The Management Delusion

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. I mostly think and say stuff.  Follow me on Twitter.

February 25, 2020

I have spent pretty much my entire career in management. I have managed and trained managers at all levels, from the bottom of the org chart to the top.

And it has become clear to me that the job is now near enough impossible.

The Manager started life as a simple role. It was command and control. But as the demands at work have grown from both employees and employers, the responsibility to meet each new need has inevitably fallen on the manager. We’ve gradually been making the job harder and harder, and like the proverbial boiling frog we haven’t noticed that it’s become unbearable.

Managers now have to possess an incredibly broad range of skills and personality traits, and they’re constantly faced with conflicting interests and impossible choices. Initially nobody expected managers to be anything other than the boss, but now they have to be so much more than that, and it isn’t working. The data on employee engagement backs this up, but you really don’t need it - it’s glaringly obvious. Think about all the managers you’ve known and worked with in your career: how many of them have been great at it? Or even that good? Isn’t it a shockingly low number? For a long time I blamed the managers themselves for this, but I’ve come to realise that’s ridiculous. It can’t be the fault of the individual managers. The job is simply too hard.

But it doesn’t have to be. It was never supposed to be.

Back when the manager was invented, the working world was a far simpler place than it is today. A guy owned a factory, but he didn’t want to work in the factory himself. So he hired a scary guy whose job it was to make sure other people worked in the factory. There was no employee engagement, no career development, no mission statement or company values. Just a scary guy screaming the dreams out of a group of people with nowhere else to go.

But work changed. Today, employers need to use the brains of their employees as well as their bodies, so the manager has to be more than just scary. In fact, the modern manager must be all things to all people. They must be inspirational, authoritative and organised. They must be inventive, emotionally intelligent, patient and calm. They must be bold, but cautious. They must drive change, but maintain order. They must be selfless, but demanding. And they must do all of this consistently, because the moment they make a mistake pretty much everyone hates them for it.

Take a moment to think about the personality traits necessary to be all of those things. I don’t know anyone who is this person. I’m pretty sure nobody is this person. In fact, I believe that if you ever met this person you would know immediately, because they would physically glow. Captain America is this person. Nobody else. But in the business of today, roughly one in seven employees perform management duties. One in seven. We are organising ourselves in such a way that success depends on one in seven people being better than the best person we’ve ever met, and then we’re surprised when everything is horrible. One in seven people cannot do this job. Not even close. Have you met people? Most of them are dreadful.

A recent McKinsey study showed that 61% of our time at work is spent trying to organise the actual work, not doing the actual work. This would perhaps be tolerable if it was succeeding, but it’s not. According to Gallup, 66% of US workers are disengaged or actively disengaged with their work. Management has created a bigger problem than the problem it was trying to solve in the first place, and it’s not even solving that one.

Management is arguably the function most crucial to the success of any business, but we are accepting a failure rate from it that we wouldn’t from any other area. And that failure rate clearly demonstrates that it cannot be the fault of the managers themselves. If 66% of planes crashed, we would immediately recognise there was a problem with the planes.

“Hey Dave, what happened to that plane?”

“Oh it’s in a million pieces at the bottom of the sea”

“Another one!? These pilots suck!”

We wouldn’t fix the pilots, we’d fix the planes. But the management vehicle is constantly crashing, and the response is always to try to make managers better, not to make management easier. Unless we reduce the demands on managers, we won’t be able to create the kind of workplaces that build engagement and generate great results.

The good news is that being a great manager is far simpler than we’ve come to accept. A lot of the current best practices for managers are time-sucking, counterproductive and often downright depressing. While we were gradually giving new responsibilities to managers, technology was progressing to the point that it could take some of the old ones away, or at least dramatically simplify them. Used sensibly, technology can give managers space to focus on the newer more human management activities that are required of them. We created DoThings to make goal setting, performance management, delegation and feedback all much easier than they have been previously. We want to help give managers more time and space to focus on the more human aspects of the role. We’ve also created some management guides to help with those things. Whatever approach you choose to take, it’s really time to stop expecting managers to be super human.

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