More Than Words

Moving from vertical to horizontal organizations means bigger changes than terminology.

Stowe Boyd
Feb 6 · 3 min read
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

In Is it time to retire the title of manager? Adam Bryant tentatively suggests dropping the word ‘manager’. Here’s why:

Here are three reasons why the time has come for manager to be added to the corporate do-not-play list:

1. No one really wants to be managed anymore. The notion of management conjures up its unsavory close cousin, micromanagement, and sends signals that people need to be kept in the box of their job description. For millennials, at least, workplaces are seen more as networks than as hierarchies. These employees are more likely to seek out the people they need to work with, at any level, to get their work done. Managers who are frustrated by anyone who doesn’t work through proper channels will simply be seen by millennials as a bad user experience. And in this era of low unemployment, they have plenty of other options.

2. No one really wants to manage other people anymore. Yes, there are still a lot of people who get a rush from the power of their title and enjoy the thrill of telling people what to do. But the best employees don’t need to be managed — they need guidance, because they’re already self-motivated and brimming with ideas.


3. The word manager fails to capture the work that employees increasingly need to do, which is far more about navigating endless waves of disruption than following a prescribed playbook.

But Bryant does not take the next giant step, and simply state that as workers become increasingly autonomous, and teams increasingly self-organize, perhaps we don’t need a new name for the people-formerly-known-as-managers. We need something more than new vocabulary: we need a new language.

Managing has always carried the sense of managing ‘down’: a manager was higher in the corporate hierarchy, and managed the work of subordinates. This brings along the class structure of management and managed, of the military officers who command the enlisted, and the social distinction between gentry and commoners.

It is time to put aside the caste system inherent in industrial age management, where the professional, college-educated managerial class made all the decisions, and non-professional, non-college-educated did what they were told.

So, yes, let’s drop the use of manager. If a team needs someone to interface with other parts of the company, that’s a team lead, not a manager, at least so long as the team has a major voice in who is filling that role.

Increasingly, in fast-and-loose companies, senior leaders don’t manage: they cultivate the culture, acting more like a gardener than a general. And similarly, as companies shift from vertical to horizontal orientation — away from strict hierarchy toward heterarchy — the many parts of what made up managing can be deconstructed. Some people may become coaches. Others take on the role of product owners without necessarily managing those building the products. And still others become coordinators across teams of teams, allocating resources and removing barriers.

Bryant didn’t go that far. But that’s not surprising, since the piece was published in Strategy+Business, a publication from PwC, a management consulting firm. But dropping term manager is about as far as we can expect them to go, even in 2020.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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