Raffaella Sadun on Effective Management

Social Science Bites

Aug 1 2023 • 25 mins

While it seems intuitively obvious that good management is important to the success of an organization, perhaps that obvious point needs some evidence given how so many institutions seem to muddle through regardless. Enter Raffaela Sadun, the Charles E. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and co-leader of the Digital Reskilling Lab there. Working through several managerial mega-projects she co-founded, Sadun can both identify traits of successful management and even put a quantitative value to what good management can bring to a firm (spoiler alert – as Sadun will explain, it’s a big number).

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Sadun discusses her research findings with host David Edmonds, who open his inquiry with a very basic question: What, exactly, do we mean by ‘management’?

“It's a complicated answer,” Sadun replies. “I think that management is the consistent application of processes that relate to both the operations of the organization as well as the management of human resources. And at the end of the day, management is not that difficult. It’s being able to implement these processes and update them and sort of adapt them to the context of the organization.”

In a practical sense, that involves things like monitoring workers, solving problems and coordinating disparate activities, activities that ultimately require someone “to be in charge.” But not just anyone, Sadun details, and not just someone who happens to be higher up. “The most effective managers are the ones that are able to empower and get information and reliable information from their team, which is fundamentally a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach.”

If that sounds a little different from the adversarial relationship many expect between workers and managers, well, good management is a little different, she continues. “I can see how you can think of this as being a trade-off (profit versus well-being of workers), but if you look at the type of practices that we measure, as I said, they're not exploitations, but they are ways to get people engaged and empowered to sort of participate into the work. It’s always possible that there are organizations that push so much on one side of the equation that make people very unhappy. In my experience, these type of situations are not sustainable.”

Good people – the ones employers prize -- won’t put up with too much garbage. “Talented people are attracted--to the extent that they want to work for somebody else—they're attracted to places where their life is not miserable.”

Sadun came to her conclusions through projects like the World Management Survey, which she co-founded two decades ago. “We spoke with more than 20,000 managers to date—around 35 countries, [and ..] collected typically [by] talking with middle managers.” Other big projects include the Executive Time Use Study, and MOPS-H, the first large-scale management survey in hospitals and one conducted in partnership with the US Census Bureau.  In her native Italy, Sadun was an economic adviser to the Italian government in the early 2020s, earning the highest honor possible from the government, the Grande Ufficiale dell'Ordine "Al Merito della Repubblica Italiana." In the United States, serves as director of the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Group in Organizational Economics, and is faculty co-chair of the Harvard Project on the Workforce.

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