Here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about management. An elder in Renaissance Italy comes up to Michelangelo one day and says, “Congratulations! You’re such a great artist, we’re promoting you! Forget about painting, you’re now in charge of procuring canvases and supervising the other artists.”
It’s absurd, laughable, but for some of us it hits uncomfortably close to home. I’ve been thinking recently about one of the questions it raises: motivating managers.
People who do actual work, whether they build houses or trade stocks or play music or teach, all have something in common. They see the results of their work. The end product may take months or years, but they see some concrete progress every day, and that feedback is powerfully motivating.
Managers don’t have that luxury. As a manager, your job is to enable other people. You don’t do much real work yourself, so you don’t get the same positive feedback. You can’t touch a cabinet you built, or play back a killer performance you caught on tape, or see your student’s eyes light up when they finally get it. Your employees get those morale-boosting endorphins, not you.
This is especially true for middle managers. Execs spend their time making decisions, fighting fires, and hopefully shaping strategy. Middle managers, on the other hand, spend most of their time on project and people management. It’s a common joke that middle managers have all of the accountability but none of the power. The kicker is, they also miss the concrete feedback that gets other people out of bed in the morning and working through crunch time.
So, what can we do about this? Is there some visible result, some Kafkaesque spark for managers comparable to a carpenter’s finished cabinet or a teacher’s straight A student?
Maybe that spark is their team, and the work they do. Probably not though. It’s easy to see a day’s work on a cabinet, or teaching a pupil, but a day’s effort managing a team is pretty much invisible. It takes months or years to see measurable changes, which isn’t nearly enough to get you out of bed every morning.
Some people say you shouldn’t be a full time manager in the first place. They advocate that managers also do normal work alongside their employees, on top of their management duties. That can definitely keep the positive feedback flowing, but critics claim that “working managers” often feel pressured to keep up with their employees and fall behind on their management tasks, or worse, overwork and burn out.
Maybe the problem isn’t the job but the people doing it. This was the first moral I got from the Michelangelo story: management is a different thing entirely, and should be treated as such. What if we judged construction foremen on team building and Gantt charts instead of traditional building and engineering skills? What if we recruited detail oriented extroverts to be managers, instead of the employees on their teams?
Unfortunately, managers usually need a solid background in their field. There’s no real shortcut for that; you have to earn it the hard way, by working in the field for years on end.
This leaves us back where we started. Michelangelo may not have been cut out for middle management, but seeing his progress on the Sistine Chapel each day must have been incredibly motivating. Managers deserve that kind of feedback too. How can they get it?