Weekly Wrap: Getting Rid of Managers is a Fad That’s STILL a Bad Idea

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Jun 6, 2014

It kills me every time I read about some company that has the bright idea to get rid of all of its managers.

I’ve written about this before, and as I have argued on numerous occasions:

In any environment where decisions have to be made, somebody has to be in charge or designated with the authority to make the call. It’s wonderful to talk about flat business structures where everyone can have a say, but anyone who has dealt with group decision-making knows that it usually leads to chaos and anarchy.”

Anti-management nonsense

That’s why it always surprises me when a newspaper like The New York Times features (yet again) a CEO from some little company you never heard of making the case that getting rid of the managers is some smart, game-changing trend. And, The Times plays along and gives the CEO more press than he or she could ever hope for simply because they spout a lot of anti-management gibberish.

Here’s the latest example, from The Times‘ Corner Office column. with Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, an online interactive education platform:

Q. I read that you got rid of all manager titles. Let’s go deep on that.

A. We made the decision about a year ago. We had about 50 people, with about six managers. We started hearing the kind of normal political stuff you hear as a company grows — people complaining or feeling disempowered. “This is ridiculous,” I thought. We should still be operating like a start-up.

My co-founder and I realized that this is what people do when you put managers over them. The managers start acting like parents, and the people they’re managing start acting like children. And we thought, what if we just removed all managers? What do they actually do? They exchange information and align people around strategic plans. We figured we could remove that need if we just made communication more public.”

Surprises abound when the managers are gone

This all sounds well and good, and if you just read this much you would walk away thinking, “Hey, maybe they’re on to something. Maybe this get-rid-of-the-managers idea is a good one.” Well, you might think that, but then CEO Carson goes on to tell about just how well getting rid of all the managers has gone:

Q. That was a year ago. Any surprises since?

A. The biggest one is that it’s hard for people to resolve conflict. We found that people weren’t willing to really upset each other, so we introduced a structure for resolving conflict. We say, you have to write down the pros and cons of your argument before you talk. And we’re going to invite a mediator to be on the call from HR, who has no stake in either side. And the discussion should really be framed around what is best for the company.

Another hard part is that it appears to be very disorganized. There’s a lot happening. It’s kind of like an ant colony. One major drawback for me, as the C.E.O., is that it’s very hard for me to tell exactly what’s happening. But we’re building a simple tool to help us communicate internally. All communication is public inside the company so that at any point someone can get up to speed on a project.”

OK, this is a company that is finding it hard to resolve conflict — they need to call in HR to help out — that’s disorganized, and one where the CEO has a hard time figuring out exactly what is going on within his workforce. Sounds like a situation where you would like some strong management leadership, no?

Peter Drucker had it right

Well, that’s the problem when you get rid of all the managers; you find that if they’re functioning correctly, that they actually help resolve issues, conflicts, and keep things moving along. Plus, they help give the C-Suite some insight into the day-to-day operations of the organization.

Why would ANY company or organization be in such a big hurry to get rid of that?

As the late, great Peter Drucker — the father of modern management — said in his book, The Essential Drucker, management is essential for any business. According to Drucker:

Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant. This is what organization is all about, and the reason that management is the crucial, determining factor.”

Drucker had it right, because strong management is a critical game changer that separates great organizations from those that simply talk about being great. Yes, you might have an odd company here or there that may be able to get by without it, but they are the lonely exception, not the rule.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about this again in the future because The New York Times seems to fall in love with any CEO, no matter how inconsequential, who says they don’t need managers anymore.

Well, take it from me — it simply isn’t true. It’s too bad that America’s woefully managed newspaper of record can’t seem to figure that out.

Of course, there’s a lot more than silly business fads  in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Why Silicon Valley needs to a lot more diverse. As Google’s recent announcement shows, Silicon Valley isn’t exactly a trend-setter when it comes to assembling a diverse workforce. But they should be, and as San Jose Mercury News  columnist Michelle Quinn points out, the way to get there is to do what Google did — disclose the numbers. She says, “Disclosure of the race, ethnicity and gender of a company’s workers is an act of goodwill to the community, a clear sign that the tech industry is ready to have a frank discussion about the issue, instead of deflecting the conversation to talking about their cool science and math K-12 initiatives. This kind of disclosure matters now more than ever because the Bay Area is engaged in a wide-ranging conversation over who benefits from the tech industry’s success.”
  • Another view on the SHRM certification takeover. John Whitaker, probably another guy you’ve never heard of, somehow was featured on LinkedIn with his commentary on SHRM’s planned takeover of the HR certification process. In it he says: “Please, spare me the spin about the critical need for a “competency-based certification.” Reminds me of clients I work with deciding what they really need is a new set of “corporate values.” It’s the kind of thing people do when they want to tell other people how to do things. This is a money grab — how else to explain an organization (SHRM) already under scrutiny for a lack of transparency deciding to remove the relevance of its independent certifying body?”
  • Recruiting an A Plus team. As much as I bitch about The New York Times, I love their small business blog titled You’re the Boss, and this recent post on How I Learned to recruit an A-Plus Team is a perfect example of why. Rebekah Campbell says, “I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the situation, trying to determine the factors that distinguish an A-plus employee from a B-plus employee. (Steve) Jobs spoke about trusting your gut – how you feel when you’re with the person. This may be great advice if you have his gut, but it doesn’t work for me. I tend to like everyone, and that makes it tougher.”
  • Kronos Time Well Spent cartoonKronos, the company that probably makes your organization’s time-and-attendance system, publishes a regular Time Well Spent workplace cartoon by Tom Fishburne. I post them here from time to time in the Weekly Wrap.tws22-600-overtimelimit