Stop making fun of managers

Ricky Gervais as David Brent sits at his desk in a suit and tie, casually staring at the camera
Ricky Gervais as David Brent in The Office © Alamy

I can report solid progress in my life’s central mission. Longtime readers will know that my dream is to retire without ever managing another person. I haven’t managed anyone in London. I have not managed anyone on two US coasts. I’m trying to decide which Asian city I don’t want to manage anyone in one day.

What explains the reluctance? Personal taste, yes. But also the lack of status, if not the real stigma attached to management in the British. This is the culture that David Brent invented for laughter. Last year, Keir Starmer, the most likely next prime minister, called an opponent a “middle manager”. Think about it. Anyone who has a junior at work but isn’t the overall head of their organization is sort of a middle manager. That’s a lot of voters. But a politician of some nous felt comfortable despising them.

She owes some to Marx and some to Musk for this contempt. For the left, the manager is a collaborator with capital, a parasite on the value created by real workers. For the libertarian right that grew up on Ayn Rand, the manager is a “bureaucrat,” a dead weight for those with vision and animal spirit. If you want to elicit bipartisan applause, say the NHS needs more nurses and fewer clerks. Of the elite corporate professions—law, finance, consulting—the first two are vilified as ruthless. But only the third one is considered absolute bullshit.

We could embrace that stigma head on. We could say that indifference to the way things are run and who runs them cost Britain its industrial hegemony in the 19th century. We could quote the World Management Survey, which attributes much of the productivity gap between and within countries to management. Yes, it’s hard to say ‘head of section’ or ‘head of department’ in the UK without derision. It’s fun to tease the US as the land of the cheerless org chart and blackmailing MBA. But the joke is with the Brits: in ailing companies, in lower per capita output, in a health service that needs to run better, not just an increase in funding that is already roughly in line with the rich world average. England have not produced a manager who has won the Premier League. It’s a fact to which this football-loving nation is amazingly indifferent.

And there’s the point. No policy, no round of investment in business schools will save British management. There is a cultural problem behind this. It is as old as the reluctance of Victorian industrialists to be seen near the factory so as not to hamper their social advancement. There is grandeur in ownership. There is dignity in work. It’s the level in between that has to make a case for its reputation. Why this should be so in a nation that has so rapidly developed a middle class is not clear. But the prejudice is real. And expensive for the country. Until a manager can list his job at a party without a self-deprecating joke, talented people (like me) aren’t going to volunteer for the role.

We can say all that. We can deny that managers, to paraphrase teachers, cannot. But it is possible to go further. Even if management really is a swamp where the ideas and energy of others get stuck, what about it? The primary purpose of bureaucracies, whether state or corporate, is not to achieve positive action. It is said to resist zealots. It is designed to keep the institutional organism safe from infection by rogue elements, even at the cost of containing a genius or two along the way.

Even before Brexit, there were those who saw the public service as a lifeless blob and others who saw it as a valuable thing. But what if it is an inert blob and For this reason something precious? What if all that intransigence and procedural pettiness has some social value? In other words, even if management stays true to the worst stereotypes about themselves, it’s useful. That these uses are invisible — the crazy scheme that never happens, the fanatic leaving upset — doesn’t make them any less real. It just means nobody gets thanked. Stop making fun of managers

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