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Book Review

Good People, Bad Managers

How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions

by Samuel A. Culbert

Reviewed by Fred Nickols

© Fred Nickols 2017

The late Geary Rummler famously asserted, “If you put a good person in a bad system, the system will win every time.”  Samuel A. Culbert’s new book, Good People, Bad Managers, offers abundant evidence to support Rummler’s assertion.  The subtitle of Culbert’s book is How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions and his basic thesis is that the work culture in most organizations turns otherwise good people into bad managers.

Culbert’s book has three major parts, with three chapters in each part. 

In Part I, titled “What’s Going On?”, Culbert does just that; he takes a look at what’s going on in the work culture.  In Chapter 1, Culbert makes the case that bad management is not a rarity, that it is instead the norm.  In Chapter 2, he lays out how it is that managers delude themselves into thinking that what they’re doing is good management practice.  And, in Chapter 3 he takes a critical look at the so-called “people skills” that managers actually acquire.

In Part II, titled “Is Bad Management Here to Stay?”, Culbert examines the underlying causes and reasons for all the bad management he describes in Part I.  Chapter 4 explains why managers feel so vulnerable.  Chapter 5 looks at the logical consequence of that vulnerability, namely, how managers self-protect.  Chapter 5 draws attention to those factors in the workplace and the work culture that prevent good management – “the system” as it were.

Part III, titled “What Can be Done?”, poses some notions about things people can do to correct the situation.  Frankly, my sense of what Culbert gets at here is that not much is likely to happen unless the folks at the very top of the organization take an honest look at what goes on, conclude that it is unacceptable, and make a serious and concerted commitment to fix things.  Chapter 7 is titled and deals with “Overcoming Cultural Resistance to Good Management.” Chapter 8 focuses on and is titled “Getting Company Supports for Good Management.”  And, Chapter 9, titled “Consciousness-Raising to Promote Other-Directedness in Management,” zeroes in on getting everyone to take an unbiased, honest look at moving away from the self-directedness that marks so many managers and toward the other-directedness that good management practices would have them do.

In a very real sense, Culbert’s book is an evidence-based indictment of the ways in which good people become bad managers and the ways in which they delude themselves that they are good managers.  On my part, I think Culbert’s got it right but I am not very hopeful that much if anything will be done to correct the situation. 

One big reason for my skepticism is in Culbert’s opening comment in Chapter 5, “How Managers Self-Protect.”  There, Culbert writes, “A manager’s daily viability requires considerable pretense, duplicity, and stealth.  That’s right, everyday credibility and survival, not to mention performing one’s job competently, entails more under-the-radar activity than most managers would like to think.” Assuming Culbert is correct, and I think he is, that’s a major roadblock to any kind of change.

Another reason is in the opening comments of Chapter 9, which deals with consciousness-raising about the situation.  Here, Culbert writes, “I see managers ensnared in a work-culture-set trap.  Having internalized what the culture falsely stipulates, lacking incentives to reason otherwise, managers are unaware of the problems their culture-stipulated ‘good management behavior’ creates.”  He adds, “It’s not their intent to act badly.  Pretense prevents them from connecting the dots.”  Here, Culbert draws attention to the ways in which managers fool themselves.

All that said, Culbert does offer two pieces of advice for folks who get it and who are determined to do something about the situation, both have to do with consciousness-raising.  One is to engage in consciousness-raising, to draw attention to the situation, to develop “enhanced awareness for going forward.”  The other is consciousness-raising for company gain. 

However, my skepticism remains and ties to Culbert’s opening comments in the Conclusion section of Chapter 9.  There, Culbert writes, “I find a preponderance of company leaders falsely impressed, content with company results mainly because they measure up to expectations.  I see too many leaders uninterested in what their companies might additionally accomplish from underutilized or mismanaged human capacities.”  The way I would put it is that they’re focused on the bottom-line and as long as that is okay, they don’t care about much else.

Given that state of affairs, I don’t see a lot of deep, meaningful change on the horizon.  Nevertheless, it’s worth a shot.  If enough people read Culbert’s book, take off their work-culture blinders, and see things the way they really are, then slowly, but surely, a critical mass will begin to build and, at some point, it will shake things up.  So, in the spirit of consciousness-raising, I hereby declare Culbert’s book a “must read.”  Go buy it, read it, and decide for yourself if things are bad enough to go to work on that critical mass.  If you’re up to it, buy a few extra copies and distribute to the C-level execs in your organization.

 Samuel A. Culbert is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.  His new book, Good People, Bad Managers, is published by Oxford University Press.  It is available on Amazon at the link below.

Product Details

Link to Good People, Bad Managers on Amazon



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This page last updated on June 4, 2017