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The End of the Traditional Manager

The End of the Traditional Manager

by Adam Hickman and Ryan Pendell

Story Highlights

  • Traditional management practices are outdated
  • Leaders must equip their managers with new tools
  • The future manager may not resemble anything we're used to

By nearly every measure, the workplace is rapidly evolving. Compared to decades past, today's workplace is defined by:

  • More flexible workspaces: 74% of employees have the ability to move to different areas to do their work
  • More flexible work time: 52% of employees say they have some choice over when they work
  • More remote working: 43% of employees work away from their team at least some of the time.
  • More matrixed teams: 84% of employees are matrixed to some extent.

But this new fluid workplace isn't just about the work environment. Workplaces are increasingly project-based, and employees today are attracted to interesting problems and meaningful work -- not just a job title.

To be more agile in a project-based work environment, teams make more decisions without approval from above, which means non-managers must act more like leaders and think more "big picture" like executives.

But thinking and acting like a leader is what companies want in an employee. Organizations are looking for employees who can make independent decisions with confidence, problem solve with diverse peer groups, and manage their own time, projects, workload, relationships, and career path by themselves.

Implicitly or explicitly, companies often expect employees to "be their own boss" and do for themselves what used to be considered "management."

This shift in the workplace alters what employees need from their manager. In short, a manager who is always visible, watching every minute and stopping by to ask if you got the memo is becoming obsolete.


Under New Management

What happens when people have more autonomy at work?

Empirical evidence shows a correlation to increased performance and engagement as well as more sensitivity to failure when people have more independence at work.

In other words, autonomy leads to increased employee performance and engagement, but employees still need manager support during difficult situations. Managers can't offer autonomy and disappear.

As long as businesses employ people, they need leaders who can develop talented individuals. Even for flexible, temp, gig or alternative workers, the personal relationship they have with their supervisor is the most meaningful relationship they have with their organization.

But there are new rules for management, and traditional management practices often don't work anymore.

For example, often managers assume that remote workers' expectations are the same as in-office employees', but there is one phenomenon that separates these two types of workers: isolation. Perceived workplace isolation can lead to as much as a 21% drop in performance.

The reality is that you can't manage the modern workforce using traditional management methods.

Today's manager needs to be a coach, holding employees accountable while encouraging development and growth.

With many of the details of management now being automated, what's left is the most powerful tool a manager has -- meaningful conversations.

Consider your favorite sports coach and how they communicate with their star players. They have a deep understanding of their players through hours of dialogue. They know what to say to motivate each player differently -- who needs more feedback, who needs less. Over time, great coaches develop the trust and openness needed to have tough conversations under pressure.

Most managers, however, aren't ready for this kind of personal approach to dialogue with their employees. Organizations can help by providing managers training on how to lead strengths-based, performance-focused conversations regularly with employees.

The Future of Management

Could management itself become decentralized?

Instead of having one "manager," imagine your best employees interacting with a team of specialized managers -- one a technical expert, another an interpersonal relationship guru, another a career coach, etc.

Different managers address specific roadblocks to performance, while also consulting with one another to make sure that they are seeing each employee holistically and objectively.

Of course, managers would still need to have tough conversations with employees when necessary, but they would stay in the background when their team is performing well.

The chance to be mentored by this management dream team dedicated to your long-term career development would be a powerful draw for talented job seekers.

Regardless of what the future holds, it's worth considering unconventional ideas when it comes to management. Sometimes it is easy to miss how quickly business as we know it is changing.

The old rules no longer apply, and that means leaders need to reinvent management for a more autonomous workforce of the future.

Discover the best tools for leaders and managers to respond to the new workplace realities:


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

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