There is no bigger influence on your company culture than who you name ‘manager’. But becoming a manager is often the default path of progression, rather than the desired one. With employee engagement at an all-time low, is it time to rethink who gets to become the boss?

There was a noticeable tension in the air as nine young athletes, each with a physical or mental disability assembled for the 100-yard dash. On the crack of the marshals pistol they were off; determined to give it their all and cross the finish line.

Except for one that is: a participant had stumbled and fallen. He was slumped on the ground, tears starting to stream uncontrollably down his face.

But on hearing his cries, an incredible thing happened. The eight remaining athletes stopped caring about themselves, and started caring about him. A fallen comrade. They each gave up their chance of individual glory, and turned back towards the start. A girl with Down’s Syndrome bent over and gently kissed him on the cheek. All nine linked arms, and walked together towards the finish line, crossing it in unison. Everyone in the stadium rose from their seats. The cheering went on long after the race was over.

This account of the 1976 Seattle Special Olympics isn’t just touching; it’s a fundamental lesson in great leadership. In being there for others, even if it’s at the cost of your own success. Sadly, this isn’t an ideology that’s embraced by many organisations. In companies both big and small and at all levels of seniority, you don’t have to look very hard to witness behaviour that is the antithesis of these selfless superstars.

Management certainly has a lot to answer for.

Theory X or Theory Y?

A little over half a century ago, MIT Professor Douglas McGregor published a seminal book on human nature and attitudes about work. In it, he proposed two contrasting theories based on assumptions of the 1960’s employee.

Theory X deduced that workers were inherently lazy and un-ambitious. They lacked initiative, and were driven solely by money. In order to achieve any meaningful results, they had to be commanded, controlled and threatened. Theory Y suggested something totally different; that employees were in fact committed to their jobs, self motivated, trustworthy and dependable. They were eager to learn, and wanted to contribute to the success of the organisation that they worked for.

McGregor advocated that the approach of a manager, was heavily influenced by their own assumption of people. Managers who viewed others as unreliable responsibility shirkers who require constant supervision, fell into the authoritarian, ‘Theory X’ style of management. Whereas managers who deemed people to be ambitious, hard working, and motivated by things other than financial gain, fell into the ‘Theory Y’ camp.

You’ve probably had the unfortunate experience of working for a ‘Theory X’ at one time or another. Nearly 60 years after the release of McGregor’s book, these outdated ‘cavebosses’ are still roaming the floors of our corridors and conference rooms. But here’s the thing: for the majority of them, I don’t believe it’s their fault.

Sure, there are always going to be a few douchebags that get their kicks from belittling others; but on the whole, I think we have people that just aren’t cut out for the job. It’s actually the design of our organisations that have set them up for failure.

First timers

Watching someone become a manager for the first time, is a bit like seeing them undergo a radical personality transplant. They start to rule with an iron fist. They become more serious, more aloof and more tyrannical. They believe that in order to maximise performance, they need to become the dictator. Their behaviour is far more in-line with Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X’ style of management, than it is ‘Theory Y’.

But unlike McGregor, I’m not convinced their approach is formed solely by their view of people in general. But more so, their understanding of how a manager should act. And this notion is fundamentally influenced by the other managers that surround them, and the managers they’ve worked for in the past.

New bosses often believe the role of management is inherently about controlling, commanding, organising, planning, coordinating and forecasting. Uncannily, the exact same things that Henri Fayol believed management was about when he codified them in his ‘Six Primary Functions of Management’ 100 years ago. However, the problem that Fayol was trying to solve was certainly not the problem that we need to solve today.

I’m betting that he didn’t give two hoots about ‘unlocking innovation and creativity’, ‘retaining exceptional talent’ or ‘building an inspiring place to work’. He wanted to enforce control and order, and devise a way of turning workers into predicable and reliable cogs. Yet, we continue to allow our newly minted managers of 2016 to operate according to a dusty, modus operandi that’s a century old. Even more worrying is business.com stating that “Today the business community considers Fayol’s classical management theory as a relevant guide to productively managing staff.”

God help us.

But who wants managers anyway? After all, the future is about leaders, not managers!

