Not sure what this manager is doing with a banana though. Or the wig.

Why we need managers

“#Management is a solution to a problem that ceased to exist.”

I found this quote on Twitter. Although the tweet was probably intended to fuel a debate on leadership versus management, it does echo a sentiment that I think is quite prevalent in many modern schools of thought on organizational effectiveness (such as Agile, Lean, etc). The reasoning here is that professionals are perfectly capable of self-organizing towards some common goal. And this — supposedly — makes managers redundant.

I’m all for self-organizing teams, democratic decision-making and letting professionals do their work without someone micromanaging them. But I think this anti-managerial discourse doesn’t paint the whole picture of what it is that “management” entails and does little justice to the hard, difficult work done by managers out there. I also believe that it is a tad too Utopian in its view of people (never thought I would say this though).

First of all, we need to talk definitions. In the aforementioned discourse, management is often equated be “micromanaging”; managers are tasked with telling people what to do and when to do it. As managers, they are the brains of the operation. This may be acceptable if you are working with unqualified employees or people that are unwilling or incapable of making work-related decisions. But the usefulness of this kind of task-oriented management can certainly be questioned in professional organizations, where employees are perfectly capable of choosing the best of course of action. Trying to micromanage professionals is like telling a rocket scientist how to build a good propulsion system. You’ll come of as a fool (unless you are a rocket scientists, of course) and you’ll run into resistance when you keep trying. So, the argument would hold if we’d be talking about micromanagement (ie: “Micromanagement is a solution to a problem that ceased to exist”). But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Defining management mostly in terms of “micromanaging” results in a very limited view of management. Sure, what many managers do may certainly fit that mold. But this is not an issue with there being managers or management, but with what it is they’re doing.

A broader view of management would consider the making of strategic, tactical and operational decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions. This requires the balancing of costs and benefits based on (often incomplete) information. Some of these decisions will be difficult and affect the lives of others. Aside from that, management is also about protecting the inner organization from disruptive forces. Managers can act like firewalls; they shield their teams and put them in a position where they can excel. We should encourage managers to step up and do this kind of important work. They are the ‘grease’ that keeps the ‘machinery’ of the organization running. We shouldn’t thrust these tasks and responsibilities on every employee just because we don’t want micromanagement.

And this brings me to the second point. This anti-managerial discourse assumes a lot about what people want and seek in their work. The assumption here is that every employee is both capable and willing to take full ownership of their work, make decisions and be involved in the goings-on of the entire organization. Although this is certainly something that organizations should strive towards, there are some things to consider:

  • Some employees may not be willing to take the responsibility for making hard decisions that affect others. Maybe they are simply not interested in that kind of organizational work or they don’t want to, or can’t shoulder the responsibility;
  • I feel there is a powerful ‘equality bias’ going on here. We are all equal, so we should all decide. Can you steer a ship when everyone decides where it should go? To me, this feels like a ‘tyranny of the masses’. In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, no. Some people are simply more qualified, more skilled or more resilient at making difficult, impactful decisions than others;

And there is actually a third problem going on here. I believe that the anti-managerial discourse is unhealthy and unethical if you take it too far. If you assume that every employee in an organization is capable and willing to take ownership of and make decisions together, you’re bound to offload responsibilities onto people who may not be willing or ready for it. A democratic decision-making model can be stressful and taxing, especially when the going gets rough. I think one of the hardest responsibilities of a manager is to make difficult strategic or tactical decisions when the situation demands it, even if that decision is a lesser of two evils. Thrusting the responsibility for these kinds of decisions onto employees is unethical.

I definitely encourage managers shouldn’t get in the way of the people doing the work by “micromanaging” that work. But managers can be very useful when they shield the organization from disruptive forces, when they make the decisions needed to keep the organization going and when they help others take the stage. What the strong anti-managerial sentiment ignores, is that there are many managers that do exactly this. And by doing so, it doesn’t acknowledge that there is value in managers.

And of course, if organizations can truly do without managers that’s good for them. But for me, that shouldn’t be a goal in itself.

What do you think? Do you agree with this observation, or am I completely missing the mark? I’m looking forward to getting some feedback.

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