Companies love to talk about their lack of hierarchy. They talk about "flat" management structures and how much access their employees have to upper management or ownership. There are even companies who have built whole cultures around the idea that no one manages anyone else. Startups shy away from titles or chains of command, preferring that everyone contributes to the direction of the company without regard for job duties or tenure. The general trend, it seems, is to abolish management altogether, in favor of cooperation and free-form organizations.
And I'd like—politely, of course—to call BS on this. Structure is necessary. People need to know where they fit in an organization. Someone needs to captain the ship. An organization without any hierarchy at all, where everyone just reports to themselves, and no one has authority over anyone else, is chaos. And, because nature abhors a vacuum, in the absence of clearly defined structure, de facto structure ALWAYS develops. I mean, you've read Lord of the Flies, haven't you? Without management structure, those with the loudest voices or the best political skills become "leaders," and they aren't necessarily the people you want running your company.
My theory on this obsession with "flat" management is that people confuse management with micro-management. The former is necessary. The latter is the seventh circle of hell. But the answer to micro-management is not anarchy. It's better training for new (and existing) managers.
Three Kinds of (Bad) Managers
After decades in the working world, I've come to believe that there are three kinds of bad managers—the micro-manager, the absent manager, and the aggressive manager. All three are equally bad, just in different ways, and taken together, I think they make up about 75% of the managers in today's business world.
If you've been working professionally longer than ten minutes, you've probably been micro-managed. (Heck, most children of helicopter parents are micro-managed from the moment of conception, so they've got a head start before they even get to their first job.) The boss that hovers over you, asking what you are working on, telling you "the best way" to do everything (which is always just the way they've always done it), dictating how you spend your working hours, re-working your presentations, asking for hourly updates on projects that you just updated them on, "suggesting" that you do things you are already doing, etc. Basically, being all up in your business every hour of the day. With a manager like that, working for a company without managers at all would look like heaven.
The flip side of that is the absent manager. The one who hires you, sits you at a desk and then...vanishes. When you have questions, they give you vague answers or tell you to figure it out yourself. They never give you a review, just telling you that unless you hear from them, you're doing fine. (That means when they do have to correct your work, or reprimand you for something, it comes as a total shock, with no preamble.) Absent managers seem totally uninterested in the work you are doing, leaving you to wonder if they care whether you show up every day or not. Frankly, a manager like that makes you wonder how different it would be if no one had the title of "manager" at all.
Finally, I think we've all experienced the aggressive manager. This is the person who thinks the only way to "manage" people is to wait for them to make a mistake, and then blow up. They believe that in order to have power, or control, you need to be volatile, oppressive, and loud. Instead of coaching, and correcting mistakes, they (loudly) proclaim their frustration with you, start yelling at the slightest provocation, and make sure everyone around them knows what an idiot you are and how painful it is to try to manage you. I firmly believe these folks are just simmering cauldrons of insecurity who think that the minute they aren't aggressively dominating their subordinates, all hell will break loose. (A subset of this category is the passive-aggressive manager, a truly delightful individual.)
Wouldn't We be Better Off Without Management?
So if 75% of all managers are micro-managers, absentee managers or aggressive managers, why on earth would we continue to have management? Wouldn't we be better off letting people just manage themselves? In the majority of situations, it couldn't be worse, right?
My contention on this, though, is not that we need to get rid of managers. It's that we simply need better managers. A great manager can make a department hum—coaxing more productivity out of employees and systems, creating collaboration between individuals and teams, developing talent, and generally improving the company. That's the point of a manager. But great managers are not born, they're made. And too many companies don't spend the time to make great managers—they just take the person who is best at the line work they'll be supervising and throw them into management without training.
What people fail to acknowledge is that managing people doing work is very different than doing that work yourself, and that just because you are good at the work doesn't mean you'll be good at getting others to do that work well. Before promoting anyone, leaders need to get better at figuring out what makes a good manager, and ensuring that they are promoting for those traits, and offering ongoing training for their management staff. If everyone in management had a handle on the delicate balance between holding people accountable and being overbearing; the right way to allow someone to figure out a problem by themselves but not feel abandoned; and how to correct behavior or performance without belittling, no one would call for the destruction of corporate hierarchy. Employees would understand that their manager makes them better, and they would learn how to be a better manager themselves, through their example.
How Do I Do That, in My Company?
If you own a company, or you are in senior management at one, go out on the floor right now and honestly assess how good all your managers are. Are they developing better employees, correcting performance properly and treating people with dignity and humanity? If not, YOU need to be a better manager, and either train them yourself or find them outside training to improve their skills. And if the training doesn't work, and they are still not managing people well, you need to move them into a better position for their skills and temperament. Not everyone is cut out to manage people, and that's okay. (That's also a blog for another day.)
Once you have your current managers handled, you need to build in a process for hiring or promoting managers in the future that takes personality, experience, and temperament into consideration, not one that merely rewards the person who has been in the company the longest or who puts up the best numbers. Becoming a manager is not a prize given to a successful employee. It's a serious responsibility that should only be given to individuals who are up to the task.
And finally, you need to look at yourself. Are YOU one of the 75% of managers who fall into our three negative categories? (I know there are times when I demonstrate absentee tendencies because I'm overwhelmed with my work, and I have to put extra effort into making sure my direct reports understand how their work contributes to the whole and also to make sure I am supporting them properly.) Self-awareness is a huge first step to improving your management style, and it should never be overlooked.
What you don't want to do, if your managers are lacking and your employees are unhappy, is abolish your hierarchy altogether in a knee-jerk reaction. Taking away management is easier than putting the work in to improve it, yes, but so much more damaging to your company in the long run.