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What is the point of managers?

Everyone hates managers; they’re either vicious psychopaths, mendacious Machiavellians or narcissistic incompetents. All of them; without exception.

Managers grind you down with endless and pointless meetings, make claiming your rightful expenses so complex you give up and they think the air of company dissatisfaction can only be improved with team-building away-days. They should just let you get on with it.

Teachers cannot teach, police cannot catch criminals and doctors cannot heal, because they are swamped by all the bureaucracy, by useless paperwork, instead of doing what they are best at. In their new book, The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan say: “Imagine a world without managers as a kind of paradise where workers are unshackled by pointless bureaucracy… a place where stuff actually gets done”. Weirdly, managers tend to agree.

The ambition of every plod-hopping multi-national is to become more like a start-up and this usually entails a company café, table tennis and some intense hot-desking. The book, though, is written in defence of the petty annoyances of organisational life. They say that once you understand why frustrations arise, you will benefit from ‘better informed cynicism’.

The Underlying Logic opens with a lesson from economist, Ronald Coase, who says that in a free-marketer’s perfect world, companies would not exist and that we would all be free agents, joining up and splitting apart on a daily basis, as each task requires.

Excellent, but it is hard to build, say, cars that way. Tracking down the best-priced components and workers every day costs too much and takes too long, so most companies bring their sourcing in-house. This too isn’t always efficient; you won’t always get the best prices, some workers will be rubbish and, worst of all, you’ll have to employ managers to co-ordinate various activities, via meetings, paperwork and other stuff.

This helps explain the lip-service paid to innovation. Every company claims it wants to innovate, but they rarely do; creative change saps co-ordination. Take a look at McDonald’s; it has succeeded in crushing innovation among its franchisees (it stopped one in the early days from serving hand-carved beef) and this does not show a lack of vision, but rather, it is an expression of why McDonald’s exists, instead of just being a disparate bunch of burger joints.

So is this depressing; just buckle down under the management yoke and forget about being a cutting edge maverick? Not if you look at it from a different perspective. Many employees spend their time feeling that fulfilment is just out of reach; if only our boss were less annoying, or the firm more open to our great ideas, then everything would be great.

Fisman and Sullivan refute this, saying that much of what we object to is just what happens when people work together. If you can’t stand bureaucracy, become self-employed, which brings different problems. Maybe join a small company, but whatever you decide, an organisational life without the management crap cannot exist and it is better to make your career decisions in total acceptance of this fact.

Nigel Phillips

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