The Fog of Management

Managers can only see one level up or down and no more

As teams grow larger, one person cannot possibly have a pulse on everything going on in the organization. Dunbar’s number contends that you can only maintain social contact with 150 people at a time. Assuming most mangers have family and friends outside of the workplace demanding a large piece of their cognitive pie, the number of other humans any one person can manage shrinks precipitously.

The industrial revolution gave birth to a solution to this problem we call “the manager” whereby a hierarchical model decentralized the burden of oversight to multiple managers. In companies, managers manage a team of managers, who might even manage another subordinate team of managers before that team manages the independently contributing employees. In concept, management at each layer would only need to be responsible for having a pulse on their own team, not the entire company. Information would pass up and around through these channels, largely on a summarized need-to-know basis. The whole practice made a lot of sense, at least in an era before profuse connectivity.

Most managers, especially executives and even CEOs, unconsciously make the assumption that they know everything that’s going on with their teams. A wise manager understands that she cannot possibly know everything, but ego demands that she embody a successful manager who, by definition of her responsibility as manager, knows everything she needs to know. If she doesn’t know something, it doesn’t exist and does not need to get addressed. Thus, most managers come to work confident every day, ready to address issues as they come up (reactively, mond you). Contrary to their day to day comfort in ignorance, they don’t know everything at all. If you’re a manager, trust me: you have no idea what’s going on in your own team. You don’t know what everyone is doing every minute of every day; you don’t know what’s going on outside work that impacts everyone individually; and you shouldn’t.

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? Did a tree even fall at all?

Yes and yes, whether the manager knows about it or not. Herein lies the problem.

Modern companies put far too much weight on managers to solve everyone’s problems, know everything that’s going on, and traffic the right amount of information at the right time. Updates arrive late, few team members get the support or attention they need to perform optimally, and personnel issues go unnoticed. People and issues fly under the radar. One person simply cannot play an omniscient role over five, ten, or fifty people. And it’s impossible for a manager to see beyond their team to know what’s going on. Humans only have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth.

Many humans combined, however, have many ears, many eyes, and many mouths. Everyone in aggregate knows everything that can be known. Members of the team know more about the work and each other than you as manager will ever know. The best managers today spread trust, leverage the team for wisdom, and distribute the burden of leadership. Peer reviews. Visibility into budgets and timelines. Asynchronous status meetings. Flexible work hours. Giving the team freedom, insight, and authority conversely empowers the manager and maximizes the potential of a team. If you’re a manager, first trust that you know nothing and then trust the team.

What if the team held each other accountable rather than a manager? What if the team made hiring and firing decisions instead of a manager? What if the team had more trust from stakeholders to make product decisions? What if teams shared the burden of management with unbiased tools to help them with the administrative work? What if we said goodbye to management and did away with the notion of having anyone hold power over us? I’m not advocating for flat structures and total self management, because a group of people still need leadership, accountability, and equitable acknowledgement for their variable contributions. But I do propose a world where those things happen dynamically and automatically, not by the hand of single managers always acting on incomplete information.

Just an idea.