Why we really, really need managers

"#Management is a solution to a problem that ceased to exist."

I found this quote on Twitter. Although the tweet was probably intended to fuel a debate on leadership versus management, it does echo a sentiment that I think is quite prevalent in many modern schools of thought on organizational effectiveness (such as Agile, Lean, etc). The reasoning here is that professionals are perfectly capable of self-organizing towards some common goal and don’t need other people managing them. Leaders we certainly need, but managers, no.

Now, I’m all for self-organizing teams, democratic decisionmaking and letting professionals do their work without someone micromanaging them. But you can also go too far. I don’t like this subtle anti-managerial discourse because it is based on a very limited definition of management and because its view of employees is too utopian. Let me explain why.

First of all, we need to talk definitions. In the aforementioned discourse, management is actually intended as “micromanaging”; managers are tasked with telling people what to do and when to do it. They are the brains of the operation. This is acceptable if you are working with unqualified employees or people that are either unwilling or incapable of making well-informed decisions. But the usefulness of this kind of task-oriented management can certainly be questioned in professional organizations, where employees are usually perfectly capable of choosing the best of course of action (and are often pretty proud of that). Trying to micromanage professionals is like telling a rocket scientist how to build a good propulsion system. You’ll come of as a fool (unless you are a rocket scientists, of course) and you’ll run into resistance when you keep trying. So, the argument would hold if we’d be talking about micromanagement (ie: “Micromanagement is a solution to a problem that ceased to exist”). But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Defining management mostly in terms of “micromanaging” results in a very limited view of management. For one, management is about making operational business decisions and taking responsibility for them. It requires the balancing of costs and benefits based on (often incomplete) information. Some of these decisions can be (emotionally) difficult and affect the jobs of other employees. Management is also about protecting the inner organization from disruptive outside forces. A good manager is like a firewall; they shield their teams and allow them to do what they’re good at. It’s good that we have managers in organizations that perform these tasks. They are the ‘grease’ that keeps the ‘machinery’ of the organization running. We shouldn’t thrust these tasks and responsibilities on every employee just because we don’t need micromanaging  managers.

And this brings me to the second point. This anti-managerial discourse has a far too utopian view of employees in organizations. The assumption here is that every employee is both capable and willing to take full ownership of their work, make decisions and be involved in the goings-on of the organization. Although this is certainly something that organizations should strive towards, it is too utopian for several reasons. First, many employees are not willing to take (part of) the responsibility for making hard decisions. Maybe they are simply not interested in that kind of organizational work, they don’t have the personality for it or they don’t like the responsibility itself. Second, there is a powerful ‘equality bias’ going on here; we are all equal, so we should all decide. In a perfect world, yes. In the real world, no. Some people are simply more qualified or simply more skilled at making difficult decisions than others.

And there is actually a third problem going on here. I believe that the anti-managerial discourse is actually unhealthy and unethical if you take it too far. If you assume that every employee in a team or an organization is capable and willing to take ownership of and make decisions together, you’re bound to offload responsibilities onto people who are not ready (and never will be) for it. A democractic decisionmaking model can be stressful and taxing, especially when the going gets rough. A good manager is capable of making difficult decisions when there is great need, even if that decisions is a lesser evil. Thrusting the responsibility for these kinds of decisions onto employees is in itself unethical, but there is another reason. Democratic decisionmaking is often used as a tool to manipulate people into believing that they made the decision themselves, and then making them responsible for the consequences. Or worse, lazy managers offload responsibility to the team. Used like this, any democratic approach is highly unethical.

So yes, we need leaders for their vision and their ability to mobilize us towards a future goal. But we more often than not need managers to take care of the day-to-day operations of getting us there. This does not mean that managers should micromanage. No. Instead, they should be responsible for making (difficult) informed business decisions, keeping the organization running smoothly and shielding the inner organization from disruptive outside forces. This provides a more realistic picture of the need for management in the modern organization than is often portrayed in hyped organizational effectiveness discourse. And of course, if organizations can truly do without managers thats good for them. But for me, that's too utopian.

What do you think? Do you agree with this observation, or am I completely missing the mark? I’m looking forward to getting some feedback.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic