5 Operating Principles of the 21st Century Manager


By Marla Gottschalk

When we join an organization today, we rarely envision a long-term relationship. In fact, we anticipate that our career path will take us to many different workplaces, with varying missions and supervision. The days of The Organization Man are long over — and when Whyte penned this 1956 classic, no one could have envisioned the forces that would impact today’s workplaces. Gone are the promises that were once made when we entered organizational life.

More than a half century later — today’s managers have struggled to keep pace with the evolution of modern organizations.

The operating social contract between employee and employer has been forced to flex significantly. Whyte’s best seller depicted a qualitatively different contract within organizations, as compared to those developing today. In that previous world of work, organizations had the luxury of offering security and a predictable future. Employee commitment was derived from — and exchanged for — the promise of career-spanning employment. Today, these promises are not often made. As such, the operating social contract becomes dependent on other elements that might prove valuable. This includes the development of alliances which contiguously advance career development and help achieve organizational initiatives.

We have been relying on an outdated foundational view of management, yet forcing its application to modern times. With dismal employee engagement figures and a recovering economy prompting turnover, the time for change may be now. We need to select, develop and support today’s managers with all of this in mind.

Here are 5 key operating principles of a 21st century manager:

  • A firm belief in transparency. If we expect employees to be transparent about elements of their work lives, they deserve the same in return. Without this aspect, the trust we desire to build will never develop. This should begin early on at the recruitment phase and continue over their tenure. This also demands the perspective that the more we can share about the critical elements of our work lives, the better we will fare as an organization. (Breaches in transparency can result in devastating consequences.)
  • A deep respect for individual differences. This requires a non-judgmental perspective concerning both work style and individual career goals. We are not all alike — and our career paths will reflect this fact. Great managers will acknowledge differences, and align our strengths with the work.
  • A practice of encouraging “connection”. This is a foundational belief that if we forge lasting connections — our work will improve dramatically. This includes embracing diversity in both opinion and perspective, each and every day.
  • A commitment to career building. Taking the above elements further, managers must be skilled at the conversations that support career growth. This involves a cache of skills which can target skill building, not only valued by the organization, but by the employee, as well.
  • A love of the job. Last, but possibly most critical — is the desire to manage others. Without a committed connection to this role, it is inevitably difficult to motivate contributors and build trust. We push too many toward the role, who do not possess the required skills or interest.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, consultant and coach. She is a Senior Consultant at Allied Talent and also serves as the Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors.

Photo Credit: rkit; Pixaby


  1. It’s interesting to see these trends emerge as more of the data comes out to back it up. The recent Gallup State of the American Manager study showed how important these values like caring for your employee and how a manager’s attitude impacts their team.

    Marla – Do any of the psychology studies you’re well versed in speak to these concepts and why they would work so well with today’s employee?


    1. There have been some recent reviews of the employee engagement literature, covering competing definitions of engagement, antecedents and consequences. (Written by Alan Saks, 2006, Macey & Schneider, 2008)


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