What words come to mind when we think about what managers do? Crack open a thesaurus and we find a range of synonyms, from “director” to “zookeeper.” The dictionary uses words like “control” and “administer.” Ask an employee, and you’ll likely get an eye roll along with words like “micromanager” or “dictator.” Let’s be realistic, managers have a pretty terrible reputation.
The irony is that most people who are managers want to be great at what they do, and many of them were promoted because they were the best of their peers as individual contributors. So what happens when people become managers? The first clue might be in the name itself.
Corporations, universities, and nearly every type of organization in today’s marketplace prize leadership. Job descriptions invariably mention it, whether the position has anyone reporting to it or not. While “management” has the reputation of pushing paper, bossing people around, and enforcing policy, “leadership” has an entirely different aura. Leaders are inspiring, motivating, challenging, and innovative. Leadership is a quality that anyone can exhibit, while management is a millstone of responsibility.
The changing work environment
The title of manager and the concept of someone who controls people and processes are both holdovers from another economy—the industrial economy. Today’s working environment is rarely about doing the same things day in and day out. The knowledge economy has changed work from being largely task oriented to being about creativity and synthesis. In this world, managers who control and dictate don’t help create an environment that allows people to do their best work.
In 2013, Zappos famously announced that it was eliminating all managers from the organization and shifting to a flatter structure and a holacracy model, in which self-organized teams operate based on roles as they work toward a shared vision of success. As with any large-scale organizational change, the road for this one has not been perfectly smooth. But in an interview with CNBC, Tony Hsieh, CEO and architect of the transition, said he only wishes he had done it sooner.
Three ways to strengthen the role of manager
If you’re not quite ready to throw out your organization chart, here are a few ideas for how to improve the workplace role dynamic:
Focus on leadership. If a role has leadership responsibilities, use that title rather than the title of “manager.” Sometimes this name change alone can make enough of a difference, both to how the people in that role approach their work and how others respond to them.
Be explicit about shared goals. One of the biggest mistakes new leaders make is to focus too much on how work gets done, rather than creating a shared vision of the result. Intrinsic motivation comes from the joy of solving the problem, not from being told how to do your job on a daily basis.
Remove obstacles. While the role of “coordinator” tends to come up in more entry-level jobs, it’s one of the most important activities of a team leader. Understanding what each person is working on to get the team to the finish line, the leader must resolve conflicts, remove barriers, and make sure resources are available so that the team members can focus on what they do best.
While the manager title still exists, and likely won’t disappear for a while, the legacy idea of being the boss and telling people what to do is out of date. In today’s creative economy, people are motivated by the need to solve problems and synthesize information. It’s time to let go of the idea of controlling and make the shift to leading.
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