by Bill Sanders, Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss

Have you ever felt “managed?” How would you describe the feeling? When I ask clients and their employees this, I usually get words like ‘manipulated,’ ‘controlled,’ ‘coerced’ and ‘sold.’ I can’t recall ever receiving a positive synonym as a response.

And yet we wonder why we have 68% of the U.S. workforce disengaged. The better question, based on prevailing management mindsets, is how did we end up with 32% of the workforce engaged at all?

After all, if employees are being manipulated, controlled, coerced and sold for 40-50 hours or more each week of their lives, how to they manage to engage in anything other than gossip, depression, boredom and stress?

Networks are Surpassing Hierarchies

We’ve had both hierarchy and networks within companies since the first three-person firm. The network has primarily served to grease the gears of the hierarchy. The network is no longer an end run around the communication system; it is the communication system. The network is no longer about getting a one-off favor from another department; it is getting work done with that department every day. (For and in-depth look at where this is leading, see my GWC colleague Rod Collins’ book Wiki Management.)

If we want to maximize our employees’ potential, and thus our department and company’s potential, we are going to have to adapt to this new reality. One of the first things that needs to change is our mindsets.

Lead People, Manage Things

One of the first mindsets we’ll need to change is about what it means to be a manager. I firmly believe that you can only manage things, not people. Things have no agency, no agenda, no independent will. You can push things, replace things, and force things to serve in ways that were not intended and the result is either it worked, or it didn’t.

People do have agency, agendas, and free wills; along with goals, dreams, worries, responsibilities, hopes, and emotions. You can push, replace and force them as well, but even when you reach your goals, the result is damage. Damage to the relationship, to morale, to trust.

A Different View of Management

I believe our responsibility as managers is to manage the work, not the workers. We are there to prioritize the work, remove obstacles, obtain necessary resources, provide air-cover, and increase the capacity, knowledge, and experience of the individuals on the team. We are there to help design the most effective processes and deploy the most effective tools.

The two-way street that was the Employer/Employee social contract is over. The vast majority of people working in private industry are not going to work 40 years for the same company and retire with a reasonable pension.

The next generation is due for even more uncertainty and turbulence in the job market. Employees entering the workforce today are going to change industries multiple times, not just jobs. If we want to stay competitive, relevant, and attract and retain the best talent, it’s high time that we as owners, executives and managers begin creating a new two-way street. We need a new contract focused on the overall health of the organization, not just the bottom line.

Responding to the Trends

We are going to have to stop treating people as fungible. We are going to have to stop promoting people into management positions with no training because that’s the only way we can justify giving them a raise. We are going to have to stop treating people as objects.

We are going to have to develop new tools and processes to drive real performance. We are going to have to develop new mental models of what it means to be a manager, to be a leader, to be a team member. We are going to have to reprogram our processes, rewards, and culture to adapt to the new reality.

Or, one day soon we are going to find ourselves wandering down the street with our proverbial white file box of personal desktop items and our red Swingline stapler wondering what happened.

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a operational strategy consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness, and Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.

It’s Time to Stop Managing People!