The usefulness of managers

IS YOUR MANAGER really necessary? It is not always clear to workers how much their supervisors are contributing to the success of an organisation. It may not even be clear to the managers themselves. After a long day filled with meetings, many bosses must wonder what they have actually achieved.

Finding a way to measure the direct contribution of managers can be difficult. But Stephan Billinger and Stephen Rosenbaum, two academics from the University of Southern Denmark, have made a brave attempt. Their study* used a variation of a common laboratory experiment, known as a public-goods game, to test the impact of managers on worker collaboration.

In the public-goods game, participants are awarded a number of tokens which generate a level of earnings in each round. They can choose whether or not to reinvest their earnings at each stage. All reinvested earnings are doubled and the gains divided among the members, whether or not they contributed. The game is a test of the willingness of participants to collaborate, in a situation where some people can gain by free-riding.

The academics varied the game by dividing the group into “managers” and “workers”. The managers did not do any managing. But they were bound by different rules. In some games, they were permitted to contribute in each round, in others they were...



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