Business Management books: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

How to Choose a Management Book

Business Management books: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

November 14, 2018
by Jennifer S. Anderson, Ph.D., MBA, Assistant Professor of Business Administration, WSU

The market for books to help you manage and lead your organization is staggering. A quick search of “business leadership” on produced over 60,000 books; for “business management,” more than 100,000; “personal development in business,” another 20,000. You get my point. The vast number and wide variety makes it difficult to find the “gem” to help you fix issues or take your business to the next level. 

Over the years, I have seen organizational leaders — from large Fortune 500 to small entrepreneurial; government to academic — discover, devour and deploy books that outline “the key” to success. I’m willing to bet you probably have a number of these books in your personal library; I have several, myself. How did you find out about these books? Surfing A Forbes or Fast Company    review? A business cooperative, association, conference or other networking or community event? From someone you know (or don’t know) who claims it changed her or her life/organization and that it will change your life/organization? From someone who’s used, step-by-step, the process in said book and achieved wild success? A fellow MBA student? From scholars (and, yes, I’m talking about my profession) who claim their advice is the most sound because, well, research? Maybe the answer is one or more of these.

This is highly problematic for you. Why? Because none of this takes into consideration you or your organization. The good — even great — ideas found in these books and shared among trusted friends and advisors can be bad or downright ugly for you. Let me give you a couple of examples.


A wildly popular book, “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg has been a staple among female professionals for several years. To be sure, the message is empowering — don’t take your foot off the pedal, stay engaged, make sure you have a seat at the table. Sandberg is a successful businesswoman, intelligent, capable, personable, a role model for many women.

So how can her good ideas be bad? Because you are not Sandberg. Already a wealthy woman when she wrote the book, she had resources available to her that many do not. She could afford to pay for services and assistance that most of us only dream of. If you don’t have the resources to support leaning in, and you lean in, things can get ugly. Stepping up engagement in work, parenting and personal activities may expand your network and lead to better opportunities, but it can also significantly increase the amount of stress in your life.

Through research, we know that stress is cumulative and additive, meaning that if we don’t manage stress actively and on an ongoing basis, significant personal and professional issues can arise including psychological and physiological reactions to stress, burnout and withdrawal attitudes. We talk about this in my MBA Organizational Behavior class, and often, the women in my class are at first rankled (they love Sandberg’s message) but then they start to understand they need to customize the message to their own circumstances.


I was recently introduced to a book called “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman. Geared toward entrepreneurs, the book provides a structure for managing your organization that promises to deliver focus, growth, enjoyment at work, and to eliminate frustration. One concept from the book is setting rocks, which are goals for a 90-day time frame. This process is classic goal-setting and as a tool, enjoys a tremendous amount of popularity. Goal-setting is also backed by decades of research suggesting that it is an effective means of motivating people.

So how can Wickman’s good ideas be bad? Consider these questions: As an entrepreneur, can you set goals with 90-day windows or are things changing too fast in your organization? Do you have the time (or do you want to take it) for weekly meetings to review progress toward goals? What types of goals would you set for a 90-day time period and why would you manage those goals so closely?

Research shows that several characteristics of goals can make an otherwise very productive process become ugly, and fast. These include goal ambiguity, setting too many goals, short timelines and unrealistic expectations. Companies that set goals with these characteristics run the risk of prompting unethical behaviors in an effort to reach those goals. Most of my MBA students, mid- to upper-level managers, can relate to stories of cheating, misrepresentation, lying and unethically or illegally modifying business processes to reach goals. These behaviors can have huge consequences for organizations, their employees, and their customers, just ask Wells Fargo.


Here are some important things to consider before adopting someone else’s recipe for success:

  • Does your organization have a problem? If not, keep moving. Don’t spend time and money solving a problem that isn’t there and don’t let someone convince you that you have a problem when you don’t.


Is there a gap between what you would like to see happening in your organization and what is actually happening, and does this gap result in negative effects for your organization or your employees? The key here is in the negative effects – you’ll always see opportunities for improvement, but problems will create a drag on your organization in some way. If the answer to this question is “yes,” then keep reading.

  • Is this a people-related issue or a process-related issue? This has important consequences. If you have a process-related issue and your people are an engaged and skilled group, coming in with the latest and greatest way to motivate your people will leave you with both a process problem and unmotivated employees.

Two simple yet effective tools borrowed from Total Quality Management practices can help you better understand the nature of people-related and process-related problems.


A great technique to get to the root cause of a problem and find some direction is to ask the “5-Whys.”  This is a simple and effective technique that works well when applied to people-related problems, including issues related to an individual or a group. This website is a very quick read, and gives you an applied, step-by-step guide to root cause analysis using the 5-Whys.

When you ask and answer the 5-Whys, you will eventually discover a root cause that you can take action on.  At that point, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need help with – motivation, leadership, conflict management, change management, stress in the workplace, communication, or the organization’s culture, for example.


Another useful technique is the construction of a fishbone, or Ishikawa, diagram. This technique is straightforward and works well for process-related issues, particularly if there is not a lot of information to help you pinpoint the source of the problem. This website is also a very quick read, and provides an easy-to-follow process.

You can construct your diagram with as much detail as you need, and the structure and method will help you understand, for example, if you have an issue with handoffs, efficiencies, quality, inputs to your process or the construction of the process itself.

Detailed information about the root causes of problems will help you know where to look for resources, steering you toward the good and away from the bad and the ugly; however, there are two other very important considerations.

  • You — what is your bandwidth, and what are your values? What you do and how you do it matters in these situations, so you’ll want to make sure that someone else’s advice is in line with what you can do, and what your values are.
  • Your organization — what is your organization’s bandwidth, and what are your organization’s values? Trying to implement solutions outside of your organization’s bandwidth is a waste of time; it won’t happen or will create other issues, and anything you do that is against your organization’s values will be, at best, a distraction and a disturbance.


I’ve been a part of a large organization that implemented a complicated program around Servant Leadership — a great idea, to be sure. But the concept was already embedded in the organization’s culture and really wasn’t a problem at all. Employees knew this, and it ultimately lead them to be skeptical of organizational leaders, wondering if they didn’t trust employees to act as they’d always done. As good employees, we played along, but it left a cynical taste in our mouths that lasted.

I’ve offered a lot of food for thought, but it’s worth it to make the investment in better understanding the problem and your organization. Don’t take someone else’s word for it, the answer really is, “it depends.” Once you understand a problem and its root causes, and your and your organization’s bandwidth and values, you’ll be able to determine if that book is “the key” to help your organization thrive or is just another among thousands out there. 



Jennifer S. Anderson is an assistant professor of business administration in the John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona and has BA and MBA degrees from the University of Washington. Her research interests include greed, organizational justice (fairness), social justice, business pedagogy and research methods. She teaches management and organizational behavior classes at the graduate and undergraduate level. She also has over 20 years’ leadership experience in a variety of organizations including the U.S. Army and Fortune 500 organizations. When she is not teaching or conducting research, she may be found goofing off with her family and her three dogs or riding her motorcycle.