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Why Do We Have Managers?

Have you ever wondered why organizations have managers?

 

Maybe you assumed that because there was always something to manage that the position had existed formally or informally since forever. They’ve always been there, in your lifetime anyway, and you probably can’t think of a period in history long before you when they didn’t exist.

You may not be aware, however, there was a time when managers as we know them today didn’t exist. That’s right. There were no managers of people. The idea of people management is comparatively recent.

 

Industrial Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in northwest England in the last half of the 18th century, managers as we know them today didn’t exist. And that’s because there weren’t large numbers of people whose work needed to be planned, organized, directed, evaluated, or even paid. Instead, there were much smaller groups - usually no more than a handful who worked small farms, some craftsmen, and merchants. The great percentage of the population was unskilled who picked up day work wherever they could. Of course, there were stately homes owned by wealthy landowners who often were politicians, military officers, or even clergymen as well, and whose houses had staff, but the housekeepers and butlers who oversaw their work were hardly considered to be people managers.

The most significant thing is that there were no factories - no places where a large number of people worked in the same room or the same facility. The first factory was built by Richard Arkwright in 1769, a mere 250 years ago or so, and it was that entity that first created the need for managers. By 1800, almost one thousand people worked in his mills.

Factory owners soon became aware that while they had mechanical and marketing skills to run their mills, they didn’t know how to deal with the activities and necessities of workers on a day-to-day basis. For that, they needed overseers - people who could be as insensitive as necessary to get people to work the long hours in what became known as the Satanic mills. Arkwright himself was known to be a ruthless businessman, and so he would’ve endorsed the cruelty meted out by his overseers.

In those days, factory workers lacked the freedom to change jobs - a luxury that most people today don’t even think about. In fact, it was the wholesale mistreatment of workers in those factories that led to the emergence of labour unions - organizations whose original mission was to improve working conditions and to protect jobs.

You must remember that the people who worked in factories were lured there by promises of much higher wages - five times as much - than what an unskilled worker could expect to earn anywhere else. Of course they had no way of knowing that their days would be so long that the beds wouldn’t get cold, that they’d be forced to buy what they needed - food, for instance - at inflated prices from the company stores, and could be blacklisted for life from working anywhere else if they attempted to leave.

That these people were unskilled is a vital factor in the story of people management. Such folk had to be trained, as they didn’t know how to perform the tasks that they were given. It’s how the division of labour came into existence. It was a way for the collective unskilled to do the work of one skilled master craftsman, and was the method factory owners used to break the power that these craftsmen held in order for their businesses to prosper.

This is one of the primary differences between managing people then and now. On the whole, the workforce today is the most educated ever. Workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, for the most part, were illiterate. They couldn’t read or write and often signed their names with an X. In contrast, many employees today have post-graduate or even doctoral degrees, and you know all too well how many jobs require a bachelor’s degree just to qualify.

 

Who cares?

You may be wondering what difference an understanding of management history has to you as a 21st century manager, and the answer is that without it, you can’t grasp why the management methods that you’ve relied on in the past don’t work today.

The book title What Got You Here Won’t Get You There sums it up. You can’t apply the management methods that you learned five or ten years ago to the workforce now, and you certainly can’t use the ones that were created during the Industrial Revolution or for the organisations that resulted from it. This fact seems to have been lost on many who hold management positions. In fact, their behavior suggests that they would’ve been happier in an 18th century factory. Little wonder that people repeatedly vote with their feet in order to get away from them.

 

Why won’t past management methods work?

You may be wondering why even the most recent management methods won’t work. It’s because of a combination of things. Anytime significant factors converge, change isn’t far away.

In this case, it’s partly due to the level of employee education, partly because of technology, and partly because of the lockdowns.

 

Employee education

Workers today are the most highly educated ever, and organisations consistently demand that they remain so just to qualify for the jobs on offer. And whatever skills employers would like them to have, the fact that so much of what they’re taught is evaluated through essay-styled exams has forced them to learn to reason through problems, rather than simply to mentally regurgitate information. In other words, they’ve have learned how to apply what they know, and in so doing, they’ve also learned how to be autonomous.