Every time I hear this, I physically wince. Comparing leaders with managers is a fruitless exercise that not only exasperates the problem, but delivers a massive kick-in-the-teeth to the exceptional managers that we do have. Yes, I agree we do need leaders. But we need leaders that are managers. Great leadership should be a prerequisite for becoming a manager, not something that’s viewed as the superior opposite of one.

In the UK, we have approximately 5 million managers; that’s about 20% of our employed population. Managers are a fundamental component of our organisations, and they’re not going away anytime soon. So rather than unfairly slating managers in favour of leaders, we need address the real problem: who gets to become a manager in the first place.

The only way is management

“Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school”, wrote Gallup CEO Jim Clifton in his organisation’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” employee engagement report. “The single biggest decision you make in your job – bigger than all the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”

Managers are the biggest determinant of your employee experience. They are the bedrock of your culture. They set the vibe and the tone of your office. They shape performance. They determine whether talented employees stay or leave. They even impact how your people treat their spouse and their children.

So what’s the main criteria we look for when promoting people into a management position? Oh yes, that’s right… How good they are at their current job.

This painfully outdated approach is one of the main reasons we have such a chronic employee engagement problem. One that Gallup estimates is costing the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion alone every year.

In sports, it’s a well-known fact that the best players don’t make the best coaches. But in business, we view being good at the game as the primary indicator that someone is going to be good at leading others who play the game. For example, our lens for making someone a Sales Manager, is typically how much money they made as a sales person. We overlook the fact that everything that’s made them successful in their current role, has no bearing on whether they will be successful in their future one.

And of course it’s not just sales folk. From software engineers, to graphic designers, HR administrators, to payroll clerks, often the only way for talented people to climb the corporate ladder, is through managing others.

“It’s not a leader’s job to be great at whatever. It’s the leaders job to make the people under him/her great at whatever.” – Hugh Macleod, Gapingvoid

The problem is that management is the default progression path, but not always the desired one. I once interviewed a new team leader who told me “I just want people to do their jobs and go home. Is that too much to ask?” It became apparent that she had only taken the role for the title and the money. The sad thing was, she was very good at her previous job, but completely sucked at being a manager.

It’s a condition that Dr. Laurence J. Peter coined ‘The Peter Principle’. He observed that employees will get promoted as long as they are competent, but at some point they will fail to get promoted beyond a certain level, because the role has become too challenging. Dr. Peter believed that employees will ‘rise to their level of incompetence’ and stay there.

Could this explain why we have so many first-line managers that never progress any further? Sure. But, I don’t think it’s their fault. For years, we’ve been promoting people from jobs they love, to ones they dislike, and aren’t actually very good at. We’re forcing them into a place that isn’t aligned with who they are, what drives them, or what their skill-set is. The result? Our companies are becoming managed by hordes of disengaged people, who are unfit for the roles they’ve ended up in.

I’m completely aware that I would fail miserably at being a software engineer. I don’t have an analytical mind. I couldn’t tell you a class structure from an algorithm, and I don’t have a passion for code. If becoming a software engineer was the only way to progress in a company, I’d be screwed. Yet, we’ll happily take a talented software engineer and force her to become a manager, in order to advance her career. The model is fundamentally broken.

It’s no surprise that according to a report from Deloitte, only 20% of senior management professionals are passionate about what they do. The majority of our managers are frustrated, unfulfilled and disengaged; they’re sleepwalking through their days, putting little energy into their work. Unfortunately, how someone is led determines their own enthusiasm and spirit. Which explains why the same report cites that a whopping 88% of employees don’t have passion for their work either.

Managers emotions are powerful drivers of their people’s moods, and therefore their performance. According to Shawn Achor, a lecturer on positive psychology at Harvard, “Only 25% of job successes are predicted by I.Q., 75% of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat.” Clearly a major problem if apathetic management is leaving people feeling deflated, unsupported, and overstretched.

With so many employee engagement problems originating from who we name manager, the role of management itself, and the behaviour of managers in general, what initiatives are organisations undertaking to try and buck the trend?

#1 Get rid of the managers

Social Media firm Buffer, has always considered company culture to be an important priority. In January 2013, its fledgling team discussed what words defined the spirit of the young, but rapidly growing organisation. The result, was the 10 Buffer Values.

