Forget Middle Managers. Here’s Why.

January 4, 2017 Sarah Payne

Middle Managers

Have you ever seen the movie Office Space? Do you remember the scene where Peter Gibbons tells the consultants (the “Bobs”) that he has eight different bosses at Initech? It’s a great scene because it touches on the complete waste of time and resources caused by bureaucracy.

In the first part of our Q&A with Dr. Gary Hamel, we discussed the limitations of bureaucratic organizations like Initech – how they fail to inspire employees and fall victim to more agile startups.

In part two, Dr. Hamel says we need to cut bureaucracy in half. He argues that redefining what it means to be a leader in the new world of work will require radical transparency, contrary thinking, and a heavy dose of empathy.

Read the rest below.


You’ve said we we need flatter organizations. Why do you say that?

In most organizations, there are still six or seven levels of hierarchy. Historically, hierarchy was an information processing tool. It goes back to the pharaohs and Roman generals, and is an artifact of an age in which information was hard to acquire and expensive to move.

So you had 10 people who would report to one person who would consolidate the data and push it up the chain of command. In that environment, it was literally true that the people at the top knew more, and only the CEO had the full picture.

Now information is cheap to acquire and to share. No longer do we need layers of managers to aggregate information. Leaders no longer should have an information advantage.

One of the things I truly believe in is open book management, where every employee has access to deep financial information about their unit and their team.

Sadly, our organizational structures have not caught up with this new reality. Most organizations could do with half the number of organizational levels they currently have.

When you look at the post-bureaucratic vanguard companies like Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor, or Haier, the world’s largest maker of domestic appliances, you find organizations that have no more than three organizational levels, and sometimes less. Multi-layered hierarchies are an artifact of the pre-Internet age. Many of those layers are now redundant.

Having said that, the goal is not to throw half the managers in the world under the bus. Those individuals are, on average, super smart. They’re very committed. They have a lot of technical knowledge. But the goal is to help them either develop their capacity to be natural leaders who can mobilize others without the aid of positional power, or to move back into specialist roles where their technical skills will be more valuable. This is not about cutting headcount, but about redeploying individuals into value-creating roles.


What about coaching? Do more managers need to be better coaches?

I think it’s part of it. Knowing that hierarchies are collapsing, you have to ask, “How do I add value as a human being?” Or maybe slightly differently, “How do I make an outsized impact in my organization? How do I punch more than my weight?

And when I look at people who’ve done that, there are a few simple lessons that emerge. Becky Kanis was in the U.S. Armed Forces and started the 100,000 homes project. She and her army of actvists found homes for 100,000 people who were living on the street. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment – and Becky didn’t need to be an EVP to get it done.

When I look at people like Becky, I see a set of personal qualities that make them natural leaders. First, these individuals are personally courageous. They’re willing to work on problems way above their pay grade – problems that others are too timid to take on. If you want to have impact, you have to have that courage to aim high.

Second, natural leaders are contrarian thinkers. They say to themselves, “there’s a reason this problem persists, and that’s because everybody’s been looking at it in one way. So let me try to come at this from another angle.” They challenge the assumptions everybody else takes for granted. So we need to teach people to be contrarian thinkers.

Third, all of these people have huge hearts. They are compassionate. People follow them because they can see these individuals are not motivated by greed or personal success. When you are truly empathetic, people will give you permission to take risks, and won’t bail on you when you stumble or fall.

And finally, they’re really good at building coalitions. They’re good at getting people together and aggregating the influence of a group of peers. They are team builders, and coaches, and mentors.

So what does that mean for today’s leaders? It means you have to be gutsy. You have to bring new points of view to every problem. You have to be selfless and think about how you help others to succeed. You have to get really good at bringing people together and connecting them and serving them.

Leadership has never been more important. Given all the challenges we face in our world, we need a lot more leaders. But what it means to be a leader, is going to change dramatically.


If you could pick one characteristic that exemplifies a more human workplace, what would it be?

This may be simple thing to say, but a truly human workplace would be one where everyone knows my story and I know their story. I know where they came from; I know the hurdles they faced in their life; I know the successes they’ve had; I know the failures they’ve had; I know their family situation, their dreams. It’s where every individual has taken that time to connect, and make truly human connections.

More than everything else – more than our creativity, more than our intellect – what makes us human is our capacity for empathy. And it’s hard to empathize with people if you don’t know what they’ve been through, where they’ve come from, what they’ve overcome and where they want to go. A more human workplace is one with more deeper connections.

Forget Middle Managers. Here’s Why. @profhamel #workhuman
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