In the last 100 years, we’ve become accustomed to the idea of the manager as “boss.” The popular notion is that the manager — or, worse, the leader of the organization — is the one who “knows best,” and that it is his role to make sure everybody carries out his wishes. People can have some freedom, but really the manager is the “expert,” and the role of employees is not to think for themselves, take initiative, and direct themselves, but rather to take a “wait until told” approach to their work.
I shouldn’t say this is necessarily the popular view. It’s certainly not popular in the sense of “well-liked”! And lots of people and organizations think differently and more accurately. But it is a common view, and it’s one of the reasons — whether they know it or not — that many people don’t like their jobs.
Now, managers and overall leaders in an organization ought to set direction — they ought to know where they are going, and inspire people to go there. But the popular notion has gone beyond that, seeing the manager as the primary source of ideas and as someone who carefully monitors people to carry out his or her will in detail.
This view stems primarily (but not exclusively) from two false assumptions. First, it stems from the assumption that work by definition is drudgery and not enjoyable. As Dan Pink puts it in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “because work is supposed to be dreary, Motivation 2.0 [the outdated view of management and motivation I’ve referred to above] holds that people need to be carefully monitored so they don’t shirk.”
Second, it stems from a false assumption about human beings. It assumes that people are generally inert, not very competent, and wanting to avoid responsibility as much as they can. Hence, the only way to get performance out of people is to closely monitor them and exercise detailed control over them. (And in a very strange twist, the “manager” often, ironically, sees himself as an exception to this view of people. Somehow, “most” people are generally incapable of self direction, but he isn’t. That’s ultimately elitist, in my view — and not to mention wrong. In fact, and I hope this isn’t too blunt, in my observation, many of the managers that think they know best really don’t know what they are doing at all!)
Both of these assumptions are false. Sure, some work is dreary. But that doesn’t mean that most work is, or that somehow it ought to be — that you don’t have a “real job” unless it is largely unpleasant. And sure, some people do avoid responsibility. But most don’t. Most people are highly talented and creative and capable, and will far surpass your expectations if you give them high expectations and trust them. This is not only true to observation, but has actually been shown again and again through actual studies and research, such as that of Douglas McGregor (who wrote The Human Side of Enterprise way back in the 50s).
There is sometimes a place for detailed direction and a reliance on extrinsic motivation — namely, when you are dealing with rote, repeatable, non-creative tasks (and even there, the “manager knows best” paradigm is ultimately off in many ways). But most work these days is not like that. We are in the knowledge economy, and most of us are doing knowledge work. This requires a fundamentally different approach to managing people than society became accustomed to during the industrial revolution (and which continues to hold sway in many organizations to this day).
So don’t manage your people like a white collar factory. It’s not your role to “motivate” and closely supervise people, but to hire people who are self motivated, make sure they know the purpose of their role, make sure they have the knowledge they need, and make sure there are some helpful (but not overbearing) structures and systems that provide a context for the work. And then let them direct themselves.
Dan Pink summarizes this all very well in Drive:
As organizations flatten, companies need people who are self-motivated. That forces many organizations to become more like, er Wikipedia. Nobody “manages” the Wikipedians. Nobody sits around trying to figure out how to “motivate” them. That’s why Wikipedia works.
Routine, not-so-interesting jobs require direction; non-routine, more interesting work depends on self-direction.
One business leader, who didn’t want to be identified, said it plainly. When he conducts job interviews, he tells prospective employees: “If you need me to motivate you, I probably don’t want to hire you.”