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What is the purpose of a manager nowadays?

A few months ago, I saw a piece of research which has stuck with me.

Research by Microsoft was looking into how Hybrid Work was working, and found out the following shocking statistic:

87% of employees feel like they are just as productive working remotely as they are in the office

But 88% of managers feel like their team members are not as productive remotely

That means only 12% of managers feel like their team is being productive in an environment where they are not visible to the managers.

And that got me asking: Why?

How is it possible that managers have such a different belief about what their staff are doing, or how they should be doing it?

And more and more, I believe that it signals a shift to what managers themselves are here to do.

You see, management theory is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Up until the industrial revolution, most products were produced by small companies with only a handful of employees. Often these would either be families, or workshops where an expert master would teach a few apprentices their craft.

The major exceptions likely being the military, which may have had much larger numbers of employees and has always had a clear hierarchy.

However, the industrial revolution, and especially the development of the assembly line, allowed factories to expand production and employ significantly more people to produce things. Soon afterwards, layers of management were introduced in order to improve efficiency, such as by telling each employee what their specific task was.

Management theories then began to be developed and evolved, such as Taylorism / Scientific Management which aimed to remove all wastage from the employees.

The theory here was that only a manager or an “expert” could determine the best way for an employee to perform their tasks, and so it was an employee’s duty to just follow what they were told to do.

Since then, many managers believe that their duty is to ensure that employees are doing what they have been told to do.

Sometimes, even review “how” the employees are doing the tasks.

And in order to achieve this, they often feel like they need to be able to view the work being done.

Ironically, poor managers think that in order to be a good manager, you need to be “managing” your people

If you have ever experienced a micromanager, who was constantly checking on their employees to see how they were working, it is likely because they probably felt that this was in fact their own duty and the way they could show they were doing a good job as a manager.

After all, what is the output of a manager?

No seriously, think about it. How can a manager prove to their own leadership that they are adding value and helping the team?

Often, they try to prove their value by showing how hard they are “helping” their teams work, and how productive their team is. And the only way they can demonstrate their own contribution, since they are often not producing anything themselves, is through how they spend their time, and direct the time of their people.

In a sense, many managers believe they can prove their value through their busyness.

So since the pandemic, many managers and leaders who previously preferred to be able to see the work happen around them suddenly were forced to cope without people being in the office around them anymore.

And as a result, many leaders are forcing their staff to come back to the office, even though research shows that they produce work which is just as good if not better when they are able to work remotely or in a hybrid manner.

But what if this was no longer necessary?

A management shift from activity to outcomes

I believe that as working styles change, and more employees and teams adjust to not being in the same place simultaneously, there will soon be a moment where what it means to be a manager changes significantly.

And this will have a profound impact on how managers and their teams are judged.

As teams become more distributed, enabled by technology to collaborate not only outside the office but even between cities, countries and timezones, managers will have three choices:

Be available for all the possible hours that anyone in the team could be working, to check them
Put in place processes to check the outputs of every employee’s work constantly
Find a more effective, value-adding use of their time

Eventually, when “busyness” and time spent is no longer visible, the third option will become the only sustainable one.

Additionally, it will also be the only one which high-value employees will support.

A manager will need to be able to work asynchronously. And so instead of managing people’s work, they should ensure that the targets the team set were achieved.

How to measure this?

Through outcomes.

Not outputs, but outcomes of the work being done.

After all, while outcomes can be incredibly hard to measure, they are ultimately the only thing that matters to a business.

Yes, I believe that in high-performance teams, it will soon be outcomes that managers are focused on. Not necessarily achieving the planned outcomes bang-on as predicted, but the major outcomes being that the company is moving in the right direction.

However, this will require a high degree of psychological safety to exist in the team, and in the organisation as a whole. After all, a team might spend months or years working on something, and yet the outcome is not what they expected. This could be because either the plan or hypothesis was wrong, or due to external factors. So the organisation, leadership and teams need to be able to iterate and change, depending on whether their teams are getting closer or further away from the outcomes they are hoping for.

A strong manager will be able to help the team identify this risk early, consider options, and plan the right experiments to try in order to get closer to their ideal outcomes.

Essentially, the manager of the future will work with their team more like a compass, instead of believing they are the only person with a map, telling their team exactly where to go.

 

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