A Happier Workplace? Let People Choose Their Manager

Written by HappyHenry April 15, 2018

The cost of poor management, according to a recent report, is £84 billion a year in the UK alone. This won’t come as too much of a surprise. We all know the cost to people - in stress and poor health - and the cost to organisations - in demotivated staff, poor productivity and high staff turnover.

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Sketch is made by Andy de Vale.

Poor management is a modern plague. But there is a cure.

"I love my job but I can't stand my manager"

Imagine somebody comes to me and says “I love my job. I love my colleagues. I am even happy with what I’m being paid. But I can’t stand my manager”. Have you experienced that situation? Have you been that person? The normal outcome is that the individual ends up leaving. People join organisations and, all too often, leave managers.

At Happy Ltd it takes a few moments to resolve. We simply ask “who would you like to manage you instead?” Yes, we believe every employee should be able to choose their manager.

This may seem unusual but we are not alone. WL Gore, makers of Goretex, have been practicing self-management since they were founded sixty years ago. They believe that “if you want to be a leader, you’d better find some followers”. Every member of staff is able to choose the person to support their long term development.

The cost of poor management is £84 billion a year in the UK alone.
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But it is also the case at many large mainstream consultancies. At EY (previously Ernst & Young) consultants work on projects from anywhere from a few weeks to several years. Day to day they will work with a Project Manager but they also have a long-term Manager, whose role is to support their development – and who also carries out their appraisal.

A colleague of mine there had a difficult time with their initial development manager and, if working for a company where you were stuck with your manager, would probably have left. Instead she asked to change and is now thriving.

If you work in a conventional command-and-control hierarchy you may find this idea hard to get. If you have a manager who decides what you do and how it fits into the team, then it will seem clear that you can’t chose somebody else.

If the manager is there to tell you what to do, then it has to be somebody next up the hierarchy. But hopefully that isn’t the case for most of the readers of this blog. If, instead, you have some degree of self-management and your “manager” is there to support and coach you, and to help you find your own solution, then it doesn’t even need to be somebody in your area of expertise.


Not everybody should be a manager

Some years ago we ran a Managing People course for a group of Project Managers from a software development company called Cougar. At the end of the day they came to the facilitator and said:

“Great course, really well taught but its made us realize we don’t really want to manage people. It is not what we are good at and so we are going to tell Clive, the Managing Director, that we’d rather not do that.”

Now we were a bit concerned, as it was Clive that had paid for the course. But actually he was perfectly happy, as he had never been sure it was right for them.

These project managers still wanted their expertise recognized and to be rewarded as they increased their skills. So they created a new promotion track, based on judo black belts (as is used in Lean). You might start on Yellow, move up through Green and Brown to eventually become a Black belt coder.

If you look around your organisation you will see people, sometimes in very senior positions, who are extremely skilled in their core jobs but for whom managing people (especially if that role is a coaching one) is not something they are great at.

The result, as I noted earlier, is stress, poor motivation and poor productivity. One UK study found that 48% of the workforce would take a pay cut to be able to change their manager.

48% of the workforce would take a pay cut to be able to change their manager.
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We need to find a way, like Cougar did, to reward and promote people without making them have to manage people. At Google if somebody is a truly expert coder they will get well paid for it (“pay unfairly” is one of Lazslo Bock’s (Google's former Head of People) mottos) but is unlikely to be put in charge of managing people – it doesn’t play to their strengths and takes them away from doing what they are great at, coding.

If you let people choose their managers, then this gets quickly sorted. The people who aren’t good at managing simply don’t get chosen. They get to do something else instead.

At one company we worked with, they had a brilliant marketing director who we shall call Mary. Well, brilliant at marketing but lousy with people and half her staff were leaving each year. They came to us because they couldn’t afford the cost of all that recruitment and replacement, but also couldn’t afford to lose Mary’s amazing marketing skills.

The solution was simple. Mary was moved into a purely marketing role and the people in the marketing team got to choose their manager. The team was much happier but the person who liked it best was Mary herself. She now got to spend all her time doing what she was best at, marketing.

Less a Manager, More a Coach

Now in companies where people largely self-manage, it may seem odd to talk about a manager as we tend to think of it as somebody who tells us what to do. There are companies that have no managers. Happy is not one of them, as we find that most people want somebody to support them, and to help them develop. We call them Co-ordinators though the word Coach might be better.

So here are some simple steps to enable people to play to their strengths and come to work knowing they will be nurtured and supported.

  • Set up two tracks of promotion, one for those who want to manage people and one for those who demonstrate their contribution in their core job
  • Don’t force people to manage people by making it the only way to get promoted
  • If you do have managers, make sure their role is to coach and support people’s development.
  • Let people choose their manager/coach

Do you already do this? Could you do it in your organisation?

This guest blog is written by Henry Stewart, founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy in London. Happy seeks, though consultancy and training, to transform organisations to become happy, productive workplaces –based on creating an environment of trust and freedom. Follow Henry on [Twitter, connect to him on LinkedIn, download his book The Happy Manifesto from here or check out his blog.

Written by HappyHenry
Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy in London, Happy seeks to transform organizations through consultancy and training, creating an environment of trust and freedom to become happy, productive workplaces.
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