You need your manager to get ahead at work (and snag a promotion), but your manager also needs you, the employees, to… exist! Our Lab expert Laetitia Vitaud explains how this works using philosophy, social psychology and pop culture. She’s convinced: your manager, often isolated, is lonely and can’t function without you. And it’s always good to keep this in mind.
Our work culture, so fond of hierarchy, tends to focus more on managers than the managed. We first look at the top of the organizational pyramid, thinking that’s what influences the bottom — for better or for worse — rather than the other way around. From time to time, we have fun reversing these roles, like in Medieval carnivals: the managed group rebels and criticizes their “toxic” managers and may even take a bit of power back thanks to strikes or hiring crises. But in general, we assume power and influence are a one-way street: top down.
But without anyone to manage, the manager ceases to exist. They derive their raison d’être, their work, their recognition and authority from their teams. You don’t need more than a bit of philosophy and sociology to prove this. After all, Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic is clearly applied to relationships between subordinates and their superiors. This is true no matter the nature of the subordination or the shape of the company’s period; this is further explained below.
But it seems this old hierarchical balance of power is undergoing profound changes. The proliferation of telework has put middle managers in a tight spot. Hybrid work keeps bosses from relying on the usual habits and rituals of corporate power, like a big office, nice clothes, a work vehicle and the submission of their subordinates. What’s more, the recruitment crisis faced by many companies has created more bargaining power for the workers on the bottom of the pyramid.
Hegel: a step ahead of the game
Over two centuries ago, before we’d officially abolished slavery, Hegel came up with the “master-slave dialectic” in his seminal book, Phenomenology of Spirit. In a chapter dedicated to “lordship and bondage,” the German philosopher examines how the relationship between these two states of power fosters self-consciousness and a process of mutual recognition.
Hegel didn’t just discuss the differences between the dominant and the dominated. Instead, he developed the idea that these two archetypes depend on one another, insinuating that power dynamics, domination and recognition are at the heart of human relations. According to Hegel, self-consciousness is developed by recognizing the other person. The “master,” the one who seeks to affirm their power and superiority over others, is simultaneously looking for recognition of their own worth through those they dominate.
The master may think they have absolute power over the slave, but in reality they are totally dependent on their slaves for recognition. Furthermore, the slave, by doing their work and submitting to the master, develops a slew of skills, abilities and knowledge that make them aware of their own worth. The central concept for Hegel is the idea that this relationship will eventually lead to a shift in power: the slave, becoming aware of their worth, is freed from slavery and becomes a free individual as the master realizes that their superiority depended on their slave.
Subordinates: The biggest source of recognition
Obviously, employee subordination is not slavery (at least, not often). But the relationship of reciprocal dependence between manager and employee recalls how individuals develop each others’ self-awareness. Unlike Hegel’s dialectic, manager/employee relations aren’t binary: there are many managerial levels and it’s possible to climb up the ladder. By developing our skills at the bottom of the pyramid, we should be able to make it to the top.
But no matter how many levels of hierarchy there may be, those at the bottom are the primary material used to manufacture the recognition of their managers. Like all human beings, bosses have a fundamental need to be acknowledged by others. And this need is usually satisfied through their employees.
There are four types of workplace recognition: the uniqueness of the individual, their efforts, their skills and their results. This recognition isn’t limited to superficial appreciation; it involves an active validation of the individual’s worth and existence. Recognition plays a central role in the construction of identity and, to be effective, it needs to be reciprocated and mutually affirmed. While there are certainly ritual meetings that allow managers to scrape some recognition from shareholders, the need is usually met by those who rank below them.
When managers become dependant
When we climb the hierarchical echelons to take on more managerial responsibility, we do less and less of the job that started our career. Engineers promoted to managers do less engineering. Doctors who run their wards practice less medicine. By delegating work, managers sometimes end up watching their skills atrophy. They become more and more dependent on others. Sometimes, they feel like they’re fooling their peers, or develop imposter syndrome.
Managerial solitude is a little-talked about reality. There’s not a lot of people at the top of the pyramid, and the air is getting thinner! The weight of hard decisions and heavy responsibilities creates distance between managers and employees. To top it off, managers are constrained to maintaining a level of discretion, and often abstain from sharing their worries. Professional relationships can be tainted with mistrust and cold calculations, making sincere connections hard to develop. Managers can find themselves with no one to confide in, and can even become jealous of the camaraderie they see happening in the lower ranks. Just think about the episode of Friends where Chandler discovers he lost all his work “friends” as soon as he gets a promotion.
Power is isolating. Hierarchical distance, mistrustful subordinates, access to sensitive company information (like plans to fire someone or mergers companies), shareholder pressure, and the complacency that can happen when you’re accustomed to having people follow your orders… All of this boosts the loneliness of managers. There are reasons to believe this solitude is now commonplace, notably with the rise of WFH and hybrid work. In the traditional office of yesterday, there were exterior signs of power that automatically earned employees respect: the nicest office, a reserved parking space for the best car, the voice with the most clout in water cooler discussions, the way colleagues behaved in the face of power… We have to admit that with the cloud, collaborative tools and Zoom meetings, these signals are much less clear! In his book Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, Jeffrey Pfeffer points out that workplace symbols of power like private offices, titles and material possessions help obtain and maintain power within companies. As these signs have lost their strength in recent years, and it’s becoming evident that without the traditional recognition of their employees, managers are feeling very lost…
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
More inspiration: Laetitia Vitaud
Future of work author and speaker
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