The M-Word


I don’t like the term manager. It has connotations I really don’t identify with. Probably in part due to Dilbert and Office Space. In fact, when I looked it up, I found that it even the denotation is far from what I feel is the essence of the job. My job, at least. Here is the dictionary definition:

Controlling. Administering. My two favorite things!

Building in that, phrases like “manage the situation” or “I’ll manage him” all give this sense of suppression — not letting things escalate. Keeping people calm. Working. Average. Without any major under, nor any major over performers.

No thank you.

Here’s an article by Paul Zhao entitled “3 differences between managers and leaders,” some excerpts:

Managers don’t want to make waves, so they want to ensure existing processes are respected. This isn’t to say that they are wrong, it is merely to state that managers are typically risk averse in that they prefer no to go outside the guide rails of established protocol or convention (even if the rules don’t make sense). Managers manage you the way that they want to please their superiors — that is, by following directions so that no surprises (good or bad) pop up.

That is: they’re wave suppressors, flatten all the things! Everything is fine, nothing is great.

It’s my personal opinion, though, that managers are actually just followers who have been promoted to a particular title and pay grade.

They’re just puppets.

Managers prioritize quantifying and measuring value. They often are obsessed with tracking results in order to report on specific targets.

And just care about the numbers.

Managers give you tasks and tell you (sometimes imply) the consequences of not completing them a certain way. They organize a team around penalties, either explicitly, or worse, by docking points under the table without bringing it to your attention (until it’s already too late).

And get things done through the stick.

Of course, these statements are complete and utter bullshit (excuse my French), but they hurt not just because I’m somebody carrying the “manager” label, but also because I refused to accept the “manager” label in the past exactly because what Paul is describing in his article.

What Paul describes is what my generation has learned management is all about.

Thanks, Dilbert. Thanks, Office Space.

But the premise of Paul’s article is that it’s an either… or… — you’re either a manager or a leader. But that’s like comparing oranges and… juice, or whatever.

Leadership is just a technique to achieve a certain goal. You can apply leadership (and be a leader while doing it) in a management role, or in any other role. If you need a group to move in a certain direction, a great way to do that is through leadership, whether you’re a toiler cleaner (putting up “please flush” signs and setting the right example — “did you hear what I did there, do you hear that noise?”), a developer (introducing TDD in your company by organizing a training), or manager (bringing together a group of people to tackle how you handle incident management).

The examples Paul gives of “typical” management behavior, are just… very, very poor implementations of stereotypical, Dilbert-esque management that I’ve never seen in real life (thank god). I bet it exists somewhere, but claim this as the definition of management… no.

At least not today.

You could dub the time I started to take management roles, about seven-ish years ago, as the “hippie time” of management. At least in the software engineering world. At the time, companies like Github had people traveling the world giving talks like “Fire all the managers”, Valve proudly advertised they didn’t have managers at all, and Holacracy was up and coming, which is a crazy-ass self managing system without management… or something (a I bought a book on it, but it’s still on a shelf somewhere).

“Management is evil man! Peace!” Management was how we did things in the past. An outdated concept.

But the world has changed since then. Github is now manager run, Valve’s culture may not be what it seems. I haven’t heard that much noise about Holacracy for a while (perhaps I wasn’t paying attention), except that Medium, which adopted it before, is now moving away from it.

Management is back with a vengeance.

What led me to go in this direction myself was seeing good managers in action.

The best managers I know are great leaders, they make company-scale waves to move things ahead for all, they inspire you to do better, they break down walls, ditch protocols, and think very strategically and long term.

Terms like control and administer do barely appear in their vocabulary.

So that is what we need in this world. Not the controlling and administering and ass kissing and number obsessing and mediocring pointy haired bosses.

Can we please come up with a less tainted term?