Management: a rant
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -Inigo Montoya
Having worked in full-time management positions for some years now, I am increasingly convinced that management is widely misunderstood as a role, as a discipline and as a field, and that this makes a lot of lives more difficult and stressful than necessary. It is the subject of much speculation and misbelief, and I’ve chosen a few of my favorite examples to deconstruct here.
Misbelief #1: management is what managers do
I’ve noticed a trend among a certain class of companies, whose employees will tell anyone who will listen that there is no “management” in their organization, they never plan to have any, and neither should you. I think these statements are respectively a lie, a naïve belief, and a piece of bad advice. Usually, these companies are just a few years old and relatively small, most of the people in the company have been there for less than a year, and the speaker is trying to persuade us what a unique and innovative company they work for because nobody there is a “manager”. They invariably have not read The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
Management is the practice of enabling people to effectively cooperate. A manager is someone whose job is to do that. It’s that simple. It usually involves tasks such as sharing information, agreeing on a course of action, dividing up work, and figuring out what to do when there’s a problem. They’re things that every team needs to do, whether anyone is designated a “manager” or not. Teams can function without managers, but they can’t function properly without management. Someone (or everyone) has to do the work to make cooperation possible.
Modern management is a specialized discipline, which draws on a broad range of skills in communication, psychology, empathy, problem-solving, leadership, and more. These skills aren’t unique to managers, but it often makes sense to designate certain people to do more of the management work, on behalf of the team. By devoting more of their time and attention to it, they free other members of the team to focus on other tasks. They can act as a coordinator to help the team stay in sync, and by focusing on this job, they may be able to do a better job of it, and acquire a higher level of skill through practice and study. But it remains an inherently collaborative practice.
Misbelief #2: management is about telling people what to do
There are many different varieties of management, each of which is oriented toward a particular type of team or organization. Factories are managed differently from design studios, large companies are managed differently from small companies, and every team has its own distinct management style which arises from the unique group of people involved. Some managers are specialists in a particular type of management, while others are more generalists.
The “telling people what to do” style of management is called “command and control”. It’s characterized by authority, hierarchy, and strict adherence to protocol. It’s widely employed by military organizations, and by the managers we see in television and film. It has some advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t discuss here. My point is that it is just one example, but this example is used to represent the general concept of management. Self-organization, where no one in particular is responsible for group decisions, is another, quite different, style of management.
Small, self-organizing teams are capable of amazing feats of productivity. They’re less difficult to manage because they’re comparatively simple, and so simple tools and techniques work well. Everyone can be fully aware of what everyone else is doing, and new information propagates quickly throughout the team. But as the team or organization grows, it will often outgrow this way of working, and needs to adapt. There is no single management approach which works universally well.
Misbelief #3: management is a promotion
You know the story. When an employee is successful within their area of expertise, someone will eventually offer them a management role as a “reward” for their good work. This is utter nonsense. Management is not a promotion: it’s a career change. It means starting over as a beginner in a new discipline and learning from the ground up. Domain expertise is important, as a manager needs to understand the work of the other people on their team, but it is no longer paramount. The team, the human system, becomes their focus.
When organizations fail to provide career advancement within a discipline, people may turn to management as “the only way to get promoted”, only to discover that they are completely unprepared for this new field, and often their new job when they realize what they’ve gotten into.
If someone were “promoted” from a position as a financial analyst to a new job as a biochemist with no training or expertise, we would probably find this bizarre. But this is analogous to what happens to new managers all the time, and has become almost standard practice in many organizations and industries.
Management is misunderstood. So are science, engineering, and many other fields. What does it matter?
“People leave managers not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,”
- Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules
This mythology leads to massive organizational dysfunction, making it harder for everyone to do their jobs. It virtually guarantees incompetent management, which is a scourge on anyone who is exposed to it. It ruins days, weeks, jobs and careers. It leads talented people to leave companies, and it drives them out of their chosen professions.
I recommend that we stop denigrating and ignoring management, and start doing a better job of it.