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leadership versus management

Managers Undervalued Compared to ‘Leaders’

Employees’ views on “leadership” are often inflated, while “management” earns less credit, a new study shows

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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A recent study shows that there is a societal bias toward those in leadership positions versus those in management roles. This heightened favoritism for leaders could be detrimental to the success of businesses and academic institutions, if not recognized.

“A ‘love for leadership’ seems to influence a lot of decisions that don’t match situational needs,” says Kevin Kniffin, assistant professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, in a press release on the findings. “The bias for leadership is among those to which people and organizations should apply deliberative thinking to make better decisions.”

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Kniffin is the lead author on the study, “On Leading and Managing: Synonyms or Separate (and Unequal)?” published in the Academy of Management Discoveries.

The team included Kniffin, as well as James Detert, from the University of Virginia, and Hannes Leroy, of Erasmus University. The researchers conducted three sets of experiments. Each set of studies had a distinct goal—the first was to explore the nature of the distinction between leadership and management. Study 1A asked participants to create a list of the top things a manager or leader (depending which term they were assigned) does/should do, using single verbs. Responses were scored based on frequency and order of importance. The top five verbs for managers were: 

  • Organizes
  • Delegates
  • Supervises
  • Oversees
  • Listens

For leaders, the top five were:

  • Assists
  • Trains
  • Controls
  • Motivates
  • Communicates

These results demonstrate a clear distinction between the two roles, and provided context for the rest of the series studies. Study 1B took this concept a step further. The researchers compiled the actions and behaviors provided by participants from the first study, and asked the second study participants to rate 26 of them, each on how central they are to being a leader/manager.

The researchers found that the words “inspires,” “encourages,” “motivates,” “guides,” and “teaches” were rated as significantly more central to being a leader, whereas the words “supervises,” “fires,” “bosses,” “oversees,” and “budgets” were rated as more central to being a manager. This suggests that those in leadership roles are more relationship-oriented, whereas mangers are simply more task-oriented, without much overlap between the two.

The second set of studies sought to determine participants’ views on how learnable, how valuable, and how flattered they would be if someone called them “great” at each of 10 activities highlighted from the first set of studies. Here, participants rated the leader-associated activities as more valuable and less learnable, and would be more flattered to be considered great at them. 

In the third set of experiments, the researchers identify a potential solution to curb the overvaluation of leaders, by requiring participants to slow their decision-making process. 

Participants were tasked with allocating $10 million in stock purchases based on the description of a leader or manager taking over the “company.” Some participants were required to decide in under a minute, while others had time to write down how leadership or management skills relate to the circumstances. Under time constraints, nearly 60 percent of investments were given to leaders. But those who had more time gave just 43 percent. In a follow-up, time constrained participants were able to review their decisions and change them. In this scenario, they allocated just 43 percent to the “leader,” demonstrating that the love for leadership can be tamed and a more rational decision can be made if given more time to properly evaluate.

“Overall, our results show that (1) there is a distinction in the activities people associate with leadership and management, (2) people are more likely to prefer leadership even where management might be the more logical choice, and (3) active deliberation reduces the preference for leadership,” write the researchers. 

According to Kniffin, the team was motivated to conduct these studies to “help contribute more precision to debates over leading and management. More precision in discussions leads to less distraction, and more progress toward better decision making,” he says.

As the study highlights, there has been a shift in the perception of leaders versus managers over time. Citing the Wall Street Journal as one example, the researchers share that articles per year during the period between 1989 through 2017 including the term “managers” had a downward trend—from 4,481 in 1989, to 2,839 in 2017. In contrast, articles using the term “leaders” increased from 3,235 to 4,911 in the same time frame. Google searches of management and leadership keywords showed a similar trend. 

“By suggesting the value of considering management in its own right, rather than as a subordinate form or category of leadership, these results may motivate other scholars to devote more theoretical and empirical attention to the ways and conditions under which ‘management’ is valued in organizations,” conclude the researchers.