The Idle Manager Myth

A common brunt of office jokes is that the boss doesn’t do anything; the team is doing all the work, anyone can see that. Sometimes, of course, it is true that there are managers who truly don’t do anything, but there’s another way of looking at the manager who seems to do nothing all the time other than walk around with a cup of coffee.

It could be that this is exactly his job, and he is good at it.

As some readers aptly commented on The Key to Success article, an important responsibility of any manager is to remove obstacles so that the workers can get their jobs done. This is an important principle in any small business. When a manager, or small business owner, is trying to do too much, including doing the work himself, he can get sucked into the details of one task, and not see the wheels rattling off somewhere else. I know this is true because I fight this tendency constantly: I love the work we do, so it is tempting to carve off big parts of it for myself.

In software or hardware development, especially, it is tough to manage a project, meaning to find and remove those obstacles, while at the same time doing a piece of it. I’ve seen many project managers try, and outside of unrealistically heroic efforts, it is tough to get those two different parts of your brain (design + supervision) to work effectively at their respective tasks. Eventually, one of those sides wins, and the project as a whole suffers one way or another. One way to look at this is that, if the manager focuses on one part of the project, he spends all of his time supervising one worker, himself, and neglecting all the other people that need his support. Conversely, if he does a good job of supervising the team, that one worker, himself, with that one task, goofs off and doesn’t get his part done. It can be a difficult no-win situation.

The tough part of all this is when a skilled worker of any kind first gets promoted to management. Having made a career’s worth of jokes at his own managers’ expense, the new manager doesn’t want to be That Guy, and takes on a part of the project himself, with predictable results. In a small business, however, you may not have a choice; there simply may not be enough warm bodies to get it all done. If you find yourself in that situation, there are some ways to carve up the work that has worked well for us, and which still keep the manager hat working like it should. We’ll talk about some of those ideas in future articles.

In the meantime, give That Guy a break. He may be the most effective manager you’ll ever have.

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