One of these values was ‘Live smarter, not harder’. Peering through its lens, it was easy for the team to see that management can often make things more difficult. It can be bureaucratic and frustrating. It can slow things down, rather than speeding things up.

So Buffer did something radical. They turned the whole company into one with no managers. They made all previous managers step back into day-to-day roles and tasks. They gave everyone carte blanche to work on whatever they wanted. And they stopped all one-on-one’s and mentorship sessions. A great idea. Or so they thought.

Recounting the story at the 2016 ‘Next Web’ conference in Amsterdam, co-founder Leo Widrich revealed that it had been “a total failure. It didn’t work at all.” In fact, one of their very best employees left as a result.

Buffer had presumed that people would love having no boss. That it would be cool for employees to do whatever they wanted. But Leo likened it to being home alone as a kid. “It can be fun for a while, but you soon begin to miss the stability, support and direction.”

Buffer’s people said, “I don’t want to have a bad manager, I want to have a good one.” Leo and his co-founder realised that people actually crave mentorship, guidance and feedback to enable them to get better at their jobs. What they don’t want, are the negative and arrogant behaviours that are typically associated with poor management. Buffer’s experience shows that the role of management itself isn’t the problem. Far from it. In fact, people’s working lives are actually enhanced through great management.

The issue stems from who gets promoted into management in the first place.

#2 You can’t become a leader, without having followers

Management professor Gary Hamel was once asked, “How will you know if you are a great leader?” He replied, “Turn around and see if anyone is following you.”

In business, we mainly follow people (our bosses) because we have to, not because we’d choose to. W.L. Gore, the multi-billion dollar organisation behind Gore-Tex fabric, thinks about this a little differently.

Terri Kelly joined Gore in 1983 as an engineer and has never left: she became President and CEO in 2005, after 22 years of service. Terri never expected to become Gore’s CEO, but her thousands of co-workers believed she was the right person for the job.

The path into management at Gore isn’t based on how much money you’ve made, or how well you can code. It doesn’t matter how well you can crunch the numbers, or if you’re a design genius. The only thing that counts, is your ability to attract followers. Regardless of how good someone is at their ‘work’, Gore people are never going to follow someone that instructs, rather than empowers. That barks orders, rather than asking questions. That cares more about results, than people. And that controls, rather than trusts.

This peer-driven selection process ensures that only those who are fit to lead, actually end up leading. Those with compassion and empathy. Those who can energise and inspire. Those who are generous with encouragement and feedback. Those who help to remove obstacles. And those who put their colleagues success ahead of their own.

“How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything – for better or for worse.” – Simon Sinek

Gore recognises that leadership is something that you earn, not something that you’re given. They are reframing the role of a manager, and the qualities needed to become one. As a result, people aren’t forced to follow bosses that don’t have their best interests at heart: that see their role simply as an enforcer of command, control and compliance.

Gore’s culture and employee engagement thrives as a result. The organisation has earned a spot on Fortune’s ‘100 best companies to work for’, for the last 18 consecutive years. And full-time voluntary turnover is just 3%.

#3 Make managers accountable to employees

If you’ve ever seen ‘Undercover Boss’, you’ll be familiar with the executive who is completely oblivious to the activity and challenges that take place on the front-line of his organisation. For years, senior managers have sat in ivory towers, a million miles away from where the actual value of their company is created: in the interaction between the employee and customer. Management wields all of the power. Yet they are typically the furthest removed from the ‘value zone’.

For Vineet Nayar, the Chief Executive of HCL Technologies, this didn’t make any sense. HCL began life in the 1970’s, and has grown steadily into a complex multi-billion dollar conglomerate. As with many organisations, the IT Services giant had constructed numerous management layers to support the growth of the company. But for Nayar, these functions were no longer supporting, they were restricting.

Information was flowing down from managers, and accountability was flowing up from employees. Front-line workers that played the most vital role in delivering value to HCL’s customers, were having to answer to layers of executives that had no exposure to the customers at all. So Nayar did a controversial thing. He inverted the model.

Today at HCL, managers are accountable to employees. The role of the manager is to serve the employee, not the other way around. In a program dubbed ‘Reverse Accountability’, every employee rates their manager, and their managers manager too. All ratings are published online for everyone else to see. Through a radical shift in power, HCL is ensuring that only those who are fit to lead, get to lead.

