Are Managers Needed Anymore?
Michael DeVenney
January 10, 2022
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The pandemic has placed pressure on companies and organizations to move faster and respond quickly. There is no time for endless meetings, shuffling papers, and bureaucratic processes. In cutting waste to enable greater agility, leaders are looking at one level of the business seen as a clear and present threat to vitality – the middle manager.

“Hey, do we really need these middle managers?”

This is a question asked in almost all organizations. Managers are an easy target. What do they do anyway?

“Maybe we don’t need them – maybe we can actually have a flatter, faster, leaner organization without them.”

In our work with Atlantic Canadian companies, we found that only 65.4% of people understand the strategy and direction of the business during Covid-19. The lack of translation resulted in people questioning leadership direction overall. Only 45.4% of employees felt engaged with leadership, meaning half of the workforce were unsure. Unsettling to say the least. Half of the people do not know where the ball is going, or if they even care!

Without surprise, the readiness of people to commit to the business strategy is also low at 64.4%. It is difficult to get behind something you do not understand. And how can leaders invest in new initiatives when a third of the people are not ready to move?

So, where does the commitment fall down? Senior leaders are confident about the future, where their organizations have been positioned for the future. There is a disconnect somewhere along the way.

Further in our data we found that employees rated executive leadership capacity at 84.8%, while managers fared less well at 73.7%. People were most stressed by trying to figure out what was needed from them in their roles, and that responsibility fell squarely on managers.

With working remotely and facing the physical and mental exhaustion of the pandemic, workers need more from managers. And this has been the most unequal recession in modern history, the economic hit has been felt on workers most, and mainly employees who are women or belonging to marginalized groups. They need time to talk, have someone hear them, and listen to what they are experiencing.

Managers are needed, to provide a sense of connection, clarity of communication, and level of coordination to support people to work more effectively.

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But are they doing their job? Maybe it is time for the manager role to be tossed?

Actually, nothing could be further from what is needed. Managers play a crucial role in the organization, more essential now than ever. Leaders need to structure the manager role so they can do what they need to do. Managers are taking the criticism, unfairly, as they are overwhelmed by too many responsibilities and unable to focus on what is truly needed from them in their role.

MIT-Sloan recently published research on the manager as “the key to growing human-centered businesses” and bringing the “crucial empathetic lens to strategy to help understand the wants and needs of the individual.” Managers are the translators and facilitators of the organization to enable success, although their role has been clouded.

Managers have assumed increasing administrative and functional tasks, resulting in endless meetings, and leaving no time for the real point of their role. We need managers, and more importantly, we need to structure their roles properly.

The activities that only managers can provide in a business is to connect people and teams to each other and the purpose of the organization, so everyone understands decisions and directions. Managers need time to help employees to translate the success of the organization to the activities of their role to provide meaning and commitment, to coordinate activities to prioritize what is most important for each person and team to achieve, to coach people on how they are doing and hear their perspective, and then to provide the supports needed for individuals to bring their best. Managers help workers apply learning, identify areas for development, and instill confidence.

The old anecdote says that people leave not due to the company, but rather because of the manager.

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That is an unfair statement. Managers are not supported to do the real work of their role. Do we still need managers? Yes, more than ever, managers should be freed to do their jobs, supporting people and teams to contribute and collaborate at their best, connecting to the purpose of the organization, and understanding what is most important for their focus. If their roles were structured for success, talented people would stay and grow because of their managers, and not leave due to them.

Managers help develop the capacity of the organization, aligning people to work from the same page, and encourage the next generation of leaders and functional experts.

If we want flatter, faster, and leaner organizations, we need managers, with roles structured correctly. They are not administrators. They are not functional workers. They are coaches, translators, and facilitators enabling people to make the right things happen.

And if managers in your organization are the problem, look in the mirror. Managers will free the business to perform if senior leaders let them.

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