Why are managers necessary?

Hi guys,

I know this kind of question asks for an opinion or philosophy, but I don’t think it’s a great enough issue to go in great debates.
So mods please move, if needed.

I have never taken business courses, so I’m coming from a dearth of business knowledge.

What purpose do managers serve in corporations? Why are they necessary? Couldn’t a group of workers within in a department or who have the same job duties elect a representative?

What might happen to a business structure if there were no day-to-day managers, perhaps only the accumulation of productivity data and periodic reviews of the workforce?

I searched using Google and couldn’t find anything to answer my questions.

I know if any of you find good sites talking about managers place in the business hierarchy you’ll post them.


Have you ever been in a group of your peers and was unable to delegate a leader because there wasn’t enough agreement on who should get the spot? Think about how quickly a business would fall to its knees if no one could agree on who was going to “manage” a project and have final say.

It doesn’t take long to realize the efficiencies of using a hierarchy that is already in place for who leads a team or project.

JungleLove, I think you have it backwards. It’s not like there are already a group of people there who are to be given jobs for no reason. It is the other way around. A bunch of guys with money and expertise got together and thought they could make widgets. So the purpose and aim has been set by them already and now they look for people who can help them make widgets. So they say, “you work for me doing what I say and I pay you money”. You do not own the company, the owners do. And you can agree to work for them under whatever terms you agreed to. But a worker who cannot be told what to do is useless to the enterprise as he is not helping achieve the common goals, rather he is furthering his personal goals and becomes a parasite. If you are paying people with your money, would you just tell them to do whatever they like? Or would you rather they spend their time doing what you want them to do? Look at any successful organization and you will see strong leadership. The ultimate example is the army.

There are some smaller organizations that don’t have or need managers, and function very well. There may be a distinction between “owners” and “employees”, as sailor describes, and perhaps that’s “management” although the day-to-day structure can be very flat.

However, as you add more people, there is more than a single “owner” (or small group of “owner/managers”) can do, and so they appoint one of the employees to manage (that is, they delegate responsibility.) And thus, an organizational structure is born, with workers and managers (distinct from owners.)

Managers’ functions can vary, based on the organizational structure, but often include budgeting, staffing (deciding whether more people are needed), managing people (including hiring new employees, terminating people who aren’t performing, promoting, deciding raises, determining training and development), managing inventory or equipment, finance/accounting, and other functions that may be invisible to you on the shop floor.
Junglelove asks:

Well… what would happen to the productivity data and reviews of the work force? You make a report that says productivity is down, does anyone take action or make decisions about that? You review and workforce and find that Fred is playing solitaire on the computer instead of producing widgets, who makes a decision about what to do about it? What would happen if you needed to hire another person? Suppose that the technology changes, and you find you need a new widget-compressor, who would make the decisions to purchase?

Even in the communist and socialist countries, there was a recognized need for decision-makers who are “more equal” than the regular workers. And, arguably, one of the great failures of the communist system was the inability to manage performance. Poor performers were never disciplined or fired or dealt with, and so quality of production plummeted.

That enough background on “Why managers are needed” for you?

A Manager is in the middle so that the Bosses and Workers will have a mutually-acceptable person to abuse and revile.

I’m a manager, been one for 6 years or so. I’m also an Engineer, programmer, saleswoman, conference presenter, university lecturer, trainer, hired speaker…and a lot of things.

I sell work. I get work. I write and hash out and sign the contracts for the work. And I manage the execution of the work.

Also, since I’m a P.E., I get to be legally responsible for the work too - unlike the non-P.E. engineers who work under me.

To do this, I hire other engineers and programmers under me. None of these people have either 1) the ability or 2) the inclination to go out on the road stumping for work, sitting through days of contract and tax negotiations, accounting reviews every week, progress reports, and final project presentation and delivery to the clients. I, the manager, do this.

But I also end up doing a lot of the work, too. Sometimes most of it. Thankfully, most of the work I do is of the sort that it does not have immediate deadlines.

That having been said, I do understand some of the mystery brought on by some managers. I do see some managers whose only purpose in life seems to be ferrying a coffee cup around all day, and talking about phallocentric College Sports. Being their peer, they disgust me and fill me with loathing. And I have been instrumental in many firings - and a couple of demotions - of these worthless shits.

Oh well, I guess I’m evil.

This insight notwithstanding, I can offer two insights, neither my own.

