The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.

If I had to summarise the post-crisis situation with regard to the manager and his role, which should serve as a basis for reflection on the post-crisis manager, it would be: “just as indispensable as useless“.

The manager on the front line during the crisis

Everyone has been hit hard by the consequences of the crisis on the organisation of work, but managers more than others.

They had to take care of employees who had experienced a real human, personal and emotional shock.

They had to reinvent the way their team worked and sometimes discovered to their surprise that remote working was not an employee benefit but a way to organise work and production.

They also had to question and look after themselves. Very often their management and leadership style was no longer adapted to the context and to remote work, and it was the very way in which they carried out their role that they had to reinvent, often on their own and in an empirical manner. The shift towards a results-oriented culture does not only impact the employee but also the manager, who has to change his or her entire frame of reference and posture. Management was a weak point in the office organisation, but this was confirmed at a distance, even if managers were at least as much victims as culprits.

But as if that were not enough, they have sometimes experienced a real trauma inflicted by their own organisation, by their own managers. At a distance, the chain of command becomes so virtual that it can end up disappearing in part. Why use multiple relays to talk to the field when everyone is just a click away by videoconference? This was true before, but once everyone was at home, having to go through someone to talk to someone who could be reached instantly quickly seemed like nonsense.

They therefore saw their own line managers bypass them to go and speak directly to the field, which many experienced as an attack on their legitimacy, especially those whose role as manager was limited to acting as a relay!

Worse still, when businesses had to refocus on what was vital in order to move all the ‘non-essential’ people into partial unemployment, many middle managers found themselves on the sidelines, seeing their teams continue to function without them, in the hands of their superiors.

The manager at the end of the crisis: proud and shaken

Everyone has experienced things in his or her own way, but if we were to take stock of the manager in this period of recovery, I would say that he is :

Proud to have led his team to this point and to have adapted, sometimes painfully, as much as he could.

Shaken by all the questions he had to face. He saw his limitations, whether they were his own or the result of a business culture and an organisational model that had been imposed on him up to that point, and he sometimes realised that he was not indispensable, at least not in the way he had embodied his role before the crisis.

• Physically and mentally exhausted. This is the consequence of the two previous points.

An article published in the french economic Newspaper Les Echos at the beginning of September said no different. It mentions an OpinionWay study conducted for Indeed which tells us that :

20% of professionals (25% of whom are women) do not want to manage a team. This proportion is even higher in the 35-49 age group (27%), which is the most likely to hold managerial positions. This is all the more worrying as 87% of employees aged 18-34 – the youngest on the labour market – would like to manage a team.

So much for the generalities. But does the crisis play a role in this?

The health crisis, by disrupting the codes of management, has probably accelerated the malaise of managers since 66% of respondents who perform this function find it stressful (72% for women) and 43% consider that it represents too much responsibility (49% of women emphasise this). One in two managers find their job too difficult since the start of the health crisis; 54% of women surveyed share this view. Worse still, 13% of managers go so far as to say that they don’t like leading their team!

The situation at the end of the health crisis is therefore critical and the question of a “post COVID” model would therefore arise.

What does the crisis teach us about management: nothing!

“Would” because on closer inspection it is doubtful.

What the first figures I quote tell us is that, generally speaking, management does not or no longer appeals to people’s dreams and this is nothing new. In the mid-2000s I found a study which showed that although the majority of employees were dissatisfied with their manager, they did not want to take his place. This shows that the issue is not so much the manager as a person, but the way the business defines his or her role and uses it. This is a basic trend which is therefore nothing new, at least in France.

What the second set of figures tells us is that the crisis simply made things visible, or at least put managers in such an extreme situation that they could no longer sweep the dust under the carpet and bridge, alone, the gap between:

What they are
What they should be to help their teams succeed
How the business sees their role
How the business supports them in their role

The crisis has not changed anything. We still have managers who didn’t want to be managers but became managers because it was the only way to advance in their careers. We still have managers who are not cut out to be managers, whether they realise it or not. There are always managers who have the desire and vision to be the manager they should be today but come up against the wall between the legacy of an outdated business culture and organisational style and the reality on the field.

Nothing has changed in terms of substance, but limits have been reached which are causing some managers to say stop or to admit to themselves (and others) that they are not cut out for this.

