Big Picture

The Manager's Job Revisited

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I’ve written many, many times how understanding that the manager’s job is to ‘increase the output of the team’ has fundamentally informed the way I view all of management. I’ve even argued that using the manager’s job as your north star is an effective method for self-directed improvement, especially if you find yourself in a situation with no good mentors.

Today, I want to revisit the idea that the manager’s job is only to increase the output of the team. A friend who returned to Singapore recently pointed out that this definition of the ‘manager’s job’ is incomplete, because it encourages managers to pursue output at the expense of everything else. My friend then argued that an obsession for output alone encouraged the ‘work above all’ culture that is so pervasive in Silicon Valley.

I was indignant, of course. Who would be so positively stupid to think that they should prize output at the expense of retention, or work-life balance? Wasn’t it immediately obvious that focusing on output above all else would result in short term benefits, but long term costs? You can’t have high output over many years, after all, if everyone eventually burns out.

But I was surprised to learn that management as a discipline has had a long history of pitting work against welfare, and that my friend’s admonishment drew from this long history.

The narrative goes like this: once upon a time, people started working in factories thanks to the economic changes brought by the industrial revolution. One man, a consultant named Frederick Taylor, invented the concept of ‘scientific management’ in the 1880s — even though the principles of his new domain were neither scientific nor well-managed. Taylor sold his services to industrialists, charging them hefty fees to come in and find ever more productive ways to increase output on the factory floor.

We take worker's rights for granted today, but they weren't always guaranteed.

Fast forward a couple of years. Factory workers were sick of working long hours in horrible working conditions, thanks in part to Taylor’s obsession of chasing ever higher output. The workers organised and formed unions, garnering public sympathy and triggering eventual legislative reform. These worker unions pushed back against the industrialists, demanding better pay and better rights. The clashes were often bloody, and the strikes were terrible for everyone involved.

Today, the practice of management carries with it the lessons from the early decades of the industrial revolution. Most countries today have laws to prevent worker exploitation. And while good managers should rightly be obsessed with increasing the output of the team, modern management techniques acknowledge the importance of keeping employee retention high. We’ve developed names for concepts that didn’t exist during Taylors’s time: we discuss ‘work-life balance’ and the importance of preserving ‘organisational know-how’ through employee retention. We know, too, that knowledge-workers perform best when they work in an environment that encourages competence, autonomy, and relatedness (see: self-determination theory).

On reflection, I suppose I’ve never considered following the manager’s job in such a naive manner. I have always assumed that ‘increasing the output of the team’ should be interpreted with long-term goals in mind; I didn’t think that increasing the output in an unsustainable way was ever tenable option.

With that said, my friend has made a pretty compelling argument. There is historical precedent for interpreting this principle naively; which means that the manager’s job, as originally stated, isn’t a complete one. I’d like to think that it should be interpreted with the long-term in mind, and that this interpretation should be obvious, but … apparently not. So let’s try again:

The manager’s job is to increase the output of the team, while keeping retention high in the process of doing so.

And there you have it. This new sentence isn’t that catchy. But I think it reflects the truth.

Listen to the related podcast here, or check out my upcoming book on retention titled Keep Your People. Thanks for reading!