On The Cult Of Managers


We live in a world in which corporate CEO’s and senior managers are feted as a class of Ubermensch to whom the rest of us mere mortals owe gratitude, allegiance and deference.

It is often claimed that the multi-national corporations rival nation-states in terms of global power and influence. The managers of these corporations earn staggering 6 and 7 figure salaries, eat in the finest restaurants, wear the smartest clothes, travel first class, if not by private jet and chauffer driven limousine, so that they can meet with and influence the worlds political leaders  – all at shareholders or tax payers expense.

And yet for the most part these corporate Ubermensch are not innovative, risk-taking, capitalist entrepreneurs. On the contrary for the most part they are time-serving corporate apparatchiks who have never risked anything in their lives and who are often handsomely rewarded – even when the organisations they manage spectacularly and publicly fail.

What on earth is going on?

Thatcher’s reactionary revolution in the Eighties not only undermined the Unions and the Left in general – which was of course it’s primary aim – but it also had the side-effect of empowering corporate managers.

Thatcher claimed she wanted to encourage risk-taking entrepreneurs who would dynamically revitalise the UK economy. What she actually did was open up a power vacuum that has been filled by corporate managers who generally speaking are bureaucratic, bourgeois, suburban and above all risk-averse; it’s just that today these are attributes that the corporate system values highly.

In the UK “class” division is still at the core of our society. Ideas of monarch versus subject, master versus servant, white collar versus blue collar, are all deep in the English psyche. But this is not only a psychological reality; a wealthy, privately educated elite do actually still govern us and most people’s perception of their own “class” is a significant part of how they define themselves. The public and managers themselves have confused being a manager with being superior in some nebulous class-related way.

Corporate managerialism has self-servingly conflated ideas of class, entrepreneurialism and big business and given rise to the ‘cult of the manager’. This is what enabled the offensively huge salaries to be paid to what are essentially timeserving company men.

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There is one overriding qualification for corporate management that trumps all others, and that is obedience – above all to be a successful corporate manager you must be able and willing to do what you are told – to take orders.

And yet the ability to take orders seems fundamentally at odds with the notions of creativity, autonomy and intellectual independence that even the management theorists themselves admit are necessary for organisations to succeed.

Despite this, obedient managers are rewarded as if they are contributing to the organisation in a uniquely crucial way. But to what extent is this true? Is the Head Of Resource Allocation of a Hospital really more important to the delivery of core services than the frontline doctors and nursing staff? Why does the Head Of Estates of a University deserve so much more remuneration than those who directly deliver education to students?

Even theoretically a school or university could not function without teachers, a hospital without doctors, a court without lawyers and judges, an army without soldiers. But both practically and theoretically such institutions could function without managers – because the teachers, doctors, lawyers and soldiers themselves could undertake the functions of managers. Indeed, historically this is often what happened with practitioners becoming managers.

But the rise of the MBA and the influence of the Harvard Business School theory that managing all organisations is basically the same, has had a terrible effect on the status of people actually doing the thing that the organisation is meant to be doing, and led to the development of a managerialist class who have been specifically trained to ‘manage’ as if this was a core activity in it’s own right.

The purpose of a hospital is to provide health care. The purpose of a school or university is to provide education. The purpose of a TV production company is to make TV programmes. Yet in this managerialist world, in order to gain status and maximum financial reward you have to be promoted away from those core activities.

From the perspective of the MBA manager “the core activity” has become irrelevant and the insistence by practitioners of “the core activity” that their particular core activity is different from other core activities and that it has to be managed appropriately is regarded by managers as Luddite and self-serving.

This has led to the significant diminution in status of all core activities and a corresponding increase in the status (and remuneration) of managers. In the health service, schools, universities, local authorities, the creative industries, retail, customer services……. anywhere you care to look in fact, it is managers who have power, status and money; the actual doctors, nurses, teachers, writers, designers, etc. have been reduced to cogs in a managerial machine.

Instead of management supporting and facilitating the core activity, the core activity now supports and facilitates the management.

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Managers tend to use three main justifications for their elevated status and enhanced remuneration:

  1. Hard-work
  2. Talent
  3. Responsibility

I’m not going to spend much time on the first of these as it is so clearly ludicrous.

