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 I’ve never met a manager who was trying to be bad at their job. Most new leaders 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 are focused on leadership. Job descriptions almost always mention it, whether the role 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 sense. Leaders are inspiring, motivating, challenging, and innovative. Leadership is a quality that anyone can exhibit, while management is a millstone of responsibility.

The management title, 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 that 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 they were eliminating all managers from the organization, shifting to a flatter structure, and to a ‘holacracy’ model where self-organized teams operated based on roles as they worked toward a shared vision of success. Like any large-scale organizational change, the road has not been perfectly smooth. But according to Tony Hsieh, architect of the transition, he only wishes he had done it sooner.

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:

  1. Focus on Leadership – If a role has leadership responsibilities, use that title, rather than the title “manager”. Sometimes just that name change can make enough of a difference, both to how the person in that role approaches their work, and how others respond to them.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove Obstacles – While ‘coordinator’ tends to come up in more entry level roles, 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 role of the leader is often to 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 way out of date. In today’s creative economy, people are motivated by solving problems and synthesizing information. It’s time to let go of the idea of controlling, and make the shift to leading.

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