A People Person #18 - Is our obsession with managers right?
In this article
Tone from the top - the importance of managers in today's workplaces
"Manager" is one of those words no one wants on their tombstone. “She managed effectively and now, here she lies,” is not inspiring. It evokes Severance-like corporate sterility.
Yet also, the working world is obsessed with managers. They’re key to everything from culture to performance management. We assume most people aspire to be managers. To climb the org chart is mostly to increase your managerial span.
I’ve been thinking about whether this focus on managers makes sense mainly because someone asked me about it, and I didn’t have a great answer. I did an AMA for Elpha where I talked about how managers get different training for topics like harassment prevention. I also shared that Ethena will release complimentary (as in, for free) manager training on 2/22.
Someone asked why there is so much focus on managers even though individual contributors can also have a huge impact on culture. I think that’s an incredibly fair point, but after noodling on it some more, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, focusing on managers does make sense. And here's why:
TONE AT THE TOP
Pentagon vs. parking lot
When I co-founded Ethena, I came across a study that validated my experience as an Army officer. In 2020, Gretchen Carlson and I cowrote a Fortune article. In that article, we reference a study on organizational strategy in the military which found that the factor that had the most impact on how frequently a military unit experienced harassment within a one-year period was whether that unit’s leader was perceived by the members of the unit to care. It was all about the local leader.
This tracked with my experience. The Army is interesting because units typically outlast their leaders – a new officer will rotate into command every year or so, whereas many of the soldiers will stay.
I vividly remember watching one such change of command. The outgoing officer in charge of my unit had what I’ll call “boy scout” vibes – loved his wife, read books, was professional, definitely didn’t ride a motorcycle.
The officer who replaced him had what I’ll call “bad boy” vibes – smoked, was a big fan of drinking, a self-described jock, you get the picture. His language was salty at best, offensive at worst.
When boy scout switched with bad boy, I noticed that the same soldiers who were relatively buttoned up the day prior suddenly became mini-bad boys. It was as if the substitute teacher walked in, turned on the tv, and all the students took out their paper airplanes and started stealing lunch money.
This sounds funny, but also, it had a big (negative) impact on inclusivity and ethics. Suddenly, it was cool to refer to women using terms I won’t type. Racial jokes were okay. And soldiers were comfortable playing fast and loose with policies.
Even if we want to believe that we have our own internal compass, we’re heavily influenced by the tone set from the top. Managers matter because they set the course and point us in the right direction.
I recently chatted with the CEO of Ethisphere, Erica Salmon Byrne, who shared a recent study that also had a mind-blowing stat. In the U.S., employees are six times more likely to bring a report to their manager than some sort of hotline; in Europe, they are 22 times more likely!
Now again, this completely tracks with my experience. I would never have called a hotline, but I did share an experience I had with “smile more” feedback with my manager.
The fact that employees feel much more comfortable reporting an issue to their manager than anyone else is important for a bunch of reasons. First, it means if a manager is the problem, this is a HUGE issue because the employee probably feels isolated and without options. This is actually a big reason why hierarchical relationships at work, like dating the CEO, can be so dangerous.
Second, it means that managers need to know what to do when a report shares an issue – because they’re likely to be the only place where that concern is shared.
A lot to manage
While managers alone can’t create a healthy culture, I take all this to mean that it’s pretty darn impossible to create a healthy culture without good managers. In fact, a fascinating recent case from a Delaware court allowed a shareholder lawsuit to go forward against McDonald’s former Chief Human Resources Officer. This is raising eyebrows precisely because it’s saying (in my non-legal terms) that senior leaders have such an impact on company culture that they can be personally held responsible when they don’t do the right thing.
What I'm reading
This New Yorker article about a constant companion of mine, imposter syndrome, where the term comes from, and if it’s even the right concept to define what is such a universal feeling.
What I'm doing
Friday, March 3rd, I'll be hosting an interactive webinar with Ethena VP of People, Melanie Naranjo, and Baker McKenzie Attorney and Partner, William Dugan, to discuss the McDonald's Delaware court ruling and what it could potentially mean for the workplace landscape and leadership liability in the future. We hope you join us – and come with questions! You can register here for the webinar.
Until next time,
CEO & Co-founder, Ethena