Death of the manager: Do people need to be managed?

Leadership and cooperation
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At a time where technology is increasingly doing the drudge work and where clients can access simple, cloud-based solutions themselves, what’s left for your human employees to do?

The creation of the Investing in People category in this year’s Accounting Excellence Awards shows a recognition that people, and how we get the very best from them, are just as important as the next piece of tech when it comes to facing up to these disruptions to the status quo.

As leaders, our job is to create an environment where our employees can work best in the service of clients. But there’s a problem. We are still trying to free ourselves from generations of Industrial Age thinking where people were cogs in a wheel.

The system of people management is based on machine thinking – if we programme them with technical knowledge, set objectives and then supervise them as they move towards those objectives then the system will be as efficient as it can be.

However, an increasing number of companies are rethinking the management model.

Do people need to be managed?

A growing number of companies are rejecting people management. These companies are highly efficient and agile. There is no management layer to get in the way, to intentionally or unintentionally inhibit the flow of information. There’s no need for buy-in or consensus. There’s no need for writing reports purely to keep senior staff informed.

Instead, individuals are self-managing. They know what they were hired to do and what decisions sit with them. They will seek advice and input from colleagues whose own work may be affected or who may have valid experiences, but they make decisions themselves.

They are accountable for outcomes rather than inputs. They have access to all the company data (accounts, budgets, projections), company resources (there’s no need to get sign off for expenses or explain why you took a new pen from the stationery cupboard), and no reporting line.

What lies at the heart of these self-managing systems is a set of beliefs: 

  1. People are generally good: If you’ve hired well you have people who want to do a good job.
  2. Company purpose wins every argument: Service to the client sits at the heart of every decision and nothing, not even profit, is more important than serving the purpose of the business.
  3. Treat people like people: Humans work best when they have ownership, when they can learn from doing, when there is a direct connection between how they spend their time and an outcome that has meaning for them.

What are the limits you put on your willingness to trust people?

When you’re dealing with an employee who seeks guidance at every turn, or personal conflict between colleagues, or people who make bad decisions, it’s hard to accept that people don’t need managing.

If you just stopped managing people the whole system would fall to pieces.

But management adds complexity. And I bet you have better things to do with your time that would add real value if you weren’t monitoring, supervising, fixing mistakes and being updated. 

The starting point is trust. You need to create space for people to do their best work and then get out of the way. When people need to grow in order to deal with the challenges they are facing, you’ll have to ask yourself “How do I help them grow?” rather than “How do I fix this?”.

People can only be empowered to the extent you are willing to let go of power.

What’s your job then?

Many managers hold on to ownership because they think that’s where they add value. But they could be adding value in much more impactful ways.

  • Looking ahead: Be curious about what lies ahead and how that might impact your business and your clients. Learn, gain insight, step outside your industry.
  • Coaching: If your job isn’t to ‘do’ but to enable, your job will be coaching. You don’t have the right answer but you may have some great questions.
  • Removing obstacles: Look for barriers in the system that inhibit people’s ability to do their best work and remove them.
  • Legacy: Pass on your expertise, tell stories, share experiences, become a mentor, become a wise elder in your business.
  • Ask: “How can I best help this company deliver on its purpose?” Sometimes you can’t unless you completely rethink your role. Sometimes you can’t less you go to another company. Leaders who create leaders know when they aren’t needed anymore.   

Where to start

Of course, I don’t recommend scrapping managers on the basis of one article. Our egos are very attached to the way things are. It takes time to learn how to operate in such an empowered system.

However, you can rethink how you add value straight away. What are the ways you disempower, distrust or treat people like machines? How are you getting in the way? If the hierarchy didn’t matter, only adding value, what would you spend your time doing? What’s the best use of your talents, skills, and expertise?

A flatter, more collaborative, adult-adult, engaged culture doesn’t start with training for employees. It starts with leaders looking deep inside themselves and asking tough questions about how they are the problem.

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author, podcaster and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is also a judge in the new Investing in People category of the 2019 Accounting Excellence Awards. You can talk to Blaire about her leadership coaching or find out more about her work at www.thatpeoplething.com

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