Managers Are Smarter

Why Managers Are Smarter, and Management Isn’t

The management promotion game favors smart people. But the management work doesn’t require it.

I got involved in an interesting email discussion about the question whether the work of managers requires smarter people. This is what someone told me (summarized):

Managers have a “higher role” than other workers, because their work involves “more complexity”, which suggests the need for a higher “MPA (mental processing ability)” for managers.

Let me explain why this is complete nonsense.

The Law of Requisite Variety

Scientists seem to agree that the human brain is one of the most complex systems in the universe. Together with the complexity of the rest of the human body, this makes each human being very, very complex.

The Law of Requisite Variety requires that anything that controls a system must be at least as complex as the system being controlled. When we translate this to management it means the manager of a system must have more complexity than the system, in order to fully control it.

I agree.

However, there is a problem.

When I am the manager of a team of five people I can never have more complexity than this complex system of five human beings (which includes all their interactions). It’s plain impossible! The Darkness Principle explains that there is absolutely no way for one element in a complex system to know the entire system.

Delegation, Not Control

The problem is the word control. We shouldn’t use it in a social context.

People are not thermostats!

Instead, if we should use terms such as lead, coach, motivate, constrain, govern, and help. With these words the Law of Requisite of Variety does not apply, because we choose to ignore part of the complexity.

An example:

A surgeon treating a human heart chooses to ignore a significant part of the complexity of the human body. He only has a focus on the heart. In fact, during an operation the surgeon might ignore so much complexity that his job could be merely complicated, not even complex! However, the nurses who handle the patient before and after his operation focus on the patient’s well-being, which is definitely a complex matter. But they ignore the details of the heart. That’s what the surgeon is for.

Now, what about the hospital director? Does he have a “higher role”? Is his work “more complex” because his scope of concern is the entire hospital? Does the role of the director suggest “higher mental processing ability” than the role of surgeon or nurse?

Or course not!

With hundreds of patients and workers in the hospital the amount of complexity is astounding! Nobody can ever claim to “control” the hospital, because indeed requisite variety would require more complexity in the director’s brain than the complexity of everyone else combined! Obviously, this is not a reasonable suggestion.

With a complex system there is no such thing as centralized control.

The director ignores a tremendous amount of complexity, and only has a focus on the things he considers important. The rest is all delegated to smart knowledge workers and creative networkers. In fact, the work of the director could be less complex than that of a nurse!

Delegation of control is the only way to manage complex systems. There is no other option.

If we didn’t have delegation, the President of the United States would have to be a person with the highest mental processing ability of the whole country! Apparently, the country has performed quite well without such people.

Managers Are Smarter! (And Whiter)

The idea that management work is “more complex”, and that the management role suggest “higher mental abilities”, is complete and utter horse crap.

It is a line of thinking of people who have never studied complexity science and complexity thinking. Most likely they are still stuck in cybernetics, control theory, and machine-metaphors that are incorrectly applied to social systems.

It is no surprise that many managers love this kind of thinking! Who doesn’t want to feel smarter than others? Confirmation bias will make sure that any theory gets adopted easily when it makes people feel more important, and validates their higher pay.

And it’s true! Top managers are (on average) smarter than others!

I was told some research claims there’s a correlation between higher management layers and higher mental processing ability.

But that’s obvious for any complexity thinker.

There is also research confirming a correlation between higher management layers and increased corruption (NewScientist, November 2011). There’s also a correlation between higher management layers and grey hair. There’s a correlation between higher management layers and white skin, the male gender, and tall, handsome people. (I’m glad I can tick them all off on my personal list, except for the corruption thing.)

Does that mean that the work in those higher management layers is best done by white, tall, handsome males with grey hair