In praise of David Brent
Middle managers are not as useless as people think
IN “UNDERCOVER BOSS”, a British television programme, company chiefs disguise themselves and work on the shop floor of their own companies.
The climax comes when the boss reveals his true identity to his co-workers.
Much to his surprise, the shop-floor grunts often have no clue who he is.
The cult of the chief executive has reached absurd proportions.
Business magazines splash their smug faces on glossy covers, and give them all the credit for achievements to which thousands of others have contributed.
Yet a recent study by Antoinette Schoar, an economist at MIT, found that the person at the top accounted for just 5% of a Fortune 500 firm's performance.
Some bosses believe their own hype: a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company, found that many were convinced that their own words and actions were the key to motivating employees.
Yet when the same survey asked workers what they thought, more said that it was their relationship with their line manager that counted.
As Marcus Buckingham, a management writer, once quipped, “People join companies but leave managers.”
Yet middle managers could hardly be less fashionable.
Companies sack them by the truckload. Sitcoms such as “The Office” mock them.
The days of general managers who know “a little about lots” are completely over, claims Lynda Gratton of London Business School in “The Shift”, a new book.
Knowledge workers often receive feedback from peers working on the same project, she observes.
Technology helps them monitor each other's output, with little need for supervision by a middle manager.
Many firms have become nimbler by removing unnecessary bureaucracy.
Unilever, a consumer-goods firm, used to have as many as 36 tiers of management; now it has, by some counts, only six.
But cutting out too much of the middle can start to look like corporate hara-kiri.
Ethan Mollick, of Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, argues that firms should nurture managers with the initiative to balance the needs of day-to-day operations against the need to implement the board's strategy. Middle managers also act as a crucial filter.
A large firm may have tens of thousands of employees. The CEO cannot possibly listen to them all.
He turned up the volume on the television.
She could not disguise her amusement at his mistake.
Several withered trees on the sides of the road reveal the desolation here.
The inspector gave a grunt of approval.
He tickled gently at its glossy carapace, but the stubborn beetle would not budge.