Not everyone wants to be a manager

Only 9% of employees want to manage others, says BCG research. Have people's ambitions changed?

For years we’ve heard that the middle manager is being squeezed from business, to such an extent that the organisational pyramid increasingly looks like an inverted drawing pin (or thumbtack, for our American readers).

The cause is technological - the administrative work traditionally done by middle managers is vulnerable to automation, and in the face of such rapid change, bureaucracy of any form is widely scorned for its sluggishness. Fewer managers means fewer bureaucrats, the logic goes.

Now it seems management is being hit from another direction, that of aspiration. According to research from Boston Consulting Group (BCG), only 9% of employees actually want to be a manager.

Don’t assume this reflects a lack of ambition on behalf of the younger generation, many of whom profess a desire to start their own businesses at some point in their careers. 

Indeed, it should hardly be surprising that management roles don’t feature in their ambitions, given what we’ve already said about such positions being both squeezed out and associated with the 20th century corporate machines that are so visibly struggling. 

Don’t imagine either that it reflects the enlightened development of career ladders offering a route to seniority that doesn’t involve people management - a trap that has led many star individual contributors to fail in roles that are primarily about people skills - because that just sounds like wishful thinking.

The most likely explanation for the low level of interest is that employees are seeing first hand what management is like, and thinking twice.

In the BCG research, which surveyed 5,000 managers and employees across five countries, 80% of managers said their job had become harder in recent years, and nearly three-quarters of western managers said they wouldn’t have taken their current job had they known what they do now about it. It takes a determined - or oblivious - soul to covet a role that the incumbent hates.

Whatever the reasons - intensifying pressure, always-on cultures facilitated by smartphones, roles under threat of automation - this poses a serious problem. For a start, it’s all very well if the talent and ambition of a whole generation goes to start-ups and gig workers, but they will still need managing. And who will do the managing, but a set of people defined by their stomach for pain, rather than their head for the job?

Whether it’s fashionable or not, management actually matters. Anyone who’s ever suffered under a poor manager - or had their leadership vision clouded by a whole layer of them - will know precisely why.

For employers, this means more thought is required about job design and job experience at a managerial and indeed at a leadership level. Stress, disengagement and burnout aren’t only problems for entry-level staff, and nor are they an acceptable cost of seniority. The less they are allowed to intrude on career progression, the better.

This article was first published on Management Today.

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