose not to respond immediately to every issue that comes their way or get sidetracked from their goals by distractions like e-mail, meetings, setbacks, and unforeseen demands. Because they have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish, they carefully weigh their options before selecting a course of action. Moreover, because they commit to only one or two key projects, they can devote their full attention to the projects they believe in.”

Importantly, energy and focus need to happen together. Good managers have both, whereas bad managers often have one or the other, or neither.

Good managers also know that their employees need support, adequate resources, and a work environment that keeps them engaged. McClean et al. (2001) note that employees who are told to take frequent breaks throughout the day (again, Conservation of Resources Theory) often don’t because they’re afraid their bosses and co-workers will think they’re slacking off. A good manager, however, would support adequate breaks.

Narayanan et al. (2009) say that good managers also don’t let employees get bored with one specialized skill. Managers, they say, should provide employees “with a good balance between specialization at just one or a couple tasks and shallow exposure to a wide variety of tasks.” Workers who were allowed to dabble in other tasks and ideas, without sacrificing a lot of time to learn them deeply, showed increased productivity.


Bruch, H., & Ghoshal, S. (2002). Beware the Busy Manager. Harvard Business Review. February 2002. Retrieved August 1, 2016 from https://hbr.org/2002/02/beware-the-busy-manager.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Narayanan, S., Balasubramanian, S., & Swaminathan, J. M. (2009). A matter of balance: Specialization, task variety, and individual learning in a software maintenance environment. Management Science 55(11): 1861–1876.

McLean, L., Tingley, M., Scott, R. N., & Rickards, J. (2001). Computer terminal work and the benefit of microbreaks. Applied ergonomics, 32(3), 225-237.

Image from Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, CC.


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