Do We Really Need Managers?

Do We Really Need Managers?

There have been SO many articles and books about this idea of flat organizations. No managers, no bosses, just passionate people solving problems and collaborating at ease.

Sounds great, right? Well, not if you’re a manager, obviously. But the concept sounds great, right? Less oversight, more trust, more autonomy, we all want that!

What these articles get wrong is this: the idea of managers, especially middle managers, being senseless buffoons or mere pawns with all the authority of a mall cop has gone too far. And the role of a middle manager needs a refresh, not an elimination. Middle managers are the unsung heroes of organizations. But these managers need to be leaders, not just human project management tools.

Where do we stand with managers, today?

The workplace changed a lot during the pandemic. We all came together, huddled from home, turned our kitchen table into a workstation, then our guest room or a corner in our living room to our home office, and overall, stayed productive. In the end, a lot of us felt we didn’t need a person hovering over our shoulder to keep us on track and working. So, logically, a lot of us felt we didn’t need a manager, and a lot of senior leaders felt maybe we could cut out some middle managers.

A survey by GoodHire in 2022, of workers in a variety of fields including education, finance, health care, marketing, and even science– found that 83% of American workers said they could do their own job without their managers. But paradoxically, GoodHire also found that 70% of American workers strongly enjoy or somewhat enjoy working for their manager. This finding is backed up by Pew Research which just released data in late 2023 finding that “a majority of workers give their boss high ratings.”

Do We Really Need Managers?

So, people like their bosses, but could do without them. What’s really going on here?

Why do we hate managers? (or think we do)

The brainless middle manager trope. It’s an old one. They’re in our shows, our movies, our social media posts. And, yeah, in our lives too. They show up late, leave early. They scrutinize everything you do. Track your tasks. Track your productivity. Track your success. Track your failures.

Middle managers today are basically glorified task managers, and that really must change. But…why are they glorified task managers in the first place?

Gallup just published the results of a massive study on managers. A key finding was that, right now, managers have more work to do, on a tighter budget with new teams. Managers are more likely to be burnt out, disengaged, and looking for a new job.

More work: Remember the remote and hybrid culture you probably had to facilitate from scratch with no experience with video software like Zoom and Webex? That was a huge undertaking. Managing people’s well-being wasn’t in the managerial job description before. Adding it may be long overdue, but it was still a task that managers feel ill-equipped to take on officially.

Less budget: The economy was a roller coaster for all industries over the last 4 years. And in response a lot of budgets froze or got tightened. Your company was probably hit in negative ways that affected resources that make your role easier.

New teams: There was a lot of quitting, layoffs, hiring, and job hopping that happened. Now, teams are shaken up, gone, or brand new.

When all these things compound, it makes sense middle managers are feeling squeezed, as Gallup put it.

And when you’re burnt out, disengaged, and looking for the next place to work, you’re going to become the bare minimum “glorified task manager” just making sure the wheels are spinning.

A manager should be a leader. Plain and simple. This isn’t just semantics. A leader is an inspirational figure that facilitates great work. Tools like Jira, Trello, Asana, they can keep track of tasks and you can check them from time to time. But it shouldn’t be the first thing a manager does: check the management software. Instead, check on the people!

What About Managerless Companies?

It’s worth stating here that, none of this is new. The discussion about whether managers make a difference has been going on for a while, with both sides citing examples to suit their opinion.

On the managerless company side, Washington-based Valve Software gets cited often. If you’ve ever played some of their most critically acclaimed video games like Half-Life and Portal, you’ve probably heard of them. They also created the Steam platform, which, again if you’re a gamer, you know well. Valve was started by two former Microsoft employees in the early 1990s and began, from the start, as a flat company. No managers, beyond the executive c-suite level. People decided what to work on, what to prioritize, and the company became a huge success. By a lot of metrics, it’s been a success. A little late on deadlines for game releases, but because they are so good, they’re often forgiven.

But here’s where it fell short. Priority is only given to what the majority of the organization prioritizes. At Valve, it was the product, the critically acclaimed games and the Steam platform. What wasn’t prioritized? Diversity. Even for a tech company, even for a gaming company, the demographics are predominantly white and male. This discrepancy came to a boiling point in 2020 when the executive leaders were blindsided by rising social issues and criticized for their silence both internally and externally.

