Becoming a manager is a subversion of self-identity

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Let’s talk about the manager and his or her identity at work.

The act of becoming a manager is the very act of undermining the person’s identity at work.  Here’s why:

For years the employee who was not a manager has the following elements associated with the employee’s identity:

–What you do at work is produce something

–Work is rated by quality and quantity metrics

–Work can be compared against other people doing comparable work

–Work quality and quantity can be improved and new techniques learned by meeting with and learning from others who do comparable work

–Expertise is increased over time

–There is a trade name/professional identity associated with the job (mechanic, accountant, camera operator, software engineer, etc.)

With these fairly well-defined elements that contribute to the identity of the employee, the employee can develop a general understanding of who she is and what value she provides.  On top of that, she can see fairly easily how she performs in comparison to her peers, and she has peers to which she can compare and learn from.  Via this identity, the employee develops a sense of who she is and what she is capable of, and where she fits in the organization and the industry.

Then the moment she becomes a manager, all of this is lost.  It is taken away.  It is eliminated.  It is killed off.  The employee has lost her identity entirely.  Let me explain:

Element #1: The loss of productivity

The moment the employee becomes the manager, she is no longer expected to produce something.  Sure she is in charge of the people who produce something, but she herself does not produce anything any more.  In fact, the manager who attempts to keep producing something to keep this element of her identity becomes something of a ghost of an employee – someone who neither produces as much as the others nor manages the team very well.   That sense of productivity is gone.

Element #2: The abstraction of quality and quantity metrics

The employee who becomes a manager no longer can produce quality and quantity, but must indirectly produce quality and quantity from the other employees.  It used to be a direct creation of what is productive, but now it is an indirect, abstracted creation.  The manager has lost the direct sense of what productivity looks like, and now has only a trace of that sense of productivity.  It is an abstract concept rather than a concrete concept.  Any former claims of productivity, innovation, and quality are immediately vanquished and lost over time, and cannot be used as a measure of success in the new role.

Element #3: Work cannot be compared against other people doing comparable work

The moment an employee becomes a manager, she can no longer compare how she performs to others, because other teams are composed of different people, have different roles, different scopes of work, and different customers.  On top of this, the comparable teams likely need to work together in a cooperative workflow instead of in a comparative manner.  So the act of understanding one’s identity through how you perform compared to others is no longer possible.  This act is taken away and replaced with having to work with those you used to compete (or at least compare) against.

Element #4: Work quality and quantity can no longer be improved using the techniques learned by meeting with and learning from others who do comparable work

This was a common expectation before becoming a manager, but it is exceedingly difficult (and rarely observed) to find a manager of a team who can meet with another manager of a comparable team and learn techniques of the trade being performed.  This happens at the expert individual contributor level, but not as much at the manager level.  The act of gathering expertise is undermined and lost by the new manager.

Element #5: Expertise is decreased over time

Before, the identity of the employee is generally associated with the gradual increase of trade expertise over time.  The moment you become a manager, your expertise gradually fades and rapidly becomes less than the most expert ones on your team and others in the industry.  The ability to assert greater expertise is gone, and this shatters the manager’s identity the first time this is realized.

Element #6:  There is no longer a trade name for what you do

There is nothing that will eliminate one’s identity faster than taking away your name.  If you were an accountant before, now you are a manager of accountants.  You are no longer an accountant.  You are a manager.  You are a manager of. . . and the trade name gradually fades over time.   It may be accounting at first, but that will change, and what was once your identity is forever lost.

So when I say that the act of becoming a manager subverts your identity, this is what I mean – the act of becoming a manager immediately and swiftly takes away any personal understanding of who you are and what you can accomplish at work.

In the emerging field of Management Design, this act of losing one’s identity needs to be understood and considered.  In the current standard design, managers swiftly lose their old identity and struggle for a long time to create a new identity with limited structure, shifting dynamics and the trace of the old identity as a productive employee obfuscating the picture.  It is not a surprise that there are so many “lost” managers out there.

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Management Design:  The “designs” we have now: Send them to training (part 1)

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Send them to training (part 2)

Management Design: The designs we have now – Promote the one who asks for it

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Make the loudest person the manager

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Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Promote the top performer

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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  1. […] In my previous article, I discussed how the moment an employee becomes a manager, her identity – in so many ways – is entirely subverted, and this loss has both an immediate and long-term impact on how the manager performs as a […]

  2. […] have recently written about how a new manager has been stripped of her identity the moment she becomes a manager, and how that identity is often then built up using management […]

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