For many years, managers have resisted attempts by workers to perform autonomously, but the lockdowns put an end to that. These restrictions on movement also eradicated the idea that employees were incapable of superior work in the absence of regular supervision. And this is why past managerial styles and methods don’t work now. Everyone knows that they’re obsolete.

 

Another thing that has surprised some people is the mixed reaction by employees. Although most enjoy working from home - at least some of the time - they also miss the social interaction that a workplace offers. This is why in the United States, for instance, applicants expect employers to build into job descriptions the flexibility to work either from home or “in the office.” They recognize that both have their appeal, but they don’t want to be told which one they have to use. They want to make that choice themselves.

And so that means that if you want to be effective as a manager, then you’ll have to learn how to manage workforce that you have; not the one you want, and not the one that you had in the past.

 

Technology

Teleconferencing by phone was possible in the 1960s, and video conferencing became more common 30 years later, but it was COVID that made Zoom what it is today. The company was founded only a decade ago, and only had about 1000 customers in 2015; but thanks to the reaction of governments around the world, Zoom is now the go-to teleconferencing platform for businesses and students. In fact, it was this technology that made the lockdowns possible. Had easy, reliable, and inexpensive teleconferencing not been available, it’s unlikely that the work-from-home mandate could’ve worked.

 

Lockdowns

The lockdowns from COVID-19 have fundamentally and irreversibly changed the landscape of the world of work.

Not much needs to be said about this, and it’s still a developing scenario.

Each time that a lockdown occurs, however, the need for employees who can work without supervision increases, and the autonomy that they feel is reinforced.

Not only that, but traditional management styles are weakened. The old pattern of “just follow orders” or “shut up and do what I tell you to do” doesn’t work anymore. People won’t put up with it, and now they don’t have to.

And that’s because of acute . . .

 

Skill shortages

Because so many of the skills you need most are in short supply, it also means that you won’t be able to replace the employees you have with new ones. No longer do dozens or even hundreds of people apply for vacancies. Staff shortages are being felt across the entire British economy and in other parts of the world, too. The problem has become so serious, that firms are offering higher wages in the hope of attracting more people.

The skills shortages are due to a combination of factors such as lower birth rates over many years; the lack of foreign labour, attributed to Brexit; Government restrictions at work; and the greater opportunity to work from home. None of these causes is likely to change in the near future, if at all, no matter what the pundits say. And so you must learn to manage this new workforce.

 

Why do we have managers?

So why do we have managers?

Perhaps a better question is to ask why do we need management?

 

Work is complicated

It’s true that there are so many different activities and functions in organizations today that no one person can do it all.

In the days before mechanically powered machinery, a farmer could feed his horses and livestock, and generally care for everything he needed to run his farm. More often than not, those who worked on that farm were family members who in one way or another had a stake in the harvest as well as its failure, if that happened.

Of course, modern organizations aren’t at all like that. The skills that are needed to fix the equipment are different from the ones needed to receive and order stock, and they’re entirely different from managing the payroll or marketing the products and services the organization sells or provides.

Organizational activities are also performed on a scale that make the task too big for one person or even a handful to do, and on top of this, all these things have to be coordinated.

The size of the operation means, too, that management is an indispensable part of the modern organization. There are simply too many parts that must work together to yield a satisfactory whole.

But that doesn’t answer the question fully, and that’s because while management is necessary, managers are not.

 

Did you get that?

Management is necessary but, to look at it another way, anyone can and should manage themselves. And today’s employees expect to. Not only that, but unlike their forbears of 200+ years ago, they are now able to do it.

What matters most is not that there are people who are designated as managers, but rather that everyone takes responsibility to manage themselves. And when that happens, organizations will realize a level of effectiveness that they had only dreamed about in the past.

Self-management eliminates unforeseen bottlenecks and speeds decision-making. It enables people to take responsibility for what they do and eliminates the need for much prior approval that characterised organisations of the past.

 

Why workers are harder to manage

If you’ve ever wondered why employees today are so much harder to manage, then this is your answer. It’s because the workforce that you must oversee now is very different from the one that you learned how to manage.

The task for you is to help them to manage themselves. You’ll get the most cooperation in that way.

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