Editor's Choice

Managing In the Gray: Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work

September 16, 2016


Joseph Badaracco has written a great guide to management that reminds us of its moral imperative and importance.

Managing In the Gray: Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., Harvard Business Review Press, 208 pages, $35.00, Hardcover, September 2016, ISBN 9781633691742

As we develop our minds, our opinions, and our beliefs as young people, we search for universal truths and “isms” that we can apply in all situations. We want to be able to boil everything down to good or bad, black and white. If there’s a problem in the world, we want to know who’s to blame.

As we mature and enter into "the real world" of work and adulthood, we realize that there are a lot of gray areas in life that don’t fit neatly into our preconceived notions of the world, that there’s not always someone to blame, and that being overly opinionated impedes our understanding of the moment we're in. We see people we agree with ideologically do things we definitely do not agree with in practice. And, so, we learn to be a little more pragmatic and a little less partisan, to put practical solutions and answers above ideology.

That does not mean there should not be a set of principles or values to guide us. Joseph Badaracco, in his books Defining Moments, Questions of Character, and The Good Struggle, explores the dilemma and struggle of leading in an often chaotic and unforgiving world. He doesn’t do so by trying to give his readers answers, but by helping to identify the questions we should be asking ourselves as we make decisions. Managing in the Gray follows that template, and it may be my favorite book of his yet—and one of my favorite books of the year so far. It has a humanist underpinning that draws on some of the greatest minds in history—from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills, to David Hume, Robert Merton, Mozi, and Confucius—but it also has an immediate applicability to put their understanding and empathy to work. It follow the example of one great philosopher, in particular:


In the spirit of the great American pragmatist philosopher, William James, I have tried to develop useful everyday tools rather than universal truths, and a practical bias runs throughout this book.


It is also the first book of his that shifts the focus from leadership and puts it squarely on management. And, in that focus, he is returning to one of the great traditions of Harvard Business School:


[M]anagers need something different: they need sound, sturdy, everyday tools—like the ones in toolboxes and kitchen drawers. This comparison to tools may seem like a passing metaphor, but it actually reflects a long intellectual tradition at Harvard Business School, which has aimed, for more than a century, to develop important, useful ideas for managers. Professor Fritz Henderson, one of the school’s intellectual pioneers, believed that most useful theory was “not a quasi-religious dogma, but a modest pedestrian affair or perhaps I had better say, a useful walking stick to help on the way.”


It is this real-life, workaday practicality that makes this book seem pedagogical on first blush, but it is truly profound upon reading. Books on management usually appear unambitious—leadership is way more captivating—but the five questions Badaracco provides form a “philosophy of management—a way of understanding what managers really do and why it matters” that both grounds and elevates management at the same time.


The five questions are:


What are the net, net consequences?

What are my core obligations?

What will work in the world as it is?

Who are we?

What can I live with?


He gives us a chapter in each of the questions, with two appendices—one on “Humanism” and one on “Human Nature, Evolution, and Ethics”—that further ground the work and provide suggested reading.

One of the greatest qualities of the book is how effectively he pushes back on the notion that leadership is somehow sacred, more important or critical, than management. Reflecting on the modern cliché that leadership is about “doing the right thing,” while management is about “doing things the right way,” he reminds us that Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, while remembered for their galvanizing speeches, devoted years to “managing the movements and organizations that amplified their impact on the world.” Indeed, he says, without that organization and management ability, the world may have never known their names.

In fact, morally and ethically speaking, getting the process by which you make decisions right may ultimately be more important than the decision that is made.


Process is critical for gray area problems because you may never know whether you made the right decision. All you can know is that you worked on the problem the right way.


That is why, for all the focus on leadership, and it’s ethical, inspirational, and aspirational qualities, getting management and process right may be even more critical to good decision-making in organizations. Beyond the fact that it can be a safeguard against unethical or compromised leadership, process acts as a guide to future generations of leaders. Think of the constitution and its separation of powers. It may slow down decision making, but that is a feature, not a bug. It provides time to think and debate, form consensus or compromise, and then move forward. Discussing this, Badaracco quotes one of today’s leading constitutional scholars, Alexander Bickel, who wrote “The highest morality is almost always the morality of process.”

Managing in the Gray provides you with the questions and tools for judgment you need to develop good processes that will help you make it through the gray areas of management. He doesn’t provide any easy answers, because there aren’t any. Instead, he gives us a “guide for action” and a reminder that, while the world can be messy and unforgiving, we don’t have to be.

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