And that’s not all.

If you disagree with a decision from your manager, feel you have been treated unfairly, or your travel request is taking too long to authorise, you can raise an internal help-desk ticket. Every ticket is transparent and visible across the organisation. Any ticket that doesn’t get closed in 24 hours, gets escalated to the next level of management. And only the employee that raised the ticket, can close it.

Vineet Nayar has made management responsible to the front-line, not the other way round. He switched the typical top-down model, so that the entire chain of command (including him as CEO) is supporting HCL’s employees, not controlling them.

#4 Give people an alternative progression path

Not everyone dreams of the corner office. In fact, according to a CareerBuilder survey, only about one-third of workers (34%) said they aspire to leadership positions, and a mere 7% hope to get promoted into senior, or C-level management.

Most people don’t set out to become a boss, but due to the outdated design of our organisations, that’s what they end up doing. Typically, it’s the only way for someone to progress in terms of status, title and pay. And by only having only one path, we’re actually employees against one another. Rather than focussing on delivering great work, they’re busy figuring out how to get promoted over their colleagues.

HootSuite believes that someone shouldn’t have to become a manager to be successful. Which is why they have created their ‘Guru’ programme. Gurus are exceptional performers who aren’t keen on people management. They are the experts who inspire their co-workers with their contributions, rather than through direct instruction.

Moving up the career ladder for a HootSuite Guru doesn’t mean assuming responsibility over bigger teams. Instead, they get to progress in other ways.

They might be given control of larger projects with bigger budgets, or freed from daily responsibilities to work on new product lines, or even asked to mentor new recruits. Guru’s are rewarded in the same way as those on the ‘management’ path – with new job titles, seniority, incremental pay rises and incentive packages. HootSuite believes this helps exceptional employees to continue to do what they love, whilst also providing a clear path for advancement – therefore helping the company to retain top talent.

HootSuite is attempting to ensure that its best performers are incentivised, and therefore stick around for the long haul, regardless of how many people report to them. Something IBM has been doing since 1963 with its ‘Fellows’ programme. Founded as a way to promote creativity among the company’s most exceptional technical professionals, it’s an aspirational career point (the most prestigious honour a scientist, engineer, or programmer at IBM can achieve), that offers absolute job freedom, and an executive-level salary to boot. Once appointed by the CEO of IBM, a fellow retains that title for life.

IBM Fellows have no people to manage, and no budgetary limits to adhere to. They don’t even have any specific responsibilities: they are given broad latitude to identify and pursue projects of their choosing. For the Fellow, it’s a chance to indulge freely in the work they love. And it’s clearly producing some remarkable results. Over the last 50 years, IBM Fellows have generated 9,307 patents, received five Nobel prizes and fostered some of the company’s most stunning technical breakthroughs – from the Fortran computing language, to the systems that helped put the first man on the moon.

Make management the desire, not the default

The number one predictor of long-term sustainable success are happy employees. Happy people create more ideas, bring more creativity, deliver better customer experiences and always go the extra mile. More importantly, happy people make other people, happier.

But we have a flaw in the design of our organisations, that is killing any chance of happiness. We are taking people from jobs they love, and rewarding them with jobs they dislike, which in turn is kicking off a downward spiral of colossal disengagement.

We can’t solve this problem through office slides, and free soda. It’s a well-known fact that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. Who you name as manager has the biggest impact on your employee experience and company culture. They are setting the tone of your workplace through their everyday actions, emotions and behaviours.

It’s time to make management the desire, and not the default. In medicine, we don’t force a talented surgeon to become a ‘team leader’ in order to advance. So why do we do it in business? In order to drive meaningful and measurable change, we need to:

  • Educate people on what being a manager in the 21st century means
  • Offer management as a considered career choice, not just the default one
  • Make no-one a manager, unless they can first demonstrate they are a leader
  • Begin to frequently analyse the leader, through the eyes of the led
  • Design career paths that aren’t inextricably linked to people management

By reframing the role of management, and offering employees alternative progression tracks, we can attract better-suited people to the role. And better managers, means better performance, better engagement and better retention – therefore better organisations.