Virtual Teams

In praise of managers – good job folks.

I recently unfollowed a Dilbert group on Facebook. I think Dilbert is hilarious but the outpouring of vitriol in comments on the site against managers was ridiculous.

I see similar trends on LinkedIn and Twitter where managers are routinely disparaged as overcontrolling, bureaucratic and deliberately obstructive.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe a lot of managers in my corporate career and also in training tens of thousands of them in new ways of working. There are, as in any aspect of life, a small number of complete idiots.

There are a few more who are trying to do a good job but accidentally stray into dysfunctional behaviours. For example, the desire to help and a strong work ethic can easily shade into micromanagement.

The vast majority of managers I meet though are just ordinary (and some extraordinary) people trying to do their best in a tough job and generally doing it well.

It’s must be quite dispiriting for them to read lists about the difference between managers and leaders where managers are just described as bureaucratic process followers and all the good stuff gets done by leaders. The reality is you need both, if you can’t get things done all the vision in the world is pointless.

There could be many reasons why people are unduly critical of managers including

  • People pay enormous attention to the things managers say and do. Because managers are in a position of power and may have an influence on your autonomy or security, we tend to scrutinise their every decision and give it a meaning that may not be intended
  • They may have access to different information than you do. An engineer may believe that cancelling their project is a stupid decision from their perspective, but it might be the right thing to do in prioritising amongst multiple projects
  • Managers sometimes have to take difficult decisions in the interests of the overall organisation, sometimes these are not in your personal interests, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong

In the last couple of years, we’ve put a tremendous level of strain on our managers. As individuals they also had to cope with Covid (yes, managers are people too) and in addition,  in their management role, they have taken on much more responsibility for supporting the wellbeing of their people, keeping them engaged in a virtual world and understanding their outside work context and challenges.

As people return to the office, managers are having to have unprecedented conversations about flexibility, scheduling hybrid work patterns and learning how to operate in an environment where some people are close and others are remote. I am sure many will be criticised for impinging on an individual’s (sometimes selfish / sometimes reasonable) desire for flexibility when trying to balance this with team and business needs – a tricky balance at best.

I’m not aware of any organisation that has made a systematic attempt to take away any of the traditional activities of managers to make space for this new work, it is all on top of the day job.

If you genuinely have one of the few terrible managers, then get out of there as quickly as you can. It’s hard to change your manager’s behaviour and they can really impact your motivation and your career. In a 40 year career that only happened to me once and I pushed for and got a move pretty quickly.

If, however, you reflect on your career and all you have experienced are useless managers who really don’t understand what’s going on, and always make terrible decisions, then it might be worth reflecting on two questions

  • what is the one common denominator in all these relationships, could it be you?
  • why are you choosing to stay in a dysfunctional environment?

For the rest of us, let’s get real about management, the vast majority of managers are doing an excellent job in a tough situation. How about saying thank you to yours?

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