Those Who CAN Do, Teach
Two years ago, I left the for-profit sector to teach business full-time at a university. Since making that shift, I’ve heard a certain cliché more times than I can remember: “those who can’t do, teach.”
This phrase puzzles me every time I hear it. I think that on some level, it’s puzzled society ever since George Bernard Shaw penned it in 1903. (Shaw’s actual quote was, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”)
The problem I have with this phrase is that it assumes that doing has more value than teaching—that those who can perform a certain action should always do so, and that teachers have failed to perform the action. Shaw’s apparent premise is that doing is more important than teaching.
I’m not sure that holds up to management research.
A working paper released last year from a team of researchers led by Stanford’s Edward Lazaer revealed that often those who teach enhance a team’s productivity more than those who do. The paper, titled “The Value of Bosses,” studied a technology-service firm over five years. At the firm, the productivity of each employee and team were measured on an hourly basis, making data collection and comparison possible at a large scale.
The researchers followed nearly 24,000 employees and almost 2,000 bosses, resulting in about six million measurements. The average team at the firm consisted of nine members and the average employee changed supervisors four times a year. This made it possible to compare the quality of managers based on their effect on the teams they rotated through.
The problem I have with this phrase is that it assumes that doing has more value than teaching.
When they tabulated the results, the research team found that adding a tenth member to an average team increased productivity by about 11 percent. However, replacing a low-quality manager with a high-quality one resulted in a productivity bump of 12 percent.
Replacing a bad boss with a good one had a greater effect than adding another team member. So what did the good managers do that bad managers didn’t?
In addition to supervising, good managers focused on developing their team members by teaching them more about company products and policies, as well as good work skills and habits. It was that teaching that increased the productivity of the whole team.
So what did the good managers do that bad managers didn’t?
The study’s results imply that sometimes adding another doer isn’t as productivity as adding a good teacher.
Perhaps those who can do, should teach more often.