What We Actually Want Out Of Management

We need management that manages from the perspective of the worker, and leaders that respect and appreciate labor itself.

A commenter (Aaron Erickson) accidentally inspired today’s article with a comment that should’ve been obvious to me but was crystallized in a way I hadn’t thought of yet:

People want leadership, people they work for who inspire them, and who work their tails off to find a win/win that helps the worker, helps the company, and helps society at large. They loathe management. They loathe being told what to do. They loathe wondering if they are being watched. They detest having someone who calls themselves a boss... bossing them around doing things that make no sense. I wish more people understood the difference like Ed does.

While yes, I am a genius, and I am always correct, I had not thought about things like Aaron had put them in such defined terms, and yet had been thinking - for all of my complaining about how management is, what do we want management to resemble going forward? Though it’s rare, good managers do exist and are different from the general term “management,” which usually refers to the hierarchy in an organization, and of course, whatever we believe the vacuous term “leadership” means.

Our Problems With Managers

Without retreading too much of what I’ve already written, the problems with management essentially can be distilled into a few categories:

  • A lack of utility: Managers do not appear to do anything other than ask you to do stuff, or assign blame.

  • Surveillance: Managers seem to exist to nag you about stuff and tattle on you.

  • Micromanagement: Managers like to nag and probe what you’re doing down to minute details, which they construe as managing you.

  • Control and Delegation: Managers see those they are managing as below them and as someone to do their work for them.

  • There are too many of them: There are simply too many managers, which means they have to work out stuff to do, leading to micromanaging.

  • Lack of expertise: Despite ordering us around, they do not seem to know what we do or how to do it correctly.

  • Lack of loyalty or mentorship: Managers do not seem to have our backs, nor do they seem invested in our success.

Our “good” managers are often ones we perceive as going to bat for us, but one consistent theme I’ve seen in all of the comments about “good” management is that they are still workers.

My favourite managers have been actual producers who also manage - and this is a crucial point because the core problem with a lot of managers is that they lead by example rather than hierarchy. The vast majority of the problematic managers I’ve had and have heard about have not seemed to produce any work product themselves - they rule from above, never truly suffering with their team other than to start assigning blame. I remember one of my first managers, who I shall despise as long as my heart beats, who regularly told me that she had “10 years of experience” or something along those lines.

This is the weakest form of management - while there are times where the answer is “I have experienced this before, and thus this is what we do,” I can remember (and have heard many stories of) many managers whipping out their years of experience to tell me that things worked a certain way, usually while telling me to do something that was equal parts wasteful and counterintuitive. It reminds me of the earliest form of anti-worker propaganda I remember - tons of articles about how millennials “ask too many questions” and are “demanding” and “disloyal (this is literally a piece of sponsored content by Allstate and is truly evil).”

This was/is a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise a generation that almost immediately realized they were being treated poorly and had less to look forward to. It’s also something I saw within my managers - a frustration that the “kids kept asking questions.” Perhaps it’s a generational thing - maybe it happened in previous generations - but I remember how the beginning of my career was framed by a consistent flow of me asking questions about why things were done a certain way and being told, in no uncertain terms, to shut up. The joke’s on them; I’m the one with a PR agency now. And yes, I’m bitter, that was a miserable year of my life.

Management is problematic because it is frequently used as a reward - a chance to make more money, but also exert power and control over people. Becoming a manager is a means of escaping the doldrums of the worker and allows you to start being the pusher rather than the pushed. Managers are often not measured on their team’s success or failures, or if they are, they are allowed to escape blame by claiming an underling failed them or gain accolades by claiming that they did the work somebody else did. The cultural disconnect of management from labor is the core problem - and, indeed, a lack of understanding of what leadership and management actually means.

What We Want From Our Management

One of my favourite managers - Will Porter, my previous editor at PC Zone - was wonderful because he saw what I was good at and fed me work that I could do. I was always a B+ writer that delivered copy fast, so I ended up getting a good amount of the smaller reviews, captions, and boxouts that, in the gestalt, was a lot of the magazine. The feedback he gave me was cutting without being hurtful - I’ve told the story of my first really brutal feedback from him a few times, but it was mostly “stop trying to be funny” - but he mostly just made sure I had work to do and the means to do it. When I needed something, he was there, and when I was having issues, he’d either help me fix them or find someone who could, or at least knew how I could fix them myself.

Will also was both a writer and an editor - he had work he was otherwise doing, and thus his time was not absorbed with finding things I’d done to take and wave in front of the higher-ups. Will was my boss, and I respected him not because he could fire me but because he’d done a bunch of work but also seemed to truly understand the nature of the work I did all day.

Conversely, almost every manager I’ve had in PR has seemed genuinely disconnected from the process. While they may pick up the phone or send an email to pitch occasionally, they most seemed interested in being in meetings and talking, then telling me to do whatever it was they promised. While there is always a level of delegation - I will say to my guys to do stuff, that’s part of running a company - the fact that so many of them were inherently disconnected from the process was my biggest frustration.

