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Assuming We Still Need Managers, They Need to be Different

November 28, 2016


My colleague Lisa has, in her words, “has been blessed with great bosses”. She was understandably upset when her employer recently announced deep cuts to its middle management ranks. They cited cost, the unnecessary approval layers and that they simply weren’t needed by staff. Lisa, a gifted and highly productive writer and researcher is deeply concerned for her workplace wellbeing and her career.


Her company’s actions were yet another in a long line of employers who have espoused flatter, less hierarchical workplaces. They’re convinced that aligning and coordinating work, sharing information and problem solving can be done through technology and by workers themselves. Admittedly workers increasingly know much more than their managers about the technical requirements of their work and are by definition closer to the front lines and the customer.


Just as Lisa’s employer is doing away with managers referring to the commonly held view that workers increasingly do not see the point of reporting to someone who they perceive as simply tracking their progress, other employers are strengthening their bosses roles.


In contrast, recent research from Stanford University’s Katheryn Shaw and Edward Lazear together with Harvard’s Christopher Stanton suggest organisations like financial services giant RBC have found that bosses have a huge positive impact on productivity.


My take is when bosses lead more and manage less they’re catalysts for productivity and profitability. If managers want to be relevant and if their organisations want to get the most from this valuable yet expensive resource, managers need to do the following:


1. Constantly remind people how their work contributes to the employer’s purpose ensuring they help bring meaning to people’s jobs.


2. Talk about the future. When employees know their boss is concerned about their future and wanting to help them progress in their careers, engagement soars as does productivity.


3. Coach and support people through good times and bad. Coaching is about helping people make changes to their performance and their behaviour as well as reaching new heights. Hard questions and courageous conversations about outcomes done appropriately is what managers need to do well and often.


4. Design jobs, priorities and assignments to make the very best uses of people’s skillsets and optimise their ability to do what they do best.


5. Work diligently to clear any obstacles to people doing their best work and to secure the resources they need to be productive.


This is the true work of effective bosses.


In the world of sports, namely soccer, researchers and author Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their best seller Soccernomics had empirically shown that over time the choice of manager, their abilities in fact their very presence mattered very little to the success of the team. The same cannot yet be asserted in organisational life as employers continue to tinker with middle management and the role of bosses. All the while researchers continue to help us understand whether boss-less experiments will gain traction and become mainstream.


Time will tell whether Lisa’s employer will, like many before them (Google among many others)  revert to well defined manager roles and abandon their self managing workplaces. In the meantime,  if we can’t necessarily all agree that managers are needed we surely can agree that when they are, they need to be different.

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