December 12, 2010
A manager recently voiced his concerns to me: “Many employees prefer being told what to do. They are willing to accept being treated like children in exchange for reduced stress. They are also willing to obey authority in exchange for job security.”
That is the way we have seen it: managers inspire, motivate and control employees who need to be inspired, motivated and controlled. These dynamics create the system of management and justify its continuation.
If we want to change the system, both parties would need to transform themselves almost simultaneously.
The workers changing their role is often seen as a matter of the extent to which the managers are willing to give up responsibility. In reality it is as much a matter of how much the workers are willing to grow their capacity and take responsibility. The problem is that most management education is targeted at managers, not at workers. When employees are not given opportunities to develop and act responsibly, they are in the worst case infantilized and stripped of initiative. They lose their capacity for self-control and self-management. The inability of employees to act responsibly then creates a justification for managers to do so for them.
The birth of management
Historians claim that management emerged as a profession as a result of the rise of slaves in agricultural labour. As the number of slaves increased, the owners created a privileged class of foremen/managers drawn from the ranks of the slaves. The task was to control them and to make sure they did not run away.
The number of managers grew during the time of the Babylonian Empire. They were also mentioned in the Hammurabi code of laws. Aristotle made reference to the need for management not only to control slaves, but in the household to control domestic servants, animals and women.
The tasks of management evolved into motivational issues as a result of the steady decline in the motivation and loyalty of slaves. Successful motivation was typically built on fear together with dreams of upward mobility and sometimes identification with the owners. From this perspective, management and involuntary work always belonged together. What made employees slaves was the fact that they did not have a voice in their work process. The place and time of work was forced on them. They were not viewed as human beings, but as an instrumental resource. One might claim that slavery, in this sense, has not died. It lives on in new clothes.
A few researchers have started to dispute the assumption that management is a fact of life that will always be with us. Perhaps it is time for us to question whether the recent problems created by bad management are isolated and occasional and should be tolerated. Perhaps the problem is a much larger systemic challenge than just kicking out the bad manager and inviting a new, better manager in. Perhaps the problem is not at all employee compliance or management incompetence.
What if it is the system itself that is problematic, as it separates employees from responsibility and leaves organizations unable to fully utilize the potential of human beings.
Management is a relationship
The dysfunctional relationship between managers and employees creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a systemic failure. Both sides are trapped in a negative, self-reinforcing loop that they just want to get out of as soon as retirement is possible.
What is tragic is that neither side normally understands the predictability of what is going on. The pattern is a mutually reinforcing self-destructive process that manifests itself as a steady decline in the power and authority of management. The process is accelerating: young professionals don’t want to be managers any more.
Luckily management theory and practice are slowly starting to catch up with the dramatic changes brought about by the ideas economy, cloud computing, interactive, task-based work, Internet-based connectivity and smart devices.
The end of management as we have known it
For the first time in history it is not profitable to simply think that managers manage and workers work. Creativity and the need for intrinsic inspiration and risk taking demand individual responsibility and rich interaction between interdependent, equal peers. Top-down, one-way communication or separating thinking and acting don’t produce results any more.
In the past we located intention, or thought, apart from or before the action. We assumed a world of cause and effect where the outcomes of our actions can be known before actions are taken. Now we know that intentions arise as much in the actions and outcomes cannot be fully known in advance. This is why a new, different, view of management is required to serve the creative, learning-intensive economy.
It is time to rethink the principle that individual managers are blamed when things go wrong and rewarded when things go right.
The rest of us used to be allocated to passive roles when it comes to responsibility, coordination of actions and communication. That has changed forever!
Thank you Paul Graham, Doug Griffin, Mary Parker-Follett, Kenneth Cloke, Kenneth Gergen, Joan Goldsmith and Riel Miller
Gary Hamel video on this topic