Why it's time to make management aspirational again

For decades, managers have been maligned, ridiculed and ignored. But British business is realising that good management is the answer to many of its intractable problems.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2023
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This article is from our Management Matters series, which argues it's time for a management revival. Businesses should reward, value and respect managers, because they are often the answer to their intractable problems.

From shoulder pads and double denim to new romantic music and rising interest rates, you can hardly move these days for things that were last big in the 1980s making sudden (and often unexpected) comebacks.

Business is no less subject to the whim of fashion than any other walk of life, so could 2023 at last be the year when a long-maligned, ignored and denigrated job title finally makes it onto the list of overdue revival trends from the era of Duran Duran, Dallas and the big bang?

Yes, we’re talking about you, managers. It’s a long time since being a manager was something anyone with ambition for the top aspired to at work, and when you look at the wider world perhaps that’s not so surprising. Management is essentially about collective endeavour and getting the best out of other people, whereas the zeitgeist is very much skewed towards the pre-eminence of the individual over the group.

Consequently our contemporary heroes and role models are those who stand apart at the extremes – glamorous leaders, the chosen few at the top of the pile, or honourable toilers, the legions of essential workers keeping it real at the other end. When there is credit to be had, these are the people who get it. In between are the managers, who generally get the blame.

So if you’re a manager, the prevailing narrative goes, you probably weren’t quite good enough to make it as a leader or quite gritty enough to be happy with your lot on the front line. Managers are always fair game: when a football team wins on Saturday, it’s the goal scorers who get feted. When they lose it’s the manager’s fault. And woe betide any politician who dares to criticise the hardworking doctors and nurses of the NHS – far better to have a go at the managers, that won’t cost half as many votes. 

This essentially pejorative view of managers is reflected in the way we talk and think about what being a manager - or a leader - actually is, says Robert Newry, CEO and founder of behavioural assessment specialist Arctic Shores. "When you look at the way language is used, it is slightly bizarre. Leadership is all ambition, direction and strategy, whereas management is administration and compliance." 

Sounds like exactly the sort of low value role that is ripe to be subsumed by the tide of generative AI, doesn’t it? So hardly any wonder that leadership has become the ultimate goal for career-minded professionals, with management seen merely as a necessary but unappetising step on the journey. Rather like waiting for a flight to an exotic location, you know you are going to have to spend some time in the dismal no-man’s land of the departures lounge, but you make sure it isn’t too long.

Leaders stole managers' oxygen

How did management’s star fall so low? The focus on the value of leadership at the expense of managers may have been partly created by leaders themselves, as a convenient way of jacking up their prices. Is it really a coincidence that since leadership became so aspirational, board-level pay has skyrocketed?

According to the High Pay Centre the average UK CEO earned £3.8m in 2023, a whopping 118 times as much as the average worker. In the 1980s by contrast CEOs enjoyed a rather less extortionate premium, earning around 50 times as much as their typical employees.

Another factor is the so-called ‘war for talent’ in the increasingly open and international recruitment market that existed between the 90s and 2010s. When competition to fill jobs intensifies, high profile, inspiring and aspirational leaders make better figureheads for luring away your rivals’ brightest and best. "The overemphasis on leadership was partly created by companies trying to attract people from other firms to come and work for them," says Newry.

And finally it’s a reflection of decades of commercial pressure and the drive to cut costs by replacing people with technology. Many of those people are middle managers whose impact on the bottom line is less visible and less readily quantifiable than that of front line workers.

But all the ‘delayering’ of managers and ‘empowering’ of those at the sharp end has worked out much better for consultants and tech vendors than it has for many of their customers - UK productivity growth has been infamously pitiful and continues to lag well behind that of our major competitors.

Green shoots

But things could be swinging back in managers’ favour at last. Many employers, deprived by Brexit red tape of the ability to simply buy in employees with the skills they need, now have to hire for potential rather than experience and develop the people they can get.

Newry cites the example of an engineering firm, unable to fill a specialist project management role, opting instead for some lateral thinking and hiring a candidate from Aldi – someone with aptitude and a work ethic but no direct experience. It may sound like a bit of a counsel of despair, but with cohorts of similar eager but inexperienced people onboard, the role of the manager suddenly changes dramatically.

Employers have to become more clear-eyed about how they make the most of the people they have got rather than trying to chase unattainable ideals of hiring ‘perfect’ employees. 

"Companies have had to really rethink what they want from managers. The manager’s role is no longer compliance and control. It’s totally different – it’s about encouragement, skills transfer and helping to sort out the skills crisis by developing, mentoring and bringing people on."

The irony of course is that good managers have always been an asset, and never more so than they are now. So many of the challenges companies face today – hiring, retention, the issues raised by hybrid working, quiet quitting, isolation and lack of motivation, wellbeing and mental health – depend on the kind of relationships that only good managers can forge. Instead of looking to technology for ‘magic’ digital solutions, or reverting to authoritarian ‘Just do what you’re told’ diktats, firms might do better to think about taking their managers a bit more seriously again.

"Managers have been treated almost as a stereotype, there hasn’t been enough thought put into who managers are and how they are doing their jobs," says Celine Floyd, director of talent management at Cappfinity.

"But we are very social creatures and on all the key outcomes – performance, engagement, retention, absence, discretionary effort – the biggest predictor is the manager-employee relationship. It’s the thing that makes or breaks the workforce."

Conversely, bad managers remain a key reason why good people quit – an inconvenient truth widely ignored or brushed under the carpet by employers, despite being consistently demonstrated by research over many decades.

Thawing 'permafrost'

Fortunately, the bad old days when middle managers were routinely dismissed as the ‘permafrost’ by bosses are largely behind us, she adds, and more enlightened firms are now waking up to the fact that the answer to so many of the intractable problems they face is hiding in plain sight in the form of their line managers. "It’s definitely time for a management revival. I’m seeing a real surge in interest in line manager capability, it’s skyrocketed in the last six months or so."

And alongside that surge in interest goes a growing appreciation that good management is seriously worth cultivating. "Big organisations are really starting to look at how bonuses and reward should be linked to line management performance [not just to individual performance] and recognising that managers need time and resources to do a good job" says Floyd.

One final piece that is still missing, however, is the question of how to make being a manager aspirational again. "People go into management largely because they see it as a way up, because it’s what they have to do to progress," she says.

"I don’t think we do enough to position just how rewarding being a manager can be. I’ve sat with a lot of senior leaders doing career assessments, and their proudest moments are always about the impact they’ve had on other people’s lives. When they spotted someone with potential, or helped someone through a difficult time. Those are the experiences that stay with them, and they usually date from when they were in middle management."

Still, if we can convince ourselves that mullet hairstyles and leg warmers are cool again, doing the same thing for managers should be an absolute breeze.

Illustration created using pictures from Getty Images