Lost in Translation?

Walk into your nearest major bookstore. You’ll undoubtedly find a large section of books devoted to management and managing human behavior. A close look at the titles will reveal that there is certainly no shortage of popular books on topics related to organizational behavior. Consider the following popular book titles that are currently available on the topic of leadership:


Popular books on organizational behavior often have cute titles and are fun to read, but they make the job of managing people seem much simpler than it is. Most are based on the author’s opinions rather than substantive research, and it is doubtful that one person’s experience translates into effective management practice for everyone. Why do we waste our time on “fluff” when, with a little effort, we can access knowledge produced from thousands of scientific studies on human behavior in organizations?

Organizational behavior is a complex subject. Few, if any, simple statements about human behavior are generalizable to all people in all situations. Should you really try to apply leadership insights you got from a book about Geronimo or Tony Soprano to managing software engineers in the twenty-first century?



Organizations are always looking for leaders, and managers and manager-wannabes are continually looking for ways to hone their leadership skills. Publishers respond to this demand by offering hundreds of titles that promise insights into managing people. Books like these can provide people with the secrets to management that others know about. Moreover, isn’t it better to learn about management from people in the trenches, as opposed to the latest esoteric musings from the “Ivory Tower”? Many of the most important insights we gain from life aren’t necessarily the product of careful empirical research studies.

It is true there are some bad books out there. But do they outnumber the esoteric research studies published every year? For example, a couple of recent management and organizational behavior studies were published in 2011 with the following titles:

  • Training for Fostering Knowledge Co-Construction from Collaborative Inference-Drawing
  • The Factor Structure and Cross-Test Convergence of the Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Model of Emotional Intelligence
  • Refining Value-Based Differentiation in Business Relationships: A Study of the Higher Order Relationship Building Blocks That Influence Behavioural Intentions
  • A Dialogical Approach to the Creation of New Knowledge in Organizations

We don’t mean to poke fun at these studies. Rather, our point is that you can’t judge a book by its cover any more than you can a research study by its title.

There is not one right way to learn the science and art of managing people in organizations. The most enlightened managers are those who gather insights from multiple sources: their own experience, research findings, observations of others, and, yes, business press books too. If great management were produced by carefully gleaning results from research studies, academicians would make the best managers. How often do we see that?

Research and academics have an important role to play in understanding effective management. But it isn’t fair to condemn all business books by citing the worst (or, at least, the worse-sounding ones).


Sources: Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. (2013). Organizational behavior. Boston: Pearson.