Flexibility Without Workplace Politics: Why Contractor Managers Can Thrive
MANAGEMENT |

Flexibility Without Workplace Politics: Why Contractor Managers Can Thrive

TEMPORARY MANAGEMENT FITS THE NEED FOR FLEXIBILITY IN THE MODERN JOB MARKET. THE OBJECTIVITY AND INDEPENDENCE COMING WITH OUTSIDER STATUS CAN WORK WONDERS IN BUILDING TRUST AND COMPLETING WELL DEFINED TASKS, ACCORDING TO RESEARCH BY TRACY ANDERSON

If you think that effective management needs the social power rooted in the relationships a manager has with bosses, direct reports, and peers in the organization, think again. An intriguing strand of research pursued by Tracy Anderson, Assistant Professor at Bocconi Department of Management and Technology, finds that in some cases the objectivity and independence coming with social detachment can work wonders.
 
In an article just published in the MIT Sloan Management Review Research Highlight with Peter Cappelli (University of Pennsylvania Wharton School) and in a research paper available on SSRN, Professor Anderson surveyed 673 contractor managers (i.e. independent contractors who have been given temporary management roles within a company) and observes that despite the challenges they face, most of them do succeed - by making use of their outsider status.

Infographic by Weiwei Chen

Contractor managers are called in to supply a type of expertise the organization does not have or to fill a lack of short-term capacity. They accept, and often prefer this arrangement, because it gives them more control over the work they do, more flexibility in hours worked, and the ability to take time off when they want to.
 
“We expected that their lack of social capital, limited understanding of internal cultural norms, lack of contextual knowledge, small role in influencing rewards and careers, and limited access to information would be detrimental,” Professor Anderson says, “but we found that some of the apparent limitations of being an outsider can actually be used to create opportunities.” In fact, contractor managers turn out to better leverage their greater breadth of experience and their competence precisely because their distance from workplace politics helps them build trust, making others more receptive to their instructions, support, and advice, and more willing to share their own ideas.
 
“A number of them say that as soon as they become too close to the new environment, they lose some of their influence. Working repeatedly with the same company seems not to be an advantage,” Professor Anderson says. “Sometimes there are benefits to being one step removed and having an end point in sight.”
 
The authors assert that contractor managers are particularly attractive to fast-growing companies where managerial needs evolve quickly, rendering longer-term placements undesirable; to companies considering how to adapt to an uncertain future; and to startups, where norms and processes have yet to be established and everyone is new to one another.
 
Temporary managers are best brought in when the tasks and desired outcomes are well defined and can be clearly articulated in advance.
 
On the contrary, they may be less successful in organizations where cultural transformations are necessary, because they have fewer tools to change behavior than do competent employee-managers.
 
“In job markets where shorter term or changing demands are the norm,” Prof. Anderson, “temporary management and the flexibility that comes with it can thrive.”
 
Tracy Anderson and Peter Cappelli, “The Outsider Edge,” MIT Sloan Management Review Research Highlight, 19 July 2021.
 
Tracy Anderson, Peter Cappelli, “Management Without Managers: Expanding Our Understanding of Managing Through the Study of Contractors,” Available at SSRN, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3875634.
 
Tracy Anderson, Matthew Bidwell, “Outside Insiders: Understanding the Role of Contracting in the Careers of managerial Workers,” Organization Science, 30 (5) 1000-1029, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2018.1275.

 
 

by Fabio Todesco
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