Three powerful theories every people manager should know

4 min read  |   30 April, 2021   By Laura Sands

A dark steel sign with the words "the law" on it in metal capital letters that stand out from the sign.

The hardest part about being a people manager is trying to understand what's going on in your team and understanding why things don't go as planned. Over the years the scientific community has ventured into this area and proposed a number of theories to help the beleaguered people manager.

With these mechanisms in place, people managers can better understand what motivates and demotivates their teams. And this understanding can be translated into actions which help foster a more productive and happier team.

Three theories every people manager should know

Parkinson's law

Even if you don’t know this by name, you’ll probably have experienced it for yourself. Parkinson’s Law states that, 'work expands so as to fill up the time available for its completion'. We've all been there - you give a member of your team a task to do that should take an hour but for some reason it's reached the end of the day and only come together in the last hour.

The term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous article he wrote for The Economist in 1955. Seventy years on and Parkinson's law is every bit as applicable now as it was when it was first published. 

How can people manager's beat Parkinson's Law?

You can beat Parkinson's Law by:

  1. Scoping work so that everyone knows what is needed
  2. Define what 'done' looks like
  3. Setting boundaries so that everyone is clear on timescales and budgets
  4. Breaking tasks down into milestones with deadlines
  5. Setting challenges and incentives to get the job done quicker
  6. Knowing what comes after task completion
  7. Gaming the system - if you see Parkinson's Law at work then consider audacious goals or making expectations highly public



The Losada Line

A decade of extensive research on high and low performing teams by psychologist Marcial Losada came up with the number 2.9013. This represents the ratio of positive to negative interactions required to make a team successful.

It takes roughly 3 positive comments, experiences or expressions to offset the effects of just one negative comment.

This explains why it's so difficult for people managers to lift employees out of a bad mood when something has gone wrong. It could also explain why an underperforming team goes on a downward spiral - there's just not enough good news around.

How can people managers work with the Losada Line?

To start with, it’s important to understand that you can't beat the Losada Line. So instead, good people managers learn how to work with it. Here’s how:

  1. Build credit in the bank of positive feedback. Our Kudos tool is a good example of an easy way to give positive feedback
  2. Always look for opportunities to celebrate
  3. Constantly be on the look-out for things that go right and make it clear you've noticed
  4. Catch people doing good things, no matter how small and reward it with a simple 'thank you'

The Losada line doesn't mean you should be cautious or reluctant about giving negative feedback. Neither does it mean that you should be falsely positive around bad situations. It’s about balance and knowing how to deliver negative news.

You can find out more about delivering feedback here.

Feedback final (1) (1)
The Peter Principle

This management theory suggests candidates are selected for a position based on their current performance rather than their ability to do a new role. If this happens then employees will only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively - "managers rise to the level of their incompetence".

It’s easy to see it in action – for example, a great salesperson that’s wasted because they were promoted to sales management. Just because someone can sell doesn't mean they can manage the sales function.

The Dilbert Principle is a variation on Peter Principle that states companies tend to promote their least-competent employees into management in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing. (Fancy a giggle? The Dilbert blog is here.)

How can people manager's avoid the Peter Principle?

  1. Write a clear job description for every role and recruit against it
  2. Develop other ways to reward good performers so that there are alternatives to promotion
  3. Avoid tagging the word 'manager' to the end of a job title just to reward great work
  4. Understand where a person lacks the required skills and implement a training programme to fill the gap
  5. Have regular one-to-ones with your team and don't shy away from managing under-performance.

Do you know of any other management theories that can help people managers with a new approach? Get in touch and let us know.

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Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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