The Working Leader

My most significant call for change is the abolition of passive management. While this isn’t necessarily possible on every level - especially as you get into massive enterprises - there must be an engagement on most management levels in the actual work product and/or processes that happen. Jason Lemkin at SaaStr had an excellent idea for this too - that every single person in the company should do a day on customer support:

If you’re building an accounting application for healthcare — how many of your engineers will use it naturally on a daily basis? If you’re building, say, a HIPAA compliance app? I’m not sure it’s something your sales reps would ever use if they didn’t have to sell it. It’s not natural. The answer: everyone in a SaaS company has to do a 2+ hour stint on customer support (chat, phone, whatever) once a quarter, minimum. Everyone.

This is a practical solution that I’m going to move on fairly quickly from, but I think this also answers the “what if my company’s too big?” question.

Anyway. Too many managers are divorced from labor, and as a result, we need to make sure that managers are direct participants in the processes they’re part of. In a media relations firm, a manager should be pitching - and an active participant, not a few emails a month. If you are in sales, a manager should be selling - they should have a quota they are held to and the quotas underneath them, which they should be graded upon and incentivized to improve. If you’re managing a team of engineers, you should be as clued in to what they’re doing as they are and actively coding (I am not an engineer and do not understand code, is this right? Somebody emails me if it’s not at shutup@theranos.info).

This is useful on two levels:

  1. You experience the actual problems you are managing are facing, and thus you can help them from a direct, informed, and empathetic perspective.

  2. You are not seen as a passive participant in a process you manage and thus gain the respect of those you’re managing.

In my industry, I’ve always seen a bizarre undercurrent of anti-intellectualism - a belief that knowing too much stuff “gets in the way” - which I always found particularly offensive when I heard multiple managers across multiple companies say it. Managers should ideally know more than those they’re managing - not simply have spent X number of years at a company or in an industry. That’s a core problem of shitty management - and something to fix. The higher up a manager is and the more years they’re in an industry should directly correlate with the amount of information they’ve taken on - not simply on-the-job experience, but domain expertise.

Managers who fail to keep up their domain expertise and/or don’t participate in the process should be fired. They should be cut out. An ill-informed hall monitor that commands from a perspective of “years spent in industry” rather than actions informed by recent experience is as useful as a chocolate teapot. And they’re common because companies very rarely understand what a manager is meant to do other than order people around.

What Is A Manager Actually Meant To Do?

You may be a manager and reading this and saying “man that sounds like a lot of work, screw you, Ed!” Well, asshole, it is a lot of work, and if you’re not doing it, you’re a shitty manager, and I hope you get trapped in an elevator with a guy who just went to White Castle.

A manager is someone that is meant to see to it that the people they are managing succeed, which means that they are either meant to give them the tools to succeed (through their expertise or within the organization) or fight to get them the tools to succeed. A good manager is someone who gets the most out of their team without making them miserable in the process. A great manager is someone that pulls the greatness out of others, making them a success through the objective perspective of being another person while also adding their years of experience and, frankly, being good at finding solutions to problems.

Lots of people mistake what I’ve just said for “making sure nothing goes wrong” and “quality assurance.” While making sure the work product is good is important, there is such an overwhelming focus in management on the negative - “making sure things go smoothly,” “putting out fires,” and “checking to see if there are any problems” - which are all fine and good, but also should not be happening if you’re a good manager. Great management is not about “fixing” things or throwing stuff out but getting the most out of what you’ve got, and finding what you need to be even better.

The reasoning behind the negativity of management is the egocentrism of a lot of managers. Lots of people love being managers because it gives them a chance to control people, and to feel superior to them by having X years of experience or Y years at that particular company or Z awards. The focus on finding problems is so common because finding a problem allows them to act like they’re better than someone - to have noticed something they haven’t like a grand genius master.

While I maintain finding problems is necessary, there are also many times where the manager could fix the problem and shut up. If it’s a consistent problem, you take the person aside and say “hey, you keep doing this, could you not do that?” and if they keep doing it then begin to micromanage that particular process.

Managers are meant to be leaders - they are meant to make plays based on their experience and domain expertise, and make sure those plays are acted out correctly. They are there to make sure that the person understands why they’re doing something and sees the grand vision, and also has the means - knowledge or actual things - to do the thing properly, as well as any particular pitfalls they may run into.

Crucially, managers are also meant to be there for the worker when they face trouble, not find a way to blame them for it. Management is an act of responsibility - it is paid better because you are responsible for taking the actions that make the company money, and making sure those you are managing play their part. When something goes wrong, as it often does, you are meant to be there to use that expertise to work out a way through it.

