Thoughtful Management: What It Is and Why It’s Important

It’s not an oxymoron, but a succinct description for effective management.

Posted Jan 28, 2020

Thoughtful, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means: 1. characterized by careful reasoned thinking; 2. given to or chosen or made with heedful anticipation of the needs and wants of others.

As someone who has studied organizational behavior for 25 years, I am increasingly convinced that this word simultaneously captures two elements that are critical for effective management.

The first part of this definition emphasizes careful, reasoned thinking, and it is consistent with recent work advocating for evidence-based management (EBM). As outlined by Pfeffer and Sutton, in their book, Hard Facts, EBM argues that decisions should be based on facts and evidence rather than hope, fear, instinct, what others are doing, what has been done in the past, or other inadequate bases.

However, while managers should use data and facts to make more informed decisions, it is even more vital to have a thoughtful, compelling rationale for organizational decisions. Furthermore, managers should be willing and able to articulate, present, and defend that logic to employees and other stakeholders. Indeed, research on organizational justice indicates that understanding the why behind managerial decisions is critical for employees to feel that those decisions are fair.

Moreover, millennial workers have sometimes been referred to as Generation “Why” because they frequently question management practices and want to understand the why behind the decisions being made by immediate managers and the processes being used within their organization. Given that millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, it is particularly important to pursue practices that are backed up by careful thinking.

The second part of this definition emphasizes the needs and wants of others. In practice, this means supporting employees and finding ways for them to feel valued and fulfilled at work. Ultimately, though, focusing on employees’ needs and wants benefits the organization, too, because it contributes to the creation of a social exchange, rather than a transactional exchange, between the employee and the employer.

When organizations look out for employees, employees look out for the organization in return. Indeed, a recent review of organizational psychology research demonstrates that when employees feel that their organizations care about them, they are more likely to be committed and engaged, go beyond the call of duty, refrain from bad behavior, and experience greater well-being. Finally, transactional relationships tend to be costly and easier for competitors to imitate because they are based on monetary rewards; in contrast, organizations that create social exchange relationships with employees are more likely to gain an advantage that is valuable, rare, and difficult to imitate.

Given its importance, why is it so hard to thoughtfully manage? Below, I highlight three obstacles and briefly propose how organizations can overcome them.

First, organizations often fail to adequately recognize, appreciate, or reward managers for being thoughtful. Psychologists often note that behavior is a function of its consequences. In short, people tend to do what is rewarded (and avoid doing things that are punished). Unfortunately, if organizations do not find ways to identify and recognize managerial behaviors that are consistent with thoughtful management, it is unlikely that managers will make such behaviors a regular practice. Furthermore, because people learn vicariously, if managers see their supervisors and other key players making decisions in ways that are not thoughtful, they are likely to mimic those behaviors.

Therefore, to encourage more thoughtful management, organizations must ensure that it is captured by their evaluation system and appropriately rewarded; furthermore, organizations must ensure that managers and employees who emphasize logic and data in their decision making are not penalized for engaging in such behavior. Finally, top managers should be mindful of the signals that they send about the use and importance of thoughtful management because their behavior tends to trickle down.

Second, given their other obligations, managers may feel too busy and overworked to be thoughtful. Because management is sometimes seen as “common sense,” managers may fall into the trap of just relying on instinct, what others are doing, and what they have done in the past, and so on. Although this may be described as “lazy management,” the reality is that in too many organizations, managers are so overloaded with responsibilities that they are unable to give decisions the thought and attention they deserve. In other words, lazy management may not necessarily reflect laziness on the part of managers; instead, it may reflect managers’ limited time and resources—something that may lead them to prioritize their daily tasks at the expense of engaging in careful reasoned thinking and addressing the needs and wants of subordinates.

If organizations want managers to be more thoughtful, it may be necessary to unburden them and provide the time and resources necessary to do so. In addition, managers must also understand that thoughtful management is hard work, not just common sense. As such, the time and energy they spend giving thought to their decisions and attention to their subordinates should be seen as an investment. Indeed, in the long-run, thoughtful management should help organizational leaders become better decision makers and facilitate their ability to attract, retain, and get the most out of their employees.

Third, managers may believe that thoughtful management is inconsistent with the reality of doing business in the 21st century. Although organizations are about people working together toward a common goal, many managers view business as a competition, even within their own organization. As a result, rather than fostering cooperation and teamwork, organizations often encourage competition and individualism even when doing so can contribute to stress, dysfunction, and unethical decision making. For this reason, managers may need to change the fundamental way they see organizational life, which may be difficult given that popular culture, including movies and television, often depicts organization life as dysfunctional and cutthroat.

But organizations are what we choose to make them, and a wealth of research demonstrates that cooperative and supportive behaviors contribute to organizational effectiveness, and that such behaviors are elicited through more thoughtful management that prioritizes the needs and wants of employees. By rethinking their conceptualization of how organizational life should be, and adopting a more employee-oriented mindset, managers may see the value of being more thoughtful.

To some, it may sound like an oxymoron, but thoughtful management, which emphasizes careful thinking and meeting the needs and wants of employees, can increase managerial and organizational effectiveness.