For a manager to claim that they ‘’work harder’ than a miner or a Junior Doctor or an immigrant cleaner doing three full-time, minimum wage jobs to support her children, is frankly offensive. I’m sure any of these people would be happy to spend a day ‘going to meetings’, or ‘making difficult decisions’, rather than the unrewarding, low-paid, low-status, back-breaking work they actually have to do. Sure some managers work hard but then so do the vast majority of us.

I’m also not going to spend much time on the second of these defences. Talented managers are very, very rare. Most managers are not ‘talented’ in any meaningful sense of the word. There are definitely a set of skills common to managers the world over and most prominent amongst these are obedience and caution but are we seriously expected to regard an ability to do what you are told and a capacity to avoid taking any decisions as ‘talents’?

This is not to deny that good managers who are inspiring strategic thinkers, who can motivate staff and improve services don’t exist, or that they shouldn’t be valued. No, I simply saying that in the corporate world a manager’s remuneration actually has little or nothing to do with those leadership skills. Indeed, individuals do not get rewarded per se; on the contrary current managerial risk-management theory demands that organisations protect themselves from reliance on talented individuals. In reality it is the ‘role’ that carries the remuneration, the position in the hierarchy that reflects the level of reward, not the talent of the individual.

You could of course argue that the manager has been given the role because of their talent. But this just begs the question again of what these talents are and again raises the question of whether a capacity for adminstration an ability to do what you are told and a capacity to avoid taking any decisions can be described as ‘talents’?

For example on a more humorous note, there are several alternative descriptions of managers talents;  The Peter Principle states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”, and The Dilbert Principle states that companies tend to  promote their least-competent employees to management, in order to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing, “management is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow”.

But surely the third defence of managers, the issue of ‘responsibility’, is a legitimate one. Surely, it is fair that managers are remunerated for taking on decision-making responsibility, if the ‘buck stops here’, then surely that justifies higher pay. (And I promise to stop calling you Shirley).

Perhaps, it does, but it also begs the question of why coordinating the core activity of an organisation is regarded as more worthy of financial reward than undertaking the actual core activity itself?

In Higher Education for example Subject or Programme Leaders get paid more than lecturers and get a ‘remission’ from teaching in order to fulfil their managerial duties. (20-30% less teaching). As you rise through the management hierarchy your pay rises and remission from teaching increases until at the highest paid levels of management you are doing no teaching at all.

This system literally values teaching at the bottom of the skills hierarchy and values certain types of administrative and coordinating skills at the top? Why? What if people started in HE as administrators and got promoted into teaching posts with increasing remission from administrative duties until at the peak of their career and their earnings, they were teaching 100% of the time? Wouldn’t this be a more appropriate relative valuation of teaching skills? We’re talking about organisations dedicated to education after all?

The responsibility argument also raises the question of just how ‘responsible’ managers actually are? How much risk are they actually taking? From the bottom of the hierarchy looking up it certainly appears to most of us that the further up the greasy pole you go the more pay you get and the more inured you are from the consequences of risk.

Senior Managers in both the public and private sectors have been allowed to negotiate severance packages whereby if they fail in their duties and are sacked or resign they become cash millionaires with pensions beyond most people’s imagining.

Senior managers fail and they become members of the idle rich; if the rest of us fail and we become unemployed.

If, as I argue, obedience and caution are two of the most valued characteristics of a corporate manager, most corporate managers will simply do what they are told by their managers. My own experience is that most managers seem to go to great efforts to avoid having to make a personal judgement. Indeed, this is often the stated aim of bureaucratic risk-management processes – to take personal judgement out of the decision making process.

This is even acknowledged by management theorists themselves. Peter F. Drucker, American management guru, famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” And for most highly paid managers ‘doing things right’, i.e. obeying the rules and filling out the forms correctly, is as close as they get to ‘taking responsibility’ for anything.

One could also argue that the ‘extra-responsibility’ argument is a direct result of the top-down command structure so ubiquitous in global management practice. If organisations adopted a more democratic and inclusive decision making process that formally included staff and service users, then managers would not have to ‘make difficult decisions’, on the contrary they would be articulating collective decisions for which they were not personally responsible.

I am not arguing here that managerial skills are trivial or unimportant, merely that they are simply a particular kind of skill, on a par with many others, and that they do not warrant the mega-salaries and privileges that are currently awarded to even the most undistinguished, timeserving, middle-manager.

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Certainly since 1979 there has been an assumption in UK corporate management that managers must have ‘the right to manage’ and that it is the job (nee duty) of managers to command the staff of the organisation they manage.

