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Why the role of “manager” needs an update

Posted by Kanika Sinha

April 28, 2022    |     5-minute read (914 words)

The amount of change in the workplace that has taken place in the past few years is overwhelming. While many of the changes were liberating, they went on to place even more of a burden on managers. Increasingly, managers are expected to simultaneously fulfill traditional responsibilities while also coaching performance, cultivating empathetic relationships, boosting engagement and improving retention.

For roughly a century, the approach to management has been conventionally hierarchical. By default, the role’s dimensions comprised planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. That made sense, because work was organized sequentially in a stable landscape and within silos, jobs were fixed, workspaces were physical and information flowed downward. But that’s no longer the case. In today’s world of work, prioritizing agility, innovation, responsiveness and human connection is required.

These new demands make it vital that organizations take deliberate steps to shift managers’ mindsets and focus so that their role and purpose keep pace with the demands of the needs of the world of work as it looks today.

It’s time for a change

With managers still essential but the role’s traditional responsibilities increasingly obsolete in the fluid and flatter world, it’s time for an update. Here’s a more comprehensive look at why:

Managers are the lifeblood of organizations. The consulting firm O.C. Tanner found that weekly one-on-ones with managers during uncertain times led to a 54% uptick in engagement, a 31% jump in productivity, a 15% dip in burnout, and a 16% decline in rates of depression among employees. 

Meanwhile, a McKinsey survey suggests that having good relationships with managers is the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction. Conversely, bad managers can significantly hurt employee retention and engagement. In fact, the immediate boss was reported as the most stressful aspect of their jobs by 75% of the participants in the McKinsey survey.

The traditional role of manager is beginning to look archaic. In recent decades, sweeping reengineering, digitization and agility initiatives have transformed the role of the manager. But it was the fourth wave, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, that represented the true watershed moment for managers. 

The pandemic dramatically altered how and where work was done, forcing companies as well as employees to embrace the possibilities of flexible work. Many employees are no longer tied to a physical workplace, causing managers to lose the close control that they used to have over employees’ performance and behavior. To perform well in the new fluid, flatter work landscape, managers therefore need to move away from the role as it was traditionally defined. 

Research shows that most managers are struggling to keep up. 2021 research by Harvard Business Review, which probed executives from 60 companies around the world about how their managers were doing, reveals unanimous reports of frustration and exhaustion. Similarly, research firm Gartner which surveyed 75 HR leaders from companies worldwide on how their managers were faring reported 68% of respondents indicated that they felt overwhelmed. However, only 14% of those companies had taken measures to help alleviate their managers’ burdens, according to Gartner. 

Decoding the “change” in managers’ role

Changes to the role of manager fall on three dimensions: power, skills and structure. 

Power shift: The role of managers today requires a shift from the traditional “me” to “we.” Now, managers must think about making teams successful rather than waiting to be served by employees. 

Skills shift: The new role of managers necessitates a shift in skills from that of the traditional overseer to that of a performance coach.

Structural shift: Managers today must shift from leading in a traditional static, physical setup to leading in a more fluid, dynamic and digital environment.

While these shifts have empowered employees, which is a good thing, they have also piled more responsibilities onto managers and required them to demonstrate new capabilities. The onus for these transformative shifts lies with the organizations that employ them, and those organizations that help managers prepare to meet these new priorities will thrive.

How some organizations are reimagining the role of the manager

Here are three organizations that have helped managers gear up to meet the new challenges of the era.

IBM: The American IT giant rewired systems and processes to support the massive transformation of the modern workplace. IBM worked toward building a culture optimized for innovation and speed — and required its managers to lead retraining efforts, to adapt their management styles to agile work methods and to engage all employees in the journey. Additionally, the company deployed AI to better support managers' work in terms of eliminating administrative work, helping them make better decisions and spotting issues like attrition risk.

Standard Chartered: The British multinational banking and financial services company radically redefined managerial responsibilities and built new skills at scale to cope with the needs of the modern workplace. The process entailed changing the role’s title and official duties, creating an accreditation process and strengthening the sense of managerial community.

Telstra: The Australian telecommunications firm split the role of the manager into two separate roles to address the challenges of the new world of work. One role became leader of people, wherein managers are devoted to people and ensure that the employees in their purview have the skills and capabilities to meet the current and future needs of the business. The other role became leader of work, in which managers create and execute plans while focusing on the flow of work and the firm’s commercial imperatives.

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