The "my manager is a ****er" theory

I stumbled across an article from last year by Rob Gray at Google in the early hours of this morning (that’s early as in “woken up by the eight month old” as opposed to “up all night” these days…). In it, Rob talks about seven tips that Michael Porter identified for new CEOs. It struck me that many of these rules, however, are just as applicable to new managers at any level in the company hierarchy.
One of the most rewarding pieces of my career to date was time that I spent in the middle of this decade working with first- and second-line managers at one of the UKs big telcos. Some of the people I worked with were relatively new to work generally; graduate scheme members thrown in at the deep end of management with call centre teams, or burly, surly gangs of field engineers. Some would swim, and some would quite obviously drown.

Alongside the youngsters, however, there were long-serving staff who, twenty or so years into their careers were making their first steps into management. It was with these (mostly male) management freshers that I coined the “my manager is a ****er theory.” It goes something like this…

For my generation and before (and possibly after, too, but we’ll come back to that), work tends to culturally be seen in terms of hierarchy, and of “us and them”. I guess that this reached a politically sensitive peak in the industrial strife of the 1970s and 80s, but its legacy remains to this day. (Personally I blame the political indoctrination of ‘Carry on at your Convenience”, but that’s another story).

Whilst political trade unionism is now the exception (if it ever really was the rule), the ‘us and them’ thinking tends to manifest itself in an unrealistic expectation of what management is capable of, and a crisis of confidence as a result when someone steps into a management position. In this cultural world view, managers tell us what to do, have ultimate authority, should always be right, and are therefore ultimately ****ers when they eventually show themselves to be fallible mere mortals.

When someone then steps up into a position of management, they are then confronted with the cold, hard reality of being nothing but human. For some this results in an extreme delivery of Theory X-style authority. But for most it just leads to a period of extreme self-doubt; “I am coming to realise that maybe I, too, have become a ****er”.

Now this cultural positioning, whilst not unique to British work culture, is not ubiquitous across other employment markets. Australia, in particular, seems to just not really have the hierarchical expectations (as evidenced it would seem by the safety record of Qantas, for example). It will be interesting to see whether “Business 2.0” will lead to a dismantling of the British expectations of management, as democratisation and transparency of decision making could both happen in the workplace.

Underpinning all of this for me, though, is a basic challenge for managers. Good leadership tends to come from helping teams to achieve their potential. If you spend all your time just telling people what to do to try and achieve that, chances are you’ve turned into a ****er.

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