In today’s article, I discuss the meaning of what it means to be a manager. This is part of a continuing series that explores the tenets of Management Design, the field this blog pioneers. Management Design is a response to the poorly performing existing designs that are currently used in creating managers. These current designs describe how managers tend to be created by accident, rather than by design, or that efforts to develop quality and effective managers fall short.
Today’s tenet: Doing managerial tasks is what adds up to being a manager.
The current understanding of what it means to be a manager is to receive the designation of “manager.” If someone gets a role as “manager”, they are now a manager. Notice that the new manager does not have to perform any managerial tasks to get this designation. This explains why many managers can “be a manager” without actually doing anything managerial (see my series on manager identity). That manager can perform any number of things that are not managerial (continuing to do the individual contributor work, for example), and still be the manager. That manager can do things that are the exact opposite of good management practices (such as yelling or making generalizations about employees, for example), and still be considered a manager by virtue of being designated the manager.
A common identity of a manager is the ability to rise in the organization – and is this a good thing?
I’ve recently been writing about how the act of becoming a manager is an act that destroys the personal work identity of that new manager. The manager no longer gets to do what they were good at as an individual contributor (IC), and now they are doing something they are new at – and perhaps in an awkward and amateurish way. So the identity of being good at the former job is lost, and the ability to do the new job of management is slow to develop – if ever.
However, there is one aspect the new manager’s identity that is quickly formed via the act of becoming a manager. That is: The ability to “rise” through the ranks.
This is a differentiation that the others individual contributors (IC) in the organization do not have. Only the manager has demonstrated this “skill.” So while the new manager may lose his ability to perform the IC job, is no longer an expert at the IC job, and suffers through suddenly being amateurish at his job, the manager is indisputably good at one thing: Getting promoted into the manager ranks.
I’ve recently taken a philosophical turn in the Manager by Designsm blog. I’ve been drawing from Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore the concept of a manager ego. The short version is this:
- Managers lose their identities when they become managers
- However, they became managers based on their ability and expertise, which is their former identity
- They can no longer perform those former actions, and must perform new managerial actions
- These managerial actions, while based on the notion of personal greatness, are, by definition, new the manager and amateurishly performed.
- The first time such an amateurish action (like giving performance feedback to an employee) is performed, it shatters the notion that the manager is expert, effective and useful.
This step 5 I’m calling the “Mirror Stage” of being a manager. It’s the moment that, despite all sorts of evidence that the manager is terrific (hence the promotion to manager), there is the stunning evidence that the manager’s management technique is ineffective.
Here’s a likely – and concrete – scenario: A manager has to give performance feedback to the employee. The manager goes in with the expectation that the employee will agree, understand and implement everything the manager says. But this is nigh impossible. The employee could provide his own, different perspective on the situation, may not understand what the manager is trying to get across, or may not implement exactly what the manager had in mind. And that’s when an employee reacts well to the feedback!
What if the employee actively resists the feedback? The employee argues with the manager, says the facts are incorrect, and even says that the manager is wrong. There may even be an emotional reaction on the part of the employee. This is shattering to the manager’s ego, because this simple act of giving performance feedback didn’t go well (in the managers’ mind), despite the manager having a) authority b) expertise c) a greater general talent level than the employee.
In short, the act of giving performance feedback breaks the ego of the manager and provides a rather sudden and obvious moment where it is indisputably proven that the manager is not 100% effective at managing. So now there is now a problem associated with the act of managing.
For this article, I’d like to draw upon a concept created by Henri Wallon and popularized by French structuralist philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The concept is the stade du miroir, or “the mirror stage.” The mirror stage is when an infant first sees himself in the mirror and, by virtue of seeing an image of himself, understands for the first time that he is not an embodiment of the entire universe but is instead that he is a single individual amongst many others. In short, the infant goes from thinking he’s everything to only one thing, goes from not having an identity to having an identity, and from no external image to an image of himself external to himself, and has for the first time an understanding of the other. The scope of the infant’s identity has gone from huge (or unlimited) to that of an image of himself.
OK – but this is a blog about management skills – what does this have to do with managing?
I would like to propose that – for a manager — the act of giving performance feedback is the equivalent of the mirror stage.
I 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 techniques derived from individual instincts for what good techniques are. As a result, many managers persist in a kind of ongoing limbo of amateurish techniques while trying to retain the aura of expertise that they once – but no longer – have. That manager is in the difficult position of asserting that she is expert in the domain they were a former individual contributor (IC) while simultaneously asserting that she is an expert in the managerial tasks related to overseeing that IC work.
Now, imagine a manager who never gives performance feedback to the employee. That manager is like an infant who has never seen his image in the mirror. That manager can continue to think that she is
a) Expert in the field she is managing
b) Knows more than her employees
c) She can convey what is the correct way to proceed without much effort
d) Her employees believe in 100% what she says
e) Her employee can immediately implement what she has in mind
Does this sound like any managers you know or have had in the past? This manager has not gone through the “Mirror Stage” of being a manager and confronted their limitations as a manager.
Now, imagine a manager who decides to give performance feedback to the employee.
This is the moment where the manager must test the following notions:
a) she is still an expert
b) knows more than her employee
c) the conveyance of her thoughts are 100% transmittable
d) the employee will accept 100% of what she says
e) the employee will immediately implement what was in her thoughts.
That is the way an infant thinks before the mirror stage. Read more
Perhaps this is obvious, but has it ever occurred to you that a new manager is actually an amateur at being a manager? Not just initially, but ongoing, well after becoming a manager? Let me explain.
The typical model is that someone starts their career not as being a manager, and then, after a certain moment in time, becomes a manager. It’s a new job title, new role, and lots of new stuff to do. And this new stuff – since it is new, shouldn’t we expect managers to be amateurish in how they perform these tasks? After all, they have never done this professionally before.
Perhaps this moment of becoming a manager isn’t entirely ignored, as there are many management development programs out there, but even with this assistance and turbo-boost into management ranks, there is a reigning operating theory – that when you hire people who are generally competent in their field, they will perform this new complex job of management competently as well.
With non-managerial roles, there is a gradual build up of skills, expertise, and speed that can possibly turn into creativity and innovation. This can be done in a short period of time, but it is generally understood that when you are starting out, you need to get better at what you are doing, and most organizations provide that chance.