Why being a manager can be really s—

It’s not often employees consider their managers as employees; individuals just as subordinate and answerable to a superior. But that’s precisely what they are. They, too, have managers to whom they report, only their situation is perhaps a little more challenging: they’re effectively, or ineffectively as the case may be, stuck in the middle dealing with, according to new research, a lot of “shit”.

Few employees consider that their managers are also employees of the company.
Few employees consider that their managers are also employees of the company. Credit:iStock

Managers are essentially sandwiched between two groups of stakeholders, trying to balance the conflict that arises when employees’ expectations are contradicted by senior leaders’ directives. As such, managers perform the role of umbrella carrier, shielding employees from the unreasonable demands of those located in the upper echelons of the hierarchy.

In small enterprises, it’s normally a compressed hierarchy. It simply comprises a set of employees, one line of management, and the owners at the top. The situation becomes more complex as the organisation grows, with added levels of management, dotted reporting lines and, heaven forbid, a matrix structure.

Whatever the structure, the imperative to meet the needs of two very different audiences makes them “vulnerable for attacks from both above and below”. And as can be seen in the research mentioned earlier, the results of which are due to be released next month, managers are transformed into two-faced operators mired in “insecurity, ambiguity and confusion”.


The scholarly team, which included Professor Mats Alvesson from the University of Queensland, conducted a series of interviews during which the “umbrella carrier” metaphor featured prominently, specifically the way these managers were expected to protect employees from the crap coming from above.

As one of the managers put it, he saw his role as being the one “to stop the shit from falling on everybody … to stop people being bombarded with excrement”.

Another manager put it this way: “Often the shittiness is systemic and so you can’t get rid of it … The [senior leader] dealt with it in a completely shitty way, just passed it on … and without any feeling for other people’s feelings”.

That profanity shouldn’t be seen simplistically as colourful language intended to make the interview more interesting. The researchers interpreted it instead as a genuine expression of frustration, as “the dramatisation of the work situation”.

An extreme example can be witnessed via the sentiments of this individual:

“A big part of the role is to offer protection, that is eat the shit, all this management shit. I mean you sit in meetings and eat all the shit that comes … All these pointless and unnecessary administrative processes, such as LEAN methodology, that you need to make sure doesn’t happen. And you have to listen to the complaining and moaning and make sure it isn’t passed on, since that will only lead to more shit from your colleagues that you’ll have to eat. Basically, you’re a shit eater.”

You have to listen to the complaining and moaning and make sure it isn’t passed on, since that will only lead to more shit.

In that scenario, the crap was coming both ways. In most scenarios, however, it’s unidirectional, as per this experience where a happy face was needed to be displayed for the benefit of those in the team: “As the shit’s falling on you, you have to smile. They don’t need to deal with the same crap as us. We need to stop the bigger pieces. The leader before me shared a lot more of this shit.”

The stuff from which their employees needed to be shielded consisted mostly of off-putting information, new rules, surveillance routines, financial issues, periodic crises and overwhelming performance measures.

And, before you judge the use of harsh language throughout this article, it’s worth bearing in mind this study was conducted by two of the world’s leading and most serious management scholars, and published in Human Relations, which is among the most esteemed academic journals.

These research professionals now understand and accept this is the language managers are compelled to adopt when they’re confronted by such “a horrible context full of irrationality” from the top.

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Source: Thanks smh.com