Other companies like Medium and Zappos rolled back their managerless structures. At Medium, they said the structureless structure impacted the ability to scale and the time-consuming nature of it all. It also negatively affected recruiting. It all seemed cool, but risky. Zappos said it took the attention away from the customer, and customer service was what they were known for.

These aren’t the only organizations to have ever tried managerless organizational designs. There’s a whole organization that catalogs them. In total, about 250 companies use a managerless structure. But most of them have under 50 employees. And nearly all of them started as a managerless company—they didn’t just wake up and decide their thousands of employees could suddenly manage themselves.

I should be clear: I’m rooting for those places and others to work. I’m in favor of any organization that helps people do their best work. I just personally believe it’s better to bet on talented people and great teams than on a seemingly perfect organizational design.

Managers have a great impact, good and bad

When you think about who your mentors are or people who have impacted you the most in life, outside of your family, I bet you’re thinking of a teacher that really inspired you early in your life, maybe your first basketball coach, or some other authority figure that took the time to understand you and teach you some valuable skills. In other words, you think of a manager.

In organizations, managers make up about 70% of the variance in team engagement. They have a tremendous impact on whether companies succeed or fail. 82% of American workers said they would potentially quit their job because of a bad manager. The impact and stakes are REAL.

Like it or not, the work we do in our lives defines a big chunk of who we are. And managers really hold the power in making our work fulfilling, or a mindless grind. Right now, things are bleak. The more work, less budget, brand new teams, the burn out. The ripple effects that come from the manager level go so far and so wide. But there is a way to help them.

Employees need more training and paths upward

People who are promoted to managers often are promoted because they are really good at their skillset as an individual contributor, and the only way to climb the corporate ladder is to get promoted and manage people. Hard truth here: not everyone is cut out to be a manager; not everyone even wants to be a manager.

Gallup found that only 48% of managers strongly agree that they currently have the skills needed to be exceptional at their job. And only three in 10 hybrid managers have received any formal training on leading hybrid teams.

Authors and McKinsey consultants Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Fieldhave an interesting thought about this in their newest book. Instead of promoting someone who is really good at their craft to a management role, there should be master tracks for technical areas. And putting your best technical person in a management role might drain them of that fire that made them so good in the first place.

Moving up in your company should not be tied exclusively to managing people. And if you promote people to those roles, you need a plan to train them. In fact, before promoting them it’s worth creating a trial project they can manage or put them in charge of interns for a summer. As Bill Schaninger said, “The first time someone does something shouldn’t be after they’ve already gotten the job.”

As a manager, it’s also part of your job (I know, another task, but it’s important) to develop members of your team. Maybe they’ll be managers one day, maybe they’ll even be your manager one day if you train them well enough. Your team is on a path in their career. Their jobs will fluctuate, people will move on, move up, change course, and so coaching them is crucial. Remember, the impact of a manager on someone’s life can be huge. There’s a lot of influence here.

Managers are not task managers, they are leaders.

Focus on the team, not the individual

Now, if you are a manager, it’s imperative that you resist the tendency to micromanage—the feeling of every little task being tracked is likely what created the motivation to fire managers in the first place. So, focus on the team as a whole, not the individual. Great leadership is about letting the team hold itself accountable.

You need to do your one-on-one meetings to check-in with your people and make sure there’s not any glaring individual performance issues. But great leaders are about teaching the team to hold itself accountable. Great leaders often come off more as facilitators who are there to guide and support the team as they divvy up tasks and co-create the best strategy.

Even when you’re doing your individual check-ins, I recommend a 10-10-10 format. If you have 30 minutes to check in with each person every other week, then spend only 10 minutes of that time focused on their actual performance as an individual. Spend the next 10 minutes focused on the team, how the team is supporting them, and how they are contributing to the team. Then spend the final 10 minutes on how you’re doing as their manager. Ask where you could improve and what support they need from you.

No one wants a 30-minute discussion around their performance flaws, but most people respond positively when the bulk of the time is spent focused on how their team and their boss can help them.

Final Thoughts

So, do we really need managers? Yes, but in a capacity that reflects the evolving needs of modern workplaces. As we look ahead, let’s champion a new breed of leaders—managers who not only oversee projects but also empower people, shape culture, and turn challenges into opportunities for growth.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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