The Anti-Manager Equation

Is management a real job?

So, I was thrilled to see the response to my Atlantic article from Friday. I had expected far more negative reactions from people that considered their comfortable management positions threatened. Still, then again people on LinkedIn seem to have a certain kind of brain that only lets them post positively.

That being said, there was one particular branch I wanted to lead off of from the piece, but also from the feedback I got from those very same LinkedIn users, who kept getting annoyed that I wasn’t talking about “leaders” in my piece, or what “leaders” should do, or that managers should be “positioned to be leaders.” I think that strikes at the core of the problem of what management is and, indeed, the broken incentives of management as a whole.

Culturally we’ve ascribed a great deal of meaning to “manager” - precisely one of dominance and control. A manager is someone that controls your path and tells you what to do, someone that owns you and your time - you are part of “their” team, “their” body of work, and by extension, your labor and time are theirs. This, I’d argue, is part of the incentive for becoming a manager for many people - the idea that you have to do less work (because you make other people do it) and have the ability to dispatch people to do your bidding, which intentionally misses out the actual work part of the conversation.

That’s because management (as I said at length in the Atlantic) has become a job that mixes up delegation with getting everybody else to do work that you then claim. I am very sorry if you are a manager who reads this and gets upset - well, not that sorry; in fact, please get mad in the comments; I’d love to hear from you! - but I have met so many managers that see management as a reward from long years of hard work in which they finally get to do what they’ve always wanted to do - absolutely nothing other than feeling important.

I brought up the vacuous “leaders” conversation from LinkedIn because I feel it’s critical to the more extensive discussion about the problem of management. Management theory and professional-personal branding have led to a transformation of words like “leadership” and “management” and “strategy” into totally meaningless LinkedIn memes. We have lionized the idea of “leadership,” describing CEOs as if they are generals on a battlefield making the calls that can win the day, without asking whether any of these people lead or make the decisions that change their companies. What calls do these CEOs make? What do they do on a day-to-day basis, and how much of that matters to the company's bottom line?

This vagueness of purpose and activity has poisoned management - that each manager is not managing people but is effectively a mini-boss that gets a mini-company that they can take credit for and get applause for. The association with management isn’t anything to do with getting the best out of people and helping them manage their workload, but the offsetting of work by the manager who, in turn, can get paid for that labor rather than their own.

Some of this also comes from the idea that the higher you are at a company, the further you are removed from actual labor. I don’t mean in the classical capitalist sense - yes, many of these companies are incredibly dependent on poorly-paid workers that they treat like garbage, which is also not really “leadership” - but in the sense that once you enter a management track, most of your time is spent proving that you’re a manager rather than managing people. “Good” managers are seen as stewards of successful organizations that they rarely interact with the actual work product of - but because they’re in ‘management,’ they are given credit.

That’s the real problem, though, isn’t it? That we have given such credit and such power and idolized a subset of people without ever really asking what it is they do all day. Welding management to control has given us a bizarre and broken view of the average company’s corporate structure - we know that managers get paid more and seem to have better treatment at the company…so surely they do something, right? Oh, right, they order other people around. That’s a job, I think? Maybe?

I want to write that ordering people around isn’t a job, but I know a thousand asterisks go with it. Generally, companies do need somebody that can make calls on things - what a company will build next, what a company’s direction is, and so on - but they do not need as many people to tell people what to do. They need to have more of a value to an organization than having a good head on their shoulders and being able to make “tough calls.”

Ironically, I do think management and leadership are interlinked, and even more, ironically, I do believe that a manager’s existence is to be a form of smaller boss. If an organization is too big for a CEO to manage people, then a manager exists to do what the CEO can’t with the time they have. The problem comes from when the manager begins to see their role not as a form of labor, but as a kind of royalty - a Duke or Lord that makes people do stuff because it’s “beneath” them because of the hierarchy of the office. Theoretically, you’re not doing certain jobs as a manager because you’ve not got the time due to the responsibilities of the role you’ve taken on, not because you’re better than the laborer.

The division of management from labor is a huge problem within modern capitalism - or a sign, perhaps, that it’s functioning as intended. The irony is that a manager-laborer is someone that can both empathize with the people they are managing as well as experience the actual work product, and thus make better decisions for the company at large. While this may not always be practical - especially as an organization gets larger - there must be some degree at which a manager is directly part of the process of the people they’re managing, as their ability to actually manage is all but nullified, along with their ability to make good decisions.

