Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do Managers Matter?

A recent article at Workforce asked the question, Do Managers Matter?

I'm not sure this is the best question to ask. I would be more inclined to asked are managers needed? Personally I believe managers can matter. I believe they can make a significant difference. I continue to believe that many people leave organisations due to the impact of poor managers however I agree with the article in that I don't believe that is the sole reason people leave. For example, recent research at Harvard Business School showed a key role workplace motivator as being people's sense of achievement and making progress; therefore many people could leave due to feeling frustrated. At the same time their manager may have played a significant role in not removing or minimising the barriers that impact upon progress. Professor Henry Mintzberg suggests this also in the Workplace article where he suggests organisations should focus on changing organisational structures that impede management.

On the other hand I do not believe managers are needed? Given a change in corporate culture and structure a good many organisations could operate just as effectively or even more so with few if any formal management roles. The problem with creating a manager class is that the group of people then engage in behaviour designed to make them appear indispensible. A part of that behaviour is to generate a perception that without them the place would fall apart.

The reality is that the combined wisdom and knowledge of those in the workplace is greater than any single manager or in many instances the combined knowledge of a group of managers. In other words the people at the coalface have the best understanding of how to meet the needs of stakeholders in the most effective manner. The problem is that managers do not seek the perspective of those at the coalface. The entire hierarcial process relies upon each layer forming a misperception that they have a better understanding than the layer beneath them.

What about the managers big picture perspective I hear you ask? What about it? My experience is that outside of the executive group, very few frontline or middle managers have any understanding of anything outside their own somewhat narrow area of activity - and many a senior executive has demonstrated a complete lack of big picture awareness. How can a senior executive claim to understand the big picture when they focus entirely on the emerging external environment yet fail to understand the emerging internal environment or even understand the impact of those two environments upon each other? A much bigger picture would be obtained through accessing the collective wisdom of a broad workgroup or diverse stakeholders.

People in non management roles dont have the information to make effective decisions. I hear this all the time. Well give them access to the information and provide training in how to use that information to aid decision making. Having the ability to analyse information and apply it to an issue is not solely the domain of managers, it is something they had to learn to do, it is something non managers can learn to do. Essentially it is about power. The more someone is reliant upon someone else the more likely they are to be compliant. Compliance is always much easier to achieve than collaboration.

How do you go about accessing collective wisdom? For a start you need to create an environment where people have permission, not only verbal but also demonstrated by your own behaviour, to offer ideas, you need to remove the fear of being wrong or of being criticised, replace negative thinking with positive, creative thinking. You need to create an environment of discussion and exploration. You need to develop people's ability to assess situations, analyse information and apply sound judgment Sounds easy doesn't it? Well it's not, which is why the majority of managers don't go there. The reality is that many managers have in their workgroup people that operate home businesses, have experience of opearating businesses with their partners and manage their home affairs very competently; yet we persist in believing that as they don't have the title 'manager' they must be incompetent.

Another reason most managers cannot take such a step is because they see it as giving up some of their power. These managers are focusing on the wrong thing. They are focusing on their own ego at the expense of the greater good, at the expense of acheiving outcomes. Tapping in collective wisdom is not about giving up power; it is about showing you understand your power is in the group, collectively, rather than in yourself. The term 'manager' is only a title. It is what you do in your role that defines you, rather than the title you are given.

One of the first things you can do as a manager to foster collaborative and collective decision making is learn how not to say NO. Strange as it might be there is no need for any manager to ever say no. Instead try this, 'its an interesting idea, let me mull over it and we can get together in a couple of days for coffee to explore in more depth'. You haven't said either no or yes. You are fostering the thinking and discussion process, you are encouraging exploration, you are helping people to learn to think. Eventually through this process the appropriate and correct course of action will take place - without you needing to impose your management ego.

Many managers dismiss such processes out of hand as they feel they are time consuming. They are right, collaborative action is time consuming, its always much quicker to simply issue a directive. In the beginning, when you first commence accessing collective wisdom you will become frustrated by the process; in the long term as you develop amongst your people an ability to think things through, to discuss ideas openly, to share information and to tap into each others knowledge you will find they come to less often with problems to be solved, they will have solved the problem and moved on. You will find you time is taken up with acheiving the future rather than trying to change or remedy the past. You will find your role as a manager is less stressful and more enjoyable.

In such circumstances you will be needed as a leader and you will matter as you add value to the work group. Right now, the way the majority of people manage, they are not needed and they don't matter - were they to take a year off work without replacement, the place would operate just as well, and I would predict even better without them.

Let The Journey Continue
John Coxon

Taking You From Frontline Manager to CEO

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