First, go to the library and get this article: Landes. D.S. 1986. “What Do Bosses Really Do?” Journal of Economic History, 46(3): 585-623 September.

Basically a (good) manager will greatly increase productivity by organizing production. Landes knows something about watch making, and in the article he describes how in the pre-industrial guild system Swiss watchmaking was split into something like fifty individual jobs, IIRC, each making use of different skills and skill levels. Thus the apprentices would do jobs that apprentices could do, and so on, and each worker would receive work commensurate with his skill level. Great article.

The second insight, I don’t recall the book I read it in, involves communicating information. If the company employs 2,000 people, then the CEO has just one hour per year of one-on-one time to communicate the goals and strategies of each person’s job to him or her. That isn’t much time, and it still doesn’t leave time for the CEO to actually do her job of setting company goals and strategies. If the CEO hires managers, then she can meet with them, and they can meet with the employees to communicate this information. This frees up the CEO to do her work, and it gives the workers more one-on-one time with the “boss”, i.e. the manager, who is the representitive of the CEO. So even if you don’t have managers who don’t do anything, they can still be effective for that reason. Unless they don’t do that either, in which case they should be sacked.

None of that was meant to contradict what Anthracite had to say. Those are just the only insights I have to share.

I’m really good at my job. I don’t need much supervision, and I don’t need much additional training. I don’t need much in the way of scheduling either. So why do I need a manager?

Well, I don’t order supplies. I don’t check on the physical plant where I work. I don’t keep up with the future needs of my community for the services I provide. I don’t keep track of the clients I once had who are no longer receiving my services. (other than socially) I don’t arrange for services other than my own which my clients might need or want. I don’t keep track of where my retirement is invested. I don’t answer the phone when someone wants to find out what services are available. I don’t deal with complaints other than the ones my own specific clients tell me about. I don’t plan on how soon we might need to build a bigger facility, or even close down a portion of the one we have.

I hope someone is doing that stuff though.

And besides, someone other than me really ought to check and see if I am really very good at my job. It matters.


I was an engineering manager at a ~4000 person firm for years.

As a manager, my job was to:

  • Schedule work, make sure every one of 12-25 people was responsible for every one of several hundred to thousand tasks in a project. Tell the rest of the company when that big basket of tasks would be complete and a customer could get a product. Defend or adjust the project when that number is not what people want to hear.

  • Hire people. This could sometimes be a really big part of my job; hiring people who could fit on an engineering team and had just the right skills, or assembling a new team from scratch, can really be a challenge.

  • Help make you successful: make sure you have needed equipment, ongoing training, and correct and timely information. Funnel important stuff (information, projects) your way because I know you’re the right person for what came across my desk, and I know I can depend on and trust you to do the right thing. Make me proud.

  • Keep the rest of the company off your back: go to those stupid ISO-9000 compliance meetings so you don’t have to; pound on someone’s desk to get the budget to hire another person or purchase equipment you need; assemble all the whacky HR paperwork and make sure everyone knows what they need to know about benefits etc when things are randomly changed. Do all the tiresome crap like keeping a budget, ordering supplies, etc. Keep all that flack out of your way so you can concentrate on stuff you (and I) care about.

  • Do personel reviews. Reward great work, mentor people who need development. Fight as needed with the company so that my great performers get the $$ recognition they deserve.

There’s quite a lot more. Suffice it to say that being a (good) manager can be fairly complex.

I’ve heard a basic definition of what a manager is, and based on the last posts by Triskadecamus and squeegee it holds true.

In deference to the OP, you only need managers when the organization grows beyond the ability of one person to handle.

Once that happens, though, you DO need managers. What do managers do? A manager is the first level of employee who is authorized to spend the company’s money.

Where that money is spent depends on the situation, but it is money spent BY the company to MAINTAIN the company. The CEO and the directors come up with the vision of where the company WILL be, the worker bees PRODUCE the output, and everything in between is taken care of by managers.

Some companies have too many and some have too few, but every company needs them!

So we don’t sit around and post to the SDMB all day?

The purpose of management is to repress the peons beneath them while taking all the credit for their work. Why do you think so many comapnies remain so top-heavy with more chiefs than indians? We were folled into believing the 1990’s cleaned house, but the fat remains for many companies even into the 21st Century.