This is one of the specific issues with modern management - the people that make calls and demands of laborers based on a vague understanding of the work product, which leads to micromanagement and laborer misery. Shitty managers bug you about things that they know you don’t have an answer for, and make unrealistic demands based on only understanding outputs rather than processes. The disconnection from the process is perhaps deliberate within the executive sect - that you are disconnected from the pain of actual work and can simply rise above it and “call the shots.”

My suggested solution is a difficult one, but basically that anyone promoted to manager should A) be evaluated as to whether they’re going to be a good manager and B) not escape from the actual labor of a given position. In the event that they practically do not have the time to actually do the job on account of new responsibilities, they must be brutally aware of the processes and evaluated not simply on the output of their workers, but on the management of their workloads and their happiness within an organization. And it’s critical that said management does not get credited as the performer - organizations must give workers industry, and must give workers credit.

As I write this, I realize that the ultimate conclusion I’m reaching is that management is not, on its own, an actual job. I’ve mentioned that “strategy” is an extremely vague thing to give someone credit for, and I stand by it - “strategic thinking” is lionized, but who gives a shit if your decisions aren’t amazing - or aren’t decisions that people could have worked out on their own? If your entire job is ordering people around, you had best have proof that the decisions you came to were unique or astute - otherwise this is not a job that should realistically exist. And if it is a job, the role of the manager is the facilitate the success of the team, which is not necessarily a role in which workers are subordinate.

If there are clear-set metrics and outputs in an organization, there should not be that many managers. If the goal of a manager is to get the best out of someone, as I said in the Atlantic, that person is more of a coach - and, again, in the role of a corporation, that person needs to have a direct connection and demonstrated and regularly-refreshed understanding of what it is that they are managing. If we must have managers, we must have less of them. If we must have managers, we must grade them on managed workers’ performance, but also on the quality of their decisionmaking and the health of the part of the company they’re responsible for, along with the health of the people organized under them.

This is the funny thing about-

*sigh*…remote work…

Remote work has shown how many managers basically don’t do anything. We have assumed so much about what a manager is and what a manager does that we haven’t considered whether what they do is actually necessary on its own. Remote work’s more-asynchronous communication means that it’s far more obvious what is and isn’t happening as the result of a person’s presence - or, say, find a piece of software that could automate the delegation part of management, making their job less about telling people to do stuff and more about the actual stuff being done.

So, what is it we pay managers for? Is it mentorship or dictatorship? Is it to exert power, or to direct power to others? What is the function of management, and does it even need to exist?

The answer is that it has to evolve into a role that is equal parts coach and quality control. It has to be a role that is reframed from the glamorous dictator that many aspire to be as a manager. Perhaps a better analog is that of a team captain - someone who has the status of someone who’s a performer, with the respect that comes from experienced labor that gets people to listen.

The keyword out of all of this is responsibility. Theoretically, if a team is failing, the manager should be the first to get fired, rather than the person assigning the blame of failure. While there are cases where somebody truly messes up, there are many more where - to quote several former managers from my first job - “somebody has to go under the bus.” And yes, there may be cases where a manager can point to a team member who’s underperforming - but the goal should not be to choose a sacrificial lamb, but to work out what’s going on and lead them through it.

And for real, if you’re going to lead, actually lead people. Leadership requires you to sacrifice your own time, to in many cases be the person that gets in trouble, to use your experience to help people through difficult times, to make decisions based on your expertise that involve using the strengths of your team.

The problem is that none of this is particularly satisfying as a job for some people. People become managers all the time because they’ve managed to not get fired, and manage other people as a means of exerting power and shifting blame. This is because a real manager - one that’s necessary and has a purpose within an organization - truly does have a weight of responsibility upon them, because the buck actually stops with them, because they are, theoretically, the person that understands the process on both a direct and strategic way, which is actual labor.

A good manager should be someone who has a full day making sure stuff is done, and getting it done if it isn’t done, which is more work not less work. They should be working shoulder-to-shoulder with those they’re managing, and be an advocate for them with the rest of the organization to get them what they need for the selfish reason of being a successful manager, which is fine. Problematically, very few managers I’ve known have seen other people’s success as their responsibility, other than when it gets them yelled at.