Demands and Constraints of a Manager’s Role

It’s a myth that managers have more freedom to achieve results as they wish. In fact, organizational interdependencies limit the freedom managers have to make decisions and take action independently.

Instead, managers must work to achieve results within the context of their organization and the broader business environment. The implications of this interdependence are generally understood as demands and constraints on what a manager is free to do.

Being a successful manager will require you to find ways to work successfully within the constraints of your job and in response to its demands.

How much freedom do you have to do your job as a manager? What factors place limits on your effectiveness? More importantly, what can you do about such limitations? Rosemary Stewart developed a concept which enables jobs to be examined in three very important ways: the demands of the job, which are what the job-holder must do; the constraints, which limit what the job-holder can do; and the choices, which indicate how much freedom the job-holder has to do the work in the way she or he chooses. Her purpose was to show how dealing appropriately with demands and constraints, and exercising choices, can improve managers’ effectiveness. Consider the following two examples.

  • Job A – Simon manages a team of health and safety training officers in a large chemicals company. Although he has a general responsibility for ensuring that staff receive appropriate training, he has little influence on the content of training sessions as a result of health and safety legislation laid down by country laws and when training takes place, but he can influence how the training is provided and other aspects of it.
  • Job B – Arshia manages a drop-in advice centre for homeless teenagers. She has relative freedom in deciding what, when and how assistance is offered within the range of organisational capability. The management committee has just set out a new strategic direction for the organisation which Arshia believes can be improved on, and which she can influence.

Note the differences between the demands and constraints imposed in each case, and how these demands and constraints will place limitations on the respective choices that Simon and Arshia can make.


Demands are what anyone in the job must do. They can be ‘performance demands’ requiring the achievement of a certain minimum standard of performance, or they can be ‘behavioural demands’ requiring that you undertake some activity such as attending certain meetings or preparing a budget. Stewart lists the sources of such demands as being:

  • Manager-imposed demands – work that your own line manager expects and that you cannot disregard without penalty.
  • Peer-imposed demands – requests for services, information or help from others at similar levels in the organisation. Failure to respond personally would produce penalties.
  • Externally-imposed demands – requests for information or action from people outside the organisation that cannot be delegated and where there would be penalties for non-response.
  • System-imposed demands – reports and budgets that cannot be ignored nor wholly delegated, meetings that must be attended, social functions that cannot be avoided.
  • Staff-imposed demands – minimum time that must be spent with your direct reports (for example, guiding or appraising) to avoid penalties.
  • Self-imposed demands – these are the expectations that you choose to create in others about what you will do; from the work that you feel you must do because of your personal standards or habits.

As a manager, you’ll face demands on a daily basis. Exploring the types of demands you’ll face as a manager will prepare you to successfully deal with them when you need to.

In addition to the demands you place on yourself, you’ll typically have demands imposed on you by your boss, your direct reports, other managers, the system within which you work, and various external forces.

Your boss will make demands of you. Typically, these demands will be related to the goals set for your team or the organization. For example, your boss may require you to produce weekly progress reports on projects you’re involved with, or expect you to raise productivity by the end of the next quarter or hire new team members.

Your direct reports will certainly make demands of you. First and foremost, they’ll expect you to provide them with what they need to do their jobs. Typical demands will include training, advice, support, resources, and equipment. For instance, suppose you ask your team members what you can do to help them perform better. You may find out your team wants improvements to make an antiquated procedure more efficient, comprehensive training on new procedures, and new computers. Other managers are also likely to place demands on you.

Essentially, you can expect other managers to make demands of you that will support them in their efforts to achieve their own goals. Your organization will also have its own set of systems that will place demands on you. System demands include budgets, reports, and meetings.

Finally, external forces will place demands on you. Your customers, suppliers, stakeholders, legal regulations, and members of special interest groups may require information, attention, or action from you.


Part of your role as a manager is learning to work successfully within the constraints that limit what you can do. How you do your job will be limited by some specific constraints:

  • expectations
  • resources
  • technology
  • location
  • policies and procedures

Constraints are the factors, within the organisation and outside it, that limit what the job-holder can do. Examples include:

  • Resource limitations – the amounts and kinds of resources available.
  • Legal regulations.
  • Trade union agreements.
  • Technological limitations – limitations imposed by the processes and equipment with which the manager has to work.
  • Physical location of the manager and his or her unit.
  • Organisational policies and procedures.
  • People’s attitudes and expectations – their willingness to accept, or tolerate, what the manager wants to do.

To this list for today’s world we would add factors which will impose constraints such as:

  • ethics – your own and those to which your organisation adheres
  • the environment – climate change and remediation.

Everyone you work with, both internally and externally, will have expectations that will constrain how you’ll be able to act. Of course, you’ll have your own expectations to work with. But you’ll also have the expectations of superiors, peers, direct reports, and perhaps suppliers or customers to consider. For example, your direct reports will expect you to support them in their efforts to do their work. You’ll need to meet these expectations or risk losing credibility and respect. And your own supervisor may expect you to make tradeoffs and manage risks, as well as to motivate direct reports to support company goals.

As a manager you’ll quickly learn that nearly all resources are limited in some way. This will, of course, constrain or limit how you do your job. You’ll need to make the best use of the resources you do have. This may include negotiating and trading resources with other managers to get the resources needed to accomplish goals.

You may find that both the quality and type of technology available to you will constrain what you can do. For instance, suppose you’ve been tasked with implementing new security measures. Although you’d like to use facial recognition software, your company doesn’t have the technology to support this. Instead, you’ll have to make use of available technology.

Location may also present constraints on how you do your job. Often, you’ll work with departments, suppliers, and customers from various locations. You may also find yourself managing teams from various geographic locations or individuals working from their homes.

Finally, policies and procedures will constrain how you do your job. When your organization’s policies and procedures limit what you can do, you’ll have to work within these constraints to complete your work and achieve your goals.

Constraints may limit your ability to perform certain tasks as a manager. Demands are things you must do because people, systems, or legislation require it. Typically, demands will come from your boss, your direct reports, other managers, the system, and external forces. Constraints are things that limit how you do your job. Constraints include things like expectations, resources, technology, location, and policies and procedures.


Many managerial jobs offer opportunities for choices both in what is done and how it is done, though the amount and nature of choice vary. Managers can also exercise choice by emphasising some aspects of the job and neglecting others. Often they will do so partly unconsciously. The main choices are usually in:

  • what work is done
  • how the work is done
  • when the work is done.

Analysis of your job using these concepts of demands, constraints and choices can be revealing, particularly if it leads to the recognition that one or other aspect needs changing.

Note that demands and constraints also apply to many employees who work in the organisation. Choices, however, often do not apply to employees doing routine jobs.

Succeeding as a First-time Manager
Critical Thinking

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