Let’s get rid of all the managers! But then again…

Examination of a Witch (1853), You drag it around like a ball and chain/  You wallow in the guilt/ you wallow in the pain/ You wave it like a flag / You wear it like a crown/ …The more I think about it/ Old Billy was right /Let’s kill all the lawyers managers / kill ’em tonight : Get Over It, Eagles.

 ‘Get Over It’ was a song that Don Henley, lead singer of the Eagles wrote to vent his frustration over people blaming their failures, frustrations, mental breakdowns and financial problems on others, and believing that the world owes them a favour.  (Trivia: The song references Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. And the line that  I used with creative freedom  “Old Billy was right: let’s kill all the lawyers – kill ’em tonight”, echoes Shakespeare’s line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.)

If you read most of the popular literature on how to engage employees, you would most likely be tempted to conclude that managers seem to be the cause of all the employee engagement problems in organizations. It would almost seem the world is full of leaders who know what they want and depend on managers to communicate it down to the teams (read workers and engineers depending on which industry you are in), and then there are employees who know how to do things, but depend on managers to tell them what the leaders want them to do. Therefore there has to be a problem with the middle layer called managers, who are incompetent in bridging the gap between the leaders vision and employee action. As the foul tempered character from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is fond of saying: “Off with their heads!”

 And it’s not that companies haven’t tried or aren’t trying. Google is – as one of the engineers puts it – “a company built by engineers for engineers.” So understandably, the definition of “real” work in the organization focuses more on designing products and writing code rather than effective communication and supervising others. In 2002, Page and Brin actually experimented with a flat org-structure. They just got rid of all the engineering managers. Goodbye bureaucratic fools, hello perfect giant company that works like a start-up. Erm..not really. That experiment apparently lasted a few months and once Page was inundated with questions on expense reports, interpersonal conflicts and all those things that used to be taken care of auto-magically, the managers were brought right back in!

Managers typically act as bridges between the teams and the rest of the organization. Since the days of the Hawthorne studies, where Elton Mayo stated that the “industrial world at the beginning of the twentieth century was more technologically advanced than ever before while being more socially incompetent than ever (Bendix & Fisher, 1949)”, interpersonal relations and group structure have been a matter of much debate, study and now in the twenty-first century a matter of concern. Mayo noticed in his studies that managers who had an understanding of social factors like group solidarity among the workers, had a greater ability to control and influence worker behaviour.

“In God we trust: All others bring data!”

William Edwards Deming.

Google, being Google, had the ability and the inclination to use data to decide what works best for the company. The company set up a people analytics team to tackle questions on employee well-being and productivity. One question stood out among all the others – “Do Managers matter?”

Enter Project Oxygen ,a multiyear research initiative to find answers to the questions that Google was asking itself. Instead of ending up being the usual MIS spewing team, the researchers in project Oxygen were “hypothesis-driven and wanted to help solve the company’s problems and questions with data”. The team was looking for evidence that better management mattered when all managers seemed so similar. The solution, arrived at using sophisticated multivariate analysis, showed that even “the smallest incremental increases in manager quality were quite powerful”.

High-scoring managers in the organization in 2008, saw less attrition than the others. The retention was strongly related to manager-quality than seniority, performance, tenure or promotions. The data also seemed to suggest a strong correlation between manager quality and workers happiness. Employees, whose bosses scored high on the ranking, consistently reported greater satisfaction in areas like innovation, work-life balance and career development.

So what’s the “happily ever-after” story?

 They boiled down all the data and research into eight key behaviours demonstrated by Google’s most effective managers.

A good (Google) manager:

    1.  Is a good coach
    2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
    3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
    4. Is productive and results-oriented
    5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
    6. Helps with career development
    7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
    8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advice the team

Remember these are managers who have to deal with extremely smart engineers who are out to change the world – not an easy task. The interesting part is that, the data corroborated “the obvious”. When one looks at the list there is a bit of disappointment, a “duh!” moment. All that data, research, advanced stats and this is it? No magical formula or maybe an insight that the most effective managers are, only the ones who attended Ivy League B-schools in the US?

Well, thank God for Occam’s Razor. Good managers who have to manage complex projects with smart team members have to achieve a balance between managing the day-to-day operations and supporting them with their personal needs, professional development and career planning (All areas of major concern when employee engagement surveys come in). It might be an overkill (or practically impossible) for most organizations to devote time and resources to do the kind of advanced research that Google has done but there is nothing to prevent them from taking advantage of the results and improving the quality of their managers.

Of course in lots of organizations, the appointment of managers is based on their excellent performance in other domains (brilliant engineer, star salesman, great accountant) – a recipe for disaster. This often leads to the rise of frustration and informal networks form, which bypasses the formal hierarchy in order to get things done.  There is considerable existing and evolving research in (Social) Network Analysis that studies this phenomenon. The key takeaway from studies like project Oxygen is that, managers can be trained to be better at their jobs and it’s not rocket science.

And then there is Zappos

Obviously not everyone agrees. Zappos, that customer-service and employee focussed company, which works very hard to keep both customers and employees happy is also doing it. The company, in Jan of 2014, decided to do away with the traditional managers and will “replace the traditional corporate with a series of overlapping, self-governing ‘circles.’” The reorganization is based on the concept of ‘holacracy’, developed by management consultant Brian Robertson.

 But the organization is careful to note that “while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out when they don’t have enough “roles” to fill their time, or when a group of employees charged with monitoring the company’s culture decide they’re not a good fit.””

Elizabeth Kampf, a consultant at Gallup has weighed in with her opinion on the topic that, Zappos might be better off replacing bad managers with great ones. (In the article, she does mention that Gallup hasn’t studied the holacracy model specifically)  The article mentions that “Only about one in 10 people naturally have the traits to be a truly great manager … contributing about 48% higher profits to his or her company than average managers do. Great managers create a substantial business advantage for their companies — one that Zappos and other like-minded businesses stand to lose, if they drastically cut back on the ranks of their managers instead of focusing on hiring and developing the right people for the job.”

Zappos’ John Bunch, the person leading the transition to the new way of working says “says that while people have latched on to the idea that Zappos is getting rid of managers, what the company is actually doing is “decoupling the professional development side of the business from the technical getting-the-work-done side.””

Whatever is the real modus operandi, the fact remains that Zappos is the largest organization that has attempted something as drastic as this (but then Zappos has always done things differently) and the world will be watching with much interest on what happens – indeed the future of how organizations perceive the value of managers, depends on it.

References for the post:

Zappos says goodbye to bosses, Jena McGregor, Washington Post; How Google sold its managers on management, David A. Garvin, Harvard Business Review; Google’s quest to build a better boss, Adam Bryant, The New York Times, Can you really manage engagement without managers?, Elizabeth Kampf, Gallup Business Journal; “Get Over It”, Trivia – source Wikipedia.

Image Acknowledgement:

 Examination of a Witch (1853), by T.H.Matteson, inspired by the Salem Trials, source: Wikimedia Commons.