by Josh Allan Dykstra
I was hanging out with a friend for coffee, making small talk about their work, when it hit me. It felt like someone had physically flicked their finger and smacked me right between my eyebrows, even though no one had touched me. In that instant something “clicked” in my brain—and it all happened because my friend innocently said a phrase I’d heard a million times before, something to the effect of:
“Yeah, I’ll just have to check with my boss about that.”
It’s a simple, seemingly innocuous phrase that probably gets spoken countless times every day in various parts of the world.
But this time it hurt me. These words felt somehow… gross, offensive. I felt insulted for my friend.
“Why?” you may ask.
Because for the situation we were discussing, my friend knew exactly what to do. We talked about it at length. They had thoughtfully processed the options, they’d consulted the appropriate people to get other viewpoints, they were the person closest to the work, and they clearly knew what decision needed to be made.
But they couldn’t make that decision without checking with a “boss.”
In today’s marketplace, we often wonder why our organizations are too slow, too bureaucratic, and too paralyzed. We wonder why they’re not agile enough, not responsive enough, and just not able to keep up with the constant changes we feel all around us. In that moment with my friend, it occurred to me that the answer has been sitting right in front of our faces—we just don’t see it because it’s taking the form of statements we’ve all heard a million times.
“I’ll have to clear that with my manager.”
“I need to check with my boss.”
“My manager will have to sign off on that.”
How “normal” are these statements? I suspect most of us don’t think twice when we hear them—or when we say them ourselves.
But we need to transform the way we think about this.
The idea that people need to be “managed” is inherently an insulting and dehumanizing one. The very notion that you somehow need a “manager” to tell you what to do when you get to work is a blatant affront to your intelligence. We just don’t think about it this way because we’ve been swimming in the water of a world that treats “managers” as normal for the past century or more.
But it is NOT normal.
It’s not normal for you to need someone to tell you what to do or approve the decisions you make—you are a fully functioning adult with a perfectly capable brain in your head.
A brain that makes thousands of decisions every day without a manager, I might add.
As my friend Doug says (I’m going to paraphrase)—you don’t have a “manager” to tell you what clothes to wear when you go out on Saturday night. You don’t have a “manager” to tell you when to get married or have babies. You don’t have a “manager” to tell you what route to take to work. But then suddenly when you cross the threshold of your office building, what happens? Your brain just falls out of your head? Do you suddenly become as functionally capable as, say, a bag of rocks?
Of course you don’t. But the technology of management—and let’s be very clear, this is a technology that was invented—is designed to treat you like your brain has been removed.
I was in a workshop with a client the other day, a successful technology company. During one of the activities, I overheard one of the participants say something like “The main problem is that we aren’t masters of our own destiny.” Then another person added: “I have a manager who has a manger who has a manager who has a manger who reports to the VP.”
If that’s the case, I’d say you are definitely NOT in control of much, if any, of your destiny.
As the session went on, it became clearer and clearer to me how much of a disservice we’ve done to these amazing people by teaching them about “management”—this toxic idea has infected them like a disease, to the point where they’ve all started to believethat they aren’t smart enough or capable enough to make decisions on their own.
Occasionally in the workshop I’d see moments of intense clarity and a flash of awareness when someone uncovered a solution that ought to happen—but their light would be quickly snuffed out by the realization that their fix would never survive the perilous journey through five layers of “managers.”
We ask our people to be brilliant problem solvers, but instead we’ve taught them to be something else: mostly-deflated humans whose default response has become learned helplessness.
“Management” is the opposite of what these smart, capable, brilliant people need. What they really need is for said “management” to frankly get the hell out of the way so they can do their jobs and make the decisions they need to make.
Like my friend over coffee, they already know exactly what to do; their managers are just mucking up their ability to do it.
Without a manager, would you bounce ideas off other people and get collaborative input? Absolutely! Would you make sure you’re pulling in the the right experts to give you the insight you need on the issue at hand? Of course! But do you need a “boss” to then make that decision for you? Please; that’s just ridiculous.
For the sake of our humanity and the productivity of our organizations, this absurdity needs to stop—and it won’t until we start seeing “management” as the insult to your intelligence that it actually is.
Josh Allan Dykstra is a recognized thought leader on the future of work and company culture design. He is the CEO of Strengthscope U.S., the exclusive U.S. provider of the world’s most energizing workplace assessment, and his articles and ideas have been featured by Fast Company, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and Business Insider. He’s also the Co-Founder of Forte, a consulting group that helps organizations and leaders leverage the power of a strong culture, and The Work Revolution, a movement/advocacy group that promotes life-giving work environments for everyone. His eclectic work background includes projects with organizations like Apple, Sony, Genentech, Microsoft, HTC, and USC as well as startups and nonprofits. He holds an MBA in Executive Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his latest book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck, is available on.