It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everyone hates managers. Managers are the people destroying your soul with pointless meetings, overly complex procedures for claiming expenses, and stupid team-building awaydays.If you’re a teacher, doctor or police officer, managers are why you’re always bogged down in paperwork, rather than doing what you’re best at. Most of us, write Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan in their new book The Org: The Underlying Logic Of The Office, “imagine a world without managers as a kind of paradise where workers are unshackled by pointless bureaucracy… a place where stuff actually gets done”. Strangely, managers tend to agree. The goal of every lumbering conglomerate is to “become more like a startup” – which usually means buying some vivid furniture, and maybe a ping-pong table, provided Jim in Purchasing can get the expenditure authorised sometime in the next five years.
It’s brave of Fisman and Sullivan, then, to have written a (charming) defence of the frustrations of organisation life. Their stated aim is modest: that once you understand why those frustrations arise, you’ll benefit from “better-informed cynicism”. But for anyone made miserable by bureaucracy, their argument may be more profound.
It begins – steel yourself – with a quick lesson from the economist Ronald Coase. In a free-marketeer’s perfect world, Coase said, companies would not exist: we’d all be free agents, joining up and splitting apart on a daily basis, as each new task required. But it’s hard to build (say) cars that way. Searching for the best-priced parts and qualified workers every day costs money and takes time. Companies bring it in house. This has its own inefficiencies: firms won’t always get the best prices, they’ll inevitably end up with some slackers – and, above all, they’ll need to hire managers to co-ordinate their activities, via meetings, paperwork and the rest. But to the owner, that trade-off’s worth it, because the alternative’s worse. What employees see as “pointless bureaucracy” is a company acting rationally to survive. There are bad managers, of course – but at least some of the bureaucratic crap, from this perspective, is intrinsic. Remove it and the organisation collapses.
Seeing things this way also helps explain why so many firms claim they want to innovate, yet never do: innovation saps co-ordination. McDonald’s succeeded by crushing innovation among its franchisees – one of whom, early on, started serving hand-carved roast beef – not by encouraging it. That wasn’t a lack of vision; it’s an expression of why McDonald’s exists, instead of being a bunch of independent burger joints.
You could see this as depressing – an argument for buckling down and resigning yourself to management’s horrors – but I think it’s subversive. Too many of us spend our working lives with a sense that fulfillment’s just out of reach: that if only we could find a less annoying boss, or a more enlightened firm, we’d be OK. Get real, Fisman and Sullivan say: much of what we object to is just what happens when groups work together. If you really can’t stand bureaucracy, there’s self-employment, which brings different hassles, or working only for small organisations. But don’t hanker for organizational life without management nonsense. That can’t exist – and surely it’s better to make career decisions on the basis of that reality. Disagree? Feel free to leave a note in the suggestions box.
Follow Oliver Burkeman on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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