We Place Far Too Much Importance on Management

Pete Ross

Do they really deserve more than outstanding individual contributors?

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A colleague of mine recently lamented on LinkedIn the fact that brilliant individual contributors felt that they needed to manage people. He couldn’t understand why this was the case, wishing that they would see non-managerial careers as good and successful as well. Like many of you, my hackles were raised immediately upon seeing this, as to me it’s similar to a billionaire telling everyone else that they should be happy without money.

Here’s the problem: society reveres managers, and it doesn’t take a degree in sociology or psychology to work out why. They sit higher in the hierarchy than an individual contributor, and if there’s one thing we can’t get away from as humans, it’s a hierarchy. All the individual contributors sit at the bottom of that corporate hierarchy except in rare cases where that individual has been at a company for a long time and is highly specialised. Even then, there will be several layers of management above them. And that’s where the big raises and prestige lies. The further up the management chain you go, the less expendable you’re considered, the more the company will invest in keeping you happy.

If you’re an individual contributor and you aren’t in sales, welcome to an early career ceiling and the fact that you’re almost always expendable and replaceable. That’s unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, software engineer – basically a top tier, exclusive profession where you can charge higher for expertise and people will pay it without question. Let’s face it, you can be the best supply chain manager in your country, you could be the top warehousing person in your industry, but you won’t be earning anywhere near an adequate salesperson or the manager above you. In fact, complain about your compensation and you’ll likely elicit shrugs from those higher up, because why do they care that you’re really good at your job? You don’t manage anyone, you don’t make money for the business, so you’re a cost centre and you’ll get paid whatever they deem you worthy of, and not a penny more.

It’s not just about the pay though. Companies are always on the lookout for talented people so they can put them in management. They’re not looking to pay the best minds big money for an individual contributor role. Management is always the ideal, and those that get recognised and moved up to that level are sent on development courses, assigned mentors and given stretch projects that will help them develop their skills and gain them more visibility.

Let’s not even get into pay. Actually no, let’s get into it. Except in rare circumstances, the best individual contributor is always going to be paid well below the most mediocre middle manager. Unless you’re Jony Ive at Apple, individuals are always set below the manager, because we see management as this incredibly difficult endeavour that somehow contributes far more to a company’s output than the people who are actually on the front lines doing the work.

This is where idealism ends and reality kicks in. No matter how high your level of expertise, no matter how much you save or benefit the company, you will always be paid less than your manager, regardless of how effective they are. The simple fact that they sit above you in the hierarchy means they get paid more, no matter how nonsensical it might be.

I’ve known people who were seen as great managers because their team ran so smoothly; everyone marvelled at their culture and team spirit. The funny thing is that they weren’t any better than other managers — what they got credit for was actually already there: a great team that didn’t need their help. To give them some credit, they knew enough to just leave the team alone and let them do what they did best, but that being the case, their contribution to the business as a whole must then be questioned. If all you’re doing is sitting at the helm of a ship that is running and steering itself, why do you deserve significantly more pay, attention and credit than the people actually doing the work? Why are you some kind of high potential leader when the team doesn’t even need your leadership?

And that there is why people don’t see a career as an individual contributor as something worthy of being called successful. All the credit, opportunity, advancement and rewards go to people in management. What does an individual contributor get out of being an expert in their field or the best at their job? They get put in a pay band with all the other individual contributors because no one would bother to run any kind of analysis that determines how much better off they make the company.

Finally, being in management means your opinion counts far more. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have Dilbert cartoons. Just scroll LinkedIn on any given day and look at the comments on a Simon Sinek article.You’ll find hundreds of people lamenting that their boss knows nothing on a technical level of what they do but makes decisions without taking their advice on board. If individual expertise were truly valued, the individual contributor would be asked directly for their thoughts on an issue. The reality for most of us is that the question will generally come from our manager, who then adds their own take on it to their manager.

I think there are a lot of people out there who would love to spend their whole career as an individual contributor because let’s face it, not everyone wants to lead or manage other people. The problem for them is, they give up significant pay and benefits for that preference. It’s not something that’s going to change any time soon even though most people would concede that it’s not a fair way of doing things. That being the case, it’s time we looked for ways to elevate outstanding individual contributors in a way that they deserve, rather than defaulting to the regular position of them being below even the most inept manager.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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