Are you actually suggesting that a manager might actually have to get up off his/her lazyboy and actually work for a living? Actually, if you didn’t have a manager, you might be privy to confidential info about how much they could really be paying the worker bees like us! :o - Jinx

The previous posters have explained what managers do and why good ones are necessary much better than I could have, so I thought I’d share a personal experience that might illustrate.

Several years ago, my company decided they were too top-heavy with management, fired half the department managers, and set up a “Star Model” management style. Our department was placed under a manager who had eight departments, and was reponsible for budgeting and the hiring of personnel. Day-to-day management of the department was placed under the collective management of the staff. The theory was that, since we are all “professionals,” we could be self-managed.

It was a spectacular failure. Ruling cliques formed that warred with one another, using all kinds of grade-school type nastiness. Supplies weren’t ordered, cleanliness wasn’t maintained (this is in a hospital, mind you), the unpleasant tasks were neglected. If I asked whose responsibility it was to see that those things were taken care of, the answer was, “Everybody’s.”

When everybody is responsible, in reality, then nobody is responsible.

Jinx: Please show me one company that has more managers than employees. Just one.

An Ode to Managers - Or “Why Managers Aren’t Quite So Fucking Pointless As I Thought They Were”

I used to have a manager,
I felt he did oppress,
Just answering phones and “networking”…

“Project Managing”?! come on! could he have done any less???
but then he fucked off to Patagonia,
and now i’ve found to my distress,
that rather than sites and web-coding…

I’m the one who has to “project manage” - something i could care about any less!

Garius (2003)


Skilled managers are a huge advantage for a company.

Incompetent or ineffectual managers are a huge liability for a company.

In my line of work (software development) a good manager knows he/she is there to get the most out of their expensive and skilled development staff. A bad manager doesn’t get this, and often attempts to add value by introducing unneeded process, and often thinks that they are the key cog in the machine. The best managers get out of the way, and facilitate productivity from their people.

blah blah blah…

In my experience, incompetent managers are more common that skilled managers, probably because of the diverse set of skills required. The skilled managers I’ve worked with over 20 years were memorable, made my job better and more fun, made a big positive difference, and sadly, were rare.

The bad managers should have been fired, but often, their managers were incompetent too.

I always thought that managers existed in order to spare me from going to meetings and being more bored/stressed than I already was.

Corporate managers aren’t really necessary. Haven’t you heard of Enron, K-mart and TWA?

Spoken like a true worker-bee. (read:drone) Those businesses tanked/are tanking not because of the middle management, but because of the external auditors and the officers. Note that in general officers (VPs and higher) do not run daily operations and tend to have less of a clue about what’s needed to remain profitable. The examples you lay out above are merely examples of bad management. Doesn’t mean management isn’t necessary.

As a corporate communications manager, I recently learned via The Hard Way, of my own position’s value. Last year, my department suffered an insurrection. This is mostly due to my own inaction. I supervise a great team of self-directed staff. They do most of the work and my job is to make sure they do it and to follow the money (pay the vendors, monitor the budget, report variances, etc.) I was having personal morale issues and ceased to care what went on in my department, trusting my staff of professionals to take care of business. They were always clamoring about wanting more autonomy anyway, so I gave it to them.

Staff (worker bees like yourself) do not like unstructured work environments, no matter how much they may complain about rules and regulations and so forth. When I finally pulled my head out of my own ass, I found the best way to regain control and re-earn respect (another commodity that does not grow on trees) was to be very strict about the rules. I went from Ms. Nicey Nice to Hard Core Bitch Manager pretty much overnight. (At least I warned them I was about to do a 180.) Within weeks, the team’s productivity had increased, communication was open and flowing freely and tension was diffused. We were a happy little team again.

Bottom line: Management, much like parenting and training dogs, requires discipline and consistency. If the manager, parent or dog trainer is inconsistent or provides no structure and routine, what happens? The dog, the kid, the employee will walk all over you, nothing will get done, nobody will learn anything. I learned that my staff looks to me to lead and does not want to lead themselves, regardless of their clamoring for more autonomy. When I give it to them they are less happy and therefore, less productive, than when I give them structure and leadership.

Further, sometimes they call me in to pull rank. For some reason certain internal or external customers will not respond to them if they do not have the word “manager” in their title. They call me, I go ask for the exact same thing in the exact same way, and get it. But only because I’m the manager and certain cretins do not offer respect to anyone else.

I was referring to Corporate management, not middle management. There was no corporate management, there was only individuals out for themselves.