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Should Your Company Do Away With Managers?

  • Critics of the traditional management model say it is no longer relevant in today’s workplace, especially with the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Alternative models put emphasis on leadership rather than oversight, minimizing management roles and allowing teams to function more autonomously
  • The approach can improve employee satisfaction, but also carries the risk that workers may feel rudderless and ignored

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

In the movie Office Space, the protagonist offers a brutally honest assessment of his day-to-day experiences in a technology company when he complains to two efficiency experts that he reports to eight different bosses…and that his main motivation is to avoid making mistakes so he won’t be hassled by each one of these overseers.

The exchange encapsulates a frustration common in many workplaces: managers whom workers regard as too constricting, even if they aren’t overly numerous. Some workplaces have responded by trying out innovative models that does away with the traditional management role.

When managers are counterproductive

In theory, a management position offers an opportunity for an employee to advance within the company and for a business to improve its operations. The role can be a reward for employees who demonstrate the most intelligence, motivation, or other qualities. Managers can ostensibly use this talent to lead those under their supervision and make sure that they are working efficiently.

In practice, managers can be a major factor in driving workers away from a business – a particularly important consideration during the “Great Resignation.” Common complaints include that managers have insufficient training for their role, don’t empathize with workers, or micromanage by delegating tasks rather than responsibilities.

Dissatisfaction with a manager can thus lead to lower morale and increased employee turnover. A recent survey of 3,000 workers by GoodHire found that 82 percent would consider quitting if they had a bad manager.

A declining need for management?

Critics say that managers are a fairly recent invention, with the role debuting during the Industrial Revolution as a way of keeping watch over factory laborers. As working arrangements have evolved, they argue, the traditional role played by managers has become outdated.

The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably undermined one of the key responsibilities for managers: direct oversight of employees. With the shift to remote work, flexible schedules, and other arrangements, managers have not been able to make the rounds of an office and keep close tabs on workers. Moreover, digital tools have made it easier to keep track of worker performance and outcomes.

Employees often don’t regard their manager as someone offering a valuable role to the company. The GoodHire survey found that workers were more likely to turn to their colleagues for assistance with a task instead of their manager, with 83 percent saying they thought they could perform their job without a manager. Eighty-four percent said they thought they would be able to do their manager’s job.

This situation is not lost on managers themselves. Studies have shown that middle managers tend to be more stressed, less satisfied, and less likely to have a sense of belonging at a company than senior managers.

Emphasizing leadership rather than oversight

Several companies have adopted more participatory models in which employees don’t report to managers, but are rather organized into independently operating teams. The “holocracy” approach grants more autonomy to workers focused on common tasks, offering the potential for greater productivity, heightened employee satisfaction, and lower turnover.

This method doesn’t eliminate managers entirely, but it does reduce their number to a minimum and reimagines their role. Instead of being someone to whom workers report, the managerial position serves as someone who can offer guidance, training, or other assistance to connect employees to the resources and people they need to complete their work. In doing so, greater emphasis is placed on leadership rather than oversight.

Since management positions have typically been set up as advancement opportunities within a company, the holocracy approach might require a company to rethink how they can allow employees to grow within the company. This could include options for advancing within their own role, such as gaining a higher title with increased compensation.

Drawbacks

Minimizing management roles within your company is not always effective. For example, the online apparel retailer Zappos saw a major exodus of employees soon after it introduced a holocracy model.

If your managers are effective, they can provide crucial input on issues such as what is expected of employees. They can also work to make sure workers are engaged and provide them with the necessary materials and knowledge to complete their tasks. In this way, they will essentially be doing what is recommended in the holocracy model while also providing stronger direction.

There is also the risk that the lack of a clear manager can make an employee feel like they are being ignored. This, in turn, can make them feel less engaged and more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.

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