There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

How is Management Different?

with 2 comments

I’ve known many people who look up to their management unquestioningly, as if the mere state of being management means either they are without fault or (in the other extreme) without value. Whether you take the view that management is above reproach or management stinks, either view starts with the belief that managers are ‘not like us’. Once management has been conveniently classified as ‘them’ it’s easy to lose touch with the reality that they are human too, for better or worse.

I remind folks that have views about management at either extreme that management is lot more like us then they might realize. I present the following points as part of the discussion.

  • Is Management any smarter than we are?
    Sometimes, but not always, management might be smarter, in the raw intellectual brainpower sort of way. But often management is no smarter than the rest of the folks. Being smart alone does not mean one has what it takes to rise through the ranks of a typical organization.
  • Is Management more experienced than we are?
    Again; sometimes, but not always, management might be more experienced than the typical employee. But rarely does the manager have more total experience than the amount of experience the whole team has together. Sometimes managers don’t even have more experience than specific people on the team. Like smarts, in most situations experience alone does not qualify someone for a senior management position.
  • Is Management more politically astute then we are?
    By now hopefully you see where this is going – sometimes, but not always, management might have more political acumen than the typical employee. Political skills alone do not lead one to get management positions, or perhaps more precisely, political skills alone do not allow one to keep a management position for very long.

So what does management have that we don’t?

Greater Context.

Encarta defines context as:

Context – surrounding conditions: the circumstances or events that form the environment within which something exists or takes place

Management has access to a much broader view of the business than does the typical employee. If the typical employee is like a player on the field, with a limited field of vision, and never very long to think about anything other than what is right in front of them, management is the coach on the sidelines. Management is dealing with a more diverse set of inputs then the typical front line person (perhaps not more inputs, but most often more types of input). Often there are whole business mechanisms in place to provide management with data, which management must synthesize into a model of how things are going that allows them to make decisions about how to keep the business moving.

When management makes a decision that you don’t understand it’s probably not because they are smarter then you, or even more experienced than you, or that there is a political angle you can’t understand – the simplest explanation is that the decision makes sense when the greater context is clear. Management, having that greater context, made the decision that made sense (for whatever reason). Those without the greater context may not understand the decision, or even worse, believe the decision to be completely wrong, based on the limited context they have. Management is not always right, neither are they always wrong, but I have found that difference in context explains more the misunderstandings about their decisions than does any other factor.

The true leader understands that making the decision (based on broader context) is not the only part that matters – without communicating enough of the greater context to the rest of the organization the leader risks losing the faith of that organization. People of all levels will only accept things on faith for so long (especially in a professional setting), and leaders should rely on this good will very infrequently lest there be no goodwill left when they need it most.

The true leader understands that they are not smarter, not more experienced, or more politically astute than the whole of their organization, and knows that they can do what they do because of the greater context they have access to. Hoarding that greater context has become for some poor leaders a way to maintain control, but this is inevitably self defeating as soon their organizations lose faith in the leadership, effectively negating whatever control the poor leader had.

A truly gifted leader knows that maintaining a high level of transparency in the organization has other advantages as well. When everyone has a broader view of the business everyone is better equipped to make better decisions. True, not every human is prepared to handle this kind of information, and not all information is appropriate for every level of the organization; but if you hire the right people and manage the expectations appropriately I have found it better to be as transparent as possible than not.


Written by joshuahoward

April 13, 2009 at 7:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I think that at times people see management as “stupid” because their decisions don’t seem to make sense at best or counter-productive at worst.

    People need to understand that management needs to take into account the bigger productive picture. Sometimes a decision that is counter-productive to his/her unit might actually be more productive for the company as a whole.


    April 13, 2009 at 8:25 am

  2. I think that the major difference between management and employees is authority. You can be insubordinate to your manager but not to your fellow employees. The best managers convey the big picture to their employees so even if they don’t get buy-in from their subordinates, they at least get understanding.

    Something that we tend to forget is that managers are people too. This is why companies must commit to high standards for leadership and ethics. If those in authority do not lead or do not show ethical behavior then it is impossible to expect the employees to do so themselves.

    Bruce Biskup

    April 13, 2009 at 5:37 pm

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