There is a macho culture of managers aggressively asserting themselves over staff and external communities while they ‘take tough decisions’ to maximise shareholder profit or make public services ‘more efficient’.

Indeed, management theorists have often self-consciously adopted the attitudes of tyrants and warmongers. Managers read Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War and The Prince by Machiavelli. They fantasise about “taking out” opponents and “wupping arses”. This macho posturing is not worthy of the playground let alone the adult workplace and is, in any event, entirely delusional; managers are not warriors they are corporate bureaucrats who do what they are told and spend their lives working for a regular salary and a handsome pension. It is hard to think of an occupation further from that of a warrior!

The development of managerialism since 1979 followed a period after WWII in which there was a broad consensus amongst voters, managers, politicians and workers that when taking decisions management could and indeed should take into account the opinions and interests of staff and the wider community as well as customers and service users.

Thus during the post-war consensus the idea developed that management should fulfil an administrative coordinating function rather than a top-down command function and that decision making in the workplace could and should be democratised and that workers and/or their representatives should have a role in determining an organisations strategy and policy.

Indeed, in the most successful and dominant European economy, Germany, these ideas are still common currency.

As the ConDems continue to try to dismantle the vestiges of the post-war welfare state, it is clear that trade unions will seek to fight job losses and the expected diminution of terms & conditions and pensions. If this happens it is inevitable that we will again here the cry that “managers must have the right to manage”. But this raises a number of questions about what it is to manage, what it means to be a manager and in whose interest managers are managing. In fact, when you think about it, what can it possibly mean to have the “right” to manage?

Managers fulfil functions within organisations just like everyone else. Individual managers are assigned specific tasks that the organisation needs completing in order for it to function effectively. In this sense a manager is no different from an unskilled labourer; if either of them fail to carry out their duties the effective running of the organisation will be undermined.

In my personal experience management has almost always been a problem to be overcome, rather than a body that enables and supports the core activity of an organisation.

I would argue that no special deference is due to managers just because they fulfil this particular type of function within the organisation. And despite the T.I.N.A rhetoric of the ConDems, there are alternatives to this hierarchical way of organising joint human activities and we need to challenge and eventually extinguish the cult of the manager and fight for a more democratic way of managing our businesses, services and organisations.

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8 responses to “On The Cult Of Managers

  1. Allow me to throw out a very simple theory to summarize:
    In the private sector where salaries are paid from the pockets of owners the manager gets paid what he’s worth and if he’s not worthwhile he or she gets the Big Heaveho. In the government sector where salaries are paid from a big common “hog trough” or public “cookie jar” and the money belongs to no one in particular, there’s no concern over whether the manager earns his salary or is “worth the money” because nobody suffers a personal financial loss if the government manager goofs-off.

    • OK. That might apply in a small family business but in the corporate sector the owners are entirely divorced from the business. The ‘owners’ are shareholders who are buying and selling shares for short term gain, they have no long-term interest in the business. This means that the accountability of corporate managers is largely a myth and only in cases of catastrophic mismanagement do managers actually get the big heavho. Even then they often become millionaires in the process. If you and I get the big heavho we are plunged into poverty and unemployment. If a corporate senior exec gets sacked they become members of the idle rich. When I talk about ‘capitalism’ this is what I am talking – about a system that has separated ownership from management, whereby rich people get richer with no regard for the long-term interests of the business.

      Conversely public employees can be and continually are held to account democratically by elected representatives and regulatory regimes. This democratic link between public servants and citizens is just as strong and legitimate as the ‘market mechanisms’ that the freemarketeers claim legitimise trade as the ‘only’ tool for organising society.

  2. Your explanation sounds pretty good to me. I’ll buy it.

  3. You have composed a very good explanation in both the body of the article and in your reply, but may I point out that I stated that my post was intended to be a simple theory summarized. Now if I had wanted to, I’ll bet I could have said it goodern you did.

  4. Well, howdy y’all! Tennessee’s got better BBQ than Taxas.

  5. I could stay and chat but right now my Mom and I are listening to Rush Limbaugh. Mega Dittos you’all!

  6. Although I presently live south of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee, please tell your Texas guests that I have also lived in Houston – the biggest concrete spaghetti tangle in the Universe – as well as Austin – home of the largest urban bat colony in the Universe. Also may I suggest that you encourage them to post comments on your IANAN blog.

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