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Shireen Qudosi

Taking Out the Middle Man: The Case Against Middle Management

Aug 28 2014, 06:00 AM by

Taking Out the Middle Man: The Case Against Middle Management I run my business from home. At present my desk faces a half wall laced with a railing. There, from above, my three-year-old will frequently pops up to dutifully inspect my activity with the most serious of faces. Of course he has no idea what I’m up to, but the routine inspections are like clockwork, along with the stone-faced disapproving look that can level most grown adults.

I call him “middle management” because he’s got that same look of authority and judgment – and just like most middle managers, he really doesn’t know what’s going on. If you’ve seen Office Space, or even The Office, then you’re familiar with the management stereotype – one that questions their relevance in overall business process.

A shifting workplace economy rightfully begs the question: are managers necessary in an evolving business landscape that strives to replace hierarchy with a hive? Meanwhile, typical arguments against management usually premise on the idea that these roles only convolute business efficiency.

A New York Times article by Matthew Hutson, titled “Espousing Equality, but Embracing a Hierarchy,” quotes Google’s technology director, Craig Silverstein, in his flip-flopping stance on management. Silverstein admitted his team at Google was under the assumption that managers just kept “adding levels of bureaucracy.” Yet several months of experimentation with a manager-free engineering department revealed that engineers actually preferred management. Silverstein admits, “We realized managers actually serve a purpose, resolving conflicts, [and] answering questions.”

Though Hutson argues in favor of corporate hierarchy, it can also be argued that hierarchy works best in more traditional settings – and particularly among engineers who by nature prefer predictable systems. In a more creative environment, like that of a start-up, the role of a manager would seem superfluous and contradictory to the nature of the organization, which thrives on open collaboration.

Enter “collective genius.” In a Harvard Business School blog post, collective genius in business underscores the importance of innovation, including an emphasis on innovative leadership in order to create what is termed as “collective genius”. In the post, titled “Leading Innovation is and the Art of Creative ‘Collective Genius,” author Kim Girard gives multiple case examples of leading companies and how their leaders promoted innovation within teams. Yet, even these teams were not without management.

Girard also heavily cites Linda Hill, author of Collective Genius and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard School of Business. One example provided by Hill highlights Bill Coughran, Google’s former senior vice president of engineering – who “created an environment where engineers could figure out on their own how to best address the company’s massive storage challenges.” Hill points out how Coughran “never tried to be the visionary, the expert, or the decisive ‘I’m’ in charge [leader]…Instead he asked difficult and probing questions during regular review meetings that helped frame issues and sharpen discussions.”

As Hutson observes, “Increasingly, companies are valuing diverse input and turning to flatter structures. But even companies that supposedly deplore the value of hierarchy have status and power differentials, formally or informally.” Hutson quotes Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who adds, “It’s often useful to have at least one person who serves a role of leader even if that role is more of a coordinating function.”

It comes down to the fact that even creative teams need management of a different variety – namely when it comes to human resources. They need an individual to oversee their professional development as a team, even if the team is otherwise loosely organized. Ultimately, we do need some sort of pecking order – even for a start-up, which if successful, will grow into a larger corporation. As Hutson says, we really just want to know “who’s in charge around here?”

Posted in Cool Stuff for Small Businesses

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