Managers Aren't Bad People

Russian “Street Language”

Sitting down to lunch one day with a group of friends in college in 2002, I remember vividly a lively conversation we were having. One of my friends was notorious for her frequent use of profanity. None of us was really in a position to cast stones. But this particular friend’s frequent use of the f-word started to grate on some of us. When we confronted her about her excessive use of the word, she insisted that it didn’t matter and it was just a word. I ironically lacked the vocabulary at the time to express the notion about how words carry a charge with them. If words didn’t carry a charge, they wouldn’t mean anything, and we would lack the ability to communicate verbally as a species.

The words we choose to use conceptually frame how we behave.

I learned this lesson about the charge words carry when I was studying Russian from1999 to 2002. A lot of the Russian I learned came from interacting with young people in informal situations when I lived in Moscow from 1999 to 2001. When I went to school to learn Russian formally in 2002, my instructors disparagingly referred to the Russian I spoke as “street language.” My vocabulary consisted of many lowbrow words and phrases. I recall talking with my native-speaking teachers in Russian and watching them wince when I would use a particularly crude word or phrase. Because Russian was my second language, the obscenities I was accustomed to using didn’t affect me the same way they did my teachers. As native speakers, my teachers’ relationship to certain words was deeply influenced by the cultural connotation of those words—something that I lacked as a non-native speaker. Seeing how my teachers reacted viscerally and involuntarily to the use of harsh Russian profanity served as a good lesson for me about how the words we choose to use conceptually frame how we behave.

The Origin of the Problem

I recently read a 2015 study by Gallup, which found that 50 percent of employees leave their jobs “…to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.” The language used here is, I believe, nontrivial and at the very heart of the problem. The crux of the issue, according to Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, is that companies need to be more prudent about whom they select for management positions. With all due respect to the CEO of Gallup, I believe he’s missing the mark—the problem isn’t that companies aren’t selecting the right managers; the problem is that many businesses are still operating from a paradigm in which they see managers as integral to the control of their organizations.

Manager: “a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization.” While this may not be the exact definition you think of when you hear the word manager, I’d hazard a guess that the word manager carries a charge that imparts some notion of control for you. When someone is given the title of manager and accompanying subordinates, it is all but a foregone conclusion that control is a part of his/her frame of mind. This paradigm of management is nothing new in Western work cultures.

The first literary reference to the word manager in the English language showed up in the mid-17th century, and its use peaked in about 1997. The use of the word was relatively static for almost 200 years, until about the time of the Industrial Revolution, and continued to increase rapidly in use throughout the 20th century.

Managers of people are becoming obsolete in an economy dominated by highly skilled knowledge-workers.

A manager as a controller in the years of Western economies dominated by heavy industry coupled with low-skilled labor made some sense. For much of the industrial buildup in the West, people were seen as extensions of machinery. If the aim was to control the machinery for effective and efficient functioning, it only made sense to control the animate appendages of the machinery—human beings. When you give someone the title of manager, the historical and cultural connotation associated with that word implies control, even if at a subconscious level. Simply put, the problem is not that organizations need better managers; the problem is that managers of people are becoming obsolete in an economy dominated by highly skilled knowledge-workers, who often know more about how to do their jobs well than their managers do. However, as I stated in the title of the article, managers are not bad people. Managers are people who are operating on an old paradigm based on the premise of control implied in their titles. 

The New Paradigm

Contrast this paradigm of control with what one Japanese industrialist said about the West in the aftermath of WWII: "We are going to win, and the industrial West is going to lose because the reasons for [their] failure are within [themselves]: for [them], the essence of management is to get the ideas out of the heads of the bosses into the hands of labor."

If you need to attempt to control someone to get work done, you’ve hired the wrong person.

Today’s Western workforce dominated by college-educated knowledge-workers is incompatible with the paradigm of command-and-control management that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. The solution is not better managers; the solution is a new paradigm. If you need to attempt to control someone to get work done, you’ve hired the wrong person. To bridge this great divide that exists between the command-and-control manager that came out of the Industrial Revolution and the current workforce, people need mentors. Mentors are individuals who provide insight from a place of caring and wisdom designed to unleash human potential at every level of an organization. The only catch is that mentors need to be devoted to their roles. Nothing is more demoralizing that having a mentor who doesn’t care about you.

To be sure, there is still a place for managers. In organizations, three essential roles help keep it on a healthy and sustainable course:

Mentors: as mentioned above, mentors are those who take a personal stake in someone’s professional growth by helping to unleash their potential through wisdom and guidance without using the traditional levers of power that command-and-control managers use.

Managers: Mangers are essential. However, the role of a manager is not to control people, but to administer, design, and implement systems. The administration, design, and implementation of systems will indeed touch upon people. However, the objective of a manager is to manipulate an inanimate system, knowing that he/she will not have the power to compel through force the people whom that system touches. If systems are designed well and are inviting, people will gravitate toward them, if for no other reason than self-interest (i.e. “If the system helps me, I’m going to use it.”).

Leaders: Leaders in organizations have two key roles, both of which I believe are equally important and mutually dependent: strategy and organizational health. Leaders are often thought of as strategists, charting the course of an organization to prosperity. Where many leaders fall short is in being aware of and taking responsibility for the health of an organization at the people-level. An organization can be prosperous and unhealthy. However, sustainable prosperity demands a healthy organization for people.

I am not suggesting that different people need to fill each of these roles. A person can be a manager of things and a mentor of individuals. A leader can be a strategist and a manager of systems. The key is not to conflate these roles.

Conclusion

To draw on the wise words of my friend and author, Carl Nordgren, organizations must start to close the gap that exists between the paradigm of command and control that came out of the Industrial Revolution toward a paradigm of organizational climate control in which servant mentors and leaders dedicate themselves to creating environments that unleash human potential and improve the human condition in the workplace.