Management research

In traditional management theory, one has a fairly clear picture of how a manager works: he or she plans with sense and understanding, coordinates and controls carefully and always has the overall objective firmly in mind. Anyone who has ever worked in a managerial position quickly realizes that this ideal is much rarer in the day-to-day life of management than classical theories suggest.

The daily routine of most managers is far less characterised by rational decisions and structured activities than by direct and indirect attempts to influence others, by political manoeuvres and the hidden or open confrontation of different interest groups. In the shadow of many management decisions, fundamental power struggles are smouldering. Often, completely different perceptions compete for dominance in the company. Their protagonists use every means at their disposal to attract influential players to their side. Not everyone openly acknowledges their goals and interests. Because in the background of many arguments it is not about the subject, but about the ranking of personal importance.

WGMB’s research work is based on this empirically shaped picture of management practice, which sees itself as a constructive complement to traditional management theory. For many years, two central topics have been the focus of our work, which we illuminate from different perspectives: Power in organizations and fads and fashions in management.

Fields of research

Power in organizations

In our research work, we explore the question of why people do what others want them to do.

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In many cases this question is relatively easy to answer: We do what others of us want because the others hold a formal position that gives them the authority to make rules within certain limits: they are policemen, superiors, judges or instructors. Such cases are called “formal power”. It is the ability to exert official influence that is laid down in certain regulations – in legal texts, employment contracts or job descriptions.

The fact that we follow such sets of rules is rather trivial. It is much more interesting, however, why we often do what others want of us, even though they are neither police officers nor superiors. Such cases are referred to as “informal power”. It is not based on the bureaucratic authority of a person, but on the possibility of influencing our own behaviour that we individually concede.

Yet if it is not based on formal rules, what is the basis of a person’s informal power? It is the perception that this person enjoys with other people. Because intuitively it plays a much greater role for us to “look behind authority”, we might say. In other words, it is unconsciously much more important to us how we perceive our counterpart as a person: Does this person appear competent? Can we trust this person? Is he or she likeable? If we answer “yes” three times, then there is a high probability that we think and act as our counterpart would like us to.

Competent, trustworthy and likeable. Those who are perceived in this way can play off their informal power. As simple and trivial as this may seem at first glance, it is complicated in practice. Because: When do we appear competent to others? When are we considered to be of integrity? What makes us likeable? And in which situations is which characteristic in the foreground? Building trust, confidence and likeability is a difficult skill. A great deal of expertise is of little use if it is not supplemented by good social skills. A loyal, honest attitude is often reduced to absurdity by inconsistent actions. And a charismatic appearance is often destroyed by arrogance and exaggerated hubris.

In our research work, we have developed a theoretical model to explain these interrelationships that has proven its worth many times in practice: at the workplace, in management, in the family, in the circle of friends. We have compiled detailed information on our model on our own website:

Fads and fashions in management

The concept of fashion is often associated with aesthetic aspects. It stands for the beliefs and behaviour of a certain social group that are regarded as contemporary in a certain period of time …

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– for example the way of dressing, the way of speaking or the preference to consume certain brand products. Fashion is based on a conscious “otherness” of its followers: if all the subjects considered differ only partially from one another, fashion violates this apparent equality by highlighting some difference out of all the partial differences as essential and more valuable. In this way, it creates a distance between the followers of fashion and their environment, with the highlighted differences being defined as particularly valuable by the followers of fashion. What is considered modern and valuable in a certain social group is subject to cyclical change. A fashion is limited in time and, as a result of social processes of re-evaluation, it is repeatedly altered by new convictions and behaviours that are then regarded as contemporary.

Such fashions can also be observed in the management of companies, which emphasize different aspects of management as essential and valuable: for example, concentration on special capabilities (core competencies), focusing executives on corporate value (shareholder value) or outsourcing parts of the company to strong partners. By accentuating these aspects and making them a constitutive characteristic of a management fashion, they unfold the same effect as can be observed with classic fashions: they create new, temporary social codes, certain behavior patterns and a corresponding group conformism. In this way, they enable a social elite attitude, a hierarchy of values and a system of valuation criteria, the validity of which is recognised without further examination within the social group concerned – for example by members of a company’s management, supervisory bodies and middle management, but also by investors, analysts, etc. – without further examination. Similar to the cycles of classic fashions, the corresponding management concepts also undergo a theming, expansion, dominance and dethematisation phase.

We have been observing these processes for over 20 years. Whereas in the past the classic business management issues dominated, today topics such as disruption and digital transformation are right at the top of the agenda for most managers.