Behind the question of the “post COVID” manager we find the question of the future of management, the management of knowledge workers…a subject that has been topical since the 1980s at the very least, without anyone having really had the courage to follow through. The post-COVID manager will be what the manager of the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s…should have been if he had been born beyond theories.

The temptation to return to normality

If we remain with the idea that the crisis will result in a reflection and transformation on what the role of the manager should be and how it should be exercised, there are only two possible paths.

Saying “I can’t wait until we get back to normal (back to the office) and we can go back to our comfort zone and do what we did before”.

Saying “we have to change everything”.

Once the emotion has subsided, it is likely that the same thing will happen as it always has in a crisis. Shock, followed by a form of stupefaction and then the realisation that everything must be questioned (sometimes even going too far). Then you come back to earth, reality takes over from your dreams, the temptation to reconstitute your old comfort zone is great and reassuring. In the end, things change but only marginally.

The chances are that the post COVID manager will be much like the one before. He or she will be less uncomfortable with distance, may have learned to trust and let go a little more, and once the good intentions of the return to normalcy have worn off will not be unhappy about having to take care of people and focus on reporting and achieving results.

But this thinking is based on the idea that we will keep people and change the way they perform their roles. According to the old adage “tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave (Goldratt)”, there is little chance that things will change in this way.

Change the people or change the system?

There is of course another approach: changing the system. There is always a tendency to blame individuals when something does not work, whereas most dysfunctions are linked to the “system”. What do we mean by system: rules, processes, operating methods, but also business culture and values, managerial model and culture…

Bruno Mettling, the former HR Director of Orange said that “businesses have the managers they deserve” and I can only support this statement: if management has been the weak link in remote working and remains one of the major problems of the employee experience, blaming the managers is going too fast. They are there because they were promoted to be there and they are the cogs in a system that others have designed.

So there will be no post-Covid manager without a post-Covid managerial model, operating methods and organisation, which makes change much more unlikely, at least in the medium term. But, historically, we have always tried to change things by asking people to change and by changing the technology…in vain. And there is unfortunately little chance that this will stop.

Once the question of the post-COVID organisation, of the system, has been asked and resolved, the question of the post-COVID manager, who will only be the product of it, can be asked. Will it be possible to develop the people in place? Can we replace them with people who fit the new model (which will be simpler in principle because I think that the real change is that many disappointed managers will no longer hold on to their positions)? Each situation has its own truth, but to talk about it now would be to put the cart before the horse. If you decide to make them play FIFA, there’s no need to recruit Football Manager professionals

The problem is not the post-COVID manager, but the pre-COVID manager

In the end, and even if this disappoints many, there will be no post-COVID managers, or only on the margins in the few organisations that will have decided to finally take the bull by the horns.

We are talking about a seasonal topic that comes up at regular intervals and there is no more or less chance that things will change today than they did in the past. Crisis or not, things will evolve very slowly over time, the crisis allows us to put the spotlight back on the subject, but we can’t expect anything more than an explosion of good feelings that will soon fade away.

On the other hand, this should not make us forget the real problem that is there, in front of us, and more sensitive than ever: the pre-COVID manager.

We knew that he wasn’t always cut out for the job and that he didn’t always want to take it on. He also knew that he was not always suited to the job and that he did not always want to take it on, even though some people remained in a form of denial. With the crisis, the masks fell off, a critical threshold was reached and a feeling of fed up took hold. If there is one area where “nothing will ever be the same as before” it is this one. I think many managers will decide to stop pretending, stop playing a role, stop suffering whether it is because they are not cut out for the role or because their business is subverting the role.

These will have to be replaced. By whom? It all depends on the model chosen: by the same profiles if we keep the same model (with the risk of arriving at the same conclusions in a few years’ time), by different profiles in the unlikely event that we change the model.

But there are even worse: those who are at the end of their tether and will not dare to give up. In the end it is a lose-lose game for them and the business.

Before thinking about the post-COVID manager, it is urgent to deal with the shipwrecked managers of the pre-COVID era.

In this series :
The post COVID business: myth or reality?
COVID has not been a change agent but an excellent consultant
The post COVID employee: an one-unseizable person market
The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.
The post covid organization: flatter, agile, flexible and fast.
Post-covid operations: formalized, simplified, automated and people-centric
The post covid workplace: hybridization in pain.
Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess
Post COVID business values: a lot of promise and little effect
The post-Covid Digital Workplace: ATAWAD and open to all

Image : Manager during the COVID by Drazen Zigic via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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