Management needs to mean something beyond “you work for me.” There also needs to be both less managers - which means micromanagement will be less of a thing - and management needs to be seen as a reward that still requires you to actually work.

We also need to do away with the notion that everybody can be a manager, and evaluate whether someone can manage in advance of making them a manager.

What We Want From Leadership

My dad once told me that you learn two things from your parents - how to be a parent, and how not to be a parent. It’s a lesson that carries over to a great many things, in particular management and leadership. Shitty bosses and managers can be fantastic teachers of how not to lead teams, and generally people respond to them in the same way that they respond to having something bad happen to them in the past - they either choose to make sure such a thing never happens again, or they choose to “get theirs” and exact the same sins back onto the world.

Another thing that shapes leaders is whether you accept bad things that have happened to you as great universal injustices that happen to you (a perfect person), or at least try and see things that happen as objective lessons. As a result, you can choose to view the world as something that happens, or something that happens to you - and thus act like a complete asshole to people because you believe you’re “owed” something due to the injustices done to you.

The reason I bring up these random anecdotes is that I believe they truly shape good and bad leaders into what they are. A great leader - like a great manager - has experienced and actively participates in the things they are making calls on, and has more experience in the things that are being done than the person doing them but doesn’t have the time to do them themselves. Alternatively, they hire people that they know have domain expertise they don’t and give them the resources to do what they do best - and if things don’t work out, treat them with as much dignity as one can given the circumstances.

What’s shaping the current remote debate is that most leaders do not do the actual work that makes the company money, and are so far removed from the process that their decision-making, as well as the people they have hired to make decisions on their part, is corrupt. It may be partly about making the company money, but it’s also about making them feel good, which can (and often does!) involve making “tough decisions” after one of their questionable ideas fails, which also makes them feel good because these tough decisions, in their mind, resemble “leadership.”

I have heard from so many bloviating dickheads on LinkedIn talking about my Atlantic article on management through the lens of “leadership,” and I want to be blunt: leadership is about leading people in the right direction and getting out of their way when going in that direction requires you to. It is not even necessarily about decisionmaking - it is oftentimes about giving people the resources so that they can make decisions within the boundaries you set, and trusting them to do so. It means trusting that if somebody says they’re going to do something they are going to do it - with the understanding that if they don’t, and there’s no a clear, reasonable explanation as to why, that they have failed at their job.

Crucially, leadership is about empathy, realism and domain expertise. I keep saying that last part because I’ve met so many “leaders” that are so utterly disconnected from the world, with every act being some combination of ignorance and zealotry. They conflate passion with myopia, failing to evaluate the things around them in a way that reflects an understanding of the processes that go into the work they want to do or a realistic perspective from the world.

If you are ordering people to get things done without an understanding of what it is they do, why are you the one ordering them around? Why are you making the calls? If the answer is “I’m the boss,” that’s kind of shitty reasoning! While you can’t know everything, you should also have some trust in those you’ve hired to do the job you’ve assigned them to do, and have a way - through either the advice of someone else or the ability to learn about a subject - to evaluate whether that person is a fit, and when they join, whether they’re actually producing (or, indeed, whether their production is related to the larger picture of the business).

The reason that we’re seeing so many bosses demand people come back into the office is because they do not do real work and they don’t really know how the company runs, and the only way they can prove the company actually exists is to see people who look like they’re working. This is a direct result of their disconnection from the work product, and a lack of any kind of connection to actual workers. Leaders too often are “above” the work that they’re richly compensated for - they see the laborer and the labor as things that they have earned the rewards of by years of service, or through their career trajectory.

To be empathetic, I think everybody takes part in this kind of mental gymnastics whenever something good happens to them. We all want to believe what happens to us is a result of the years of hard work we’ve put into doing whatever it is we do, versus the moments that define whether someone chooses to give us more money, or to find us impressive, or to subscribe to our newsletter. And part of the universal problem of “CEO Brain” is that the world is not remotely fair, and success is often a result of luck and privilege rather than a continuum of dedicated effort.

This becomes a cognitively painful exercise that I believe disconnects many leaders from workers. They interpret their good fortune as simply them putting in the hours, and thus they perceive their distance from the worker as them choosing not to work hard enough. They got there through some work and some experience, but what separates them from the worker is the right combination of events - not necessarily “more” work.

A true leader is someone who is an active participant in the work process that enriches them, with an active attempt to understand and respect the parts of the process that they are not part of. It means respecting that any work that they are delegating is not “beneath” them, but work they no longer have to do, and valuing (and compensating) the worker that does it for them.

It also involves a great deal more engagement on the executive level than I believe a lot of executives are willing to give. Leadership has become a vague statement that involves making company-wide calls or layoffs, rather than actually giving workers what they need (money, respect, good working conditions) and respecting what they put into the company.

The aesthetics of leadership are antithetical to the actual pursuit of leading - which is giving the people around you the direction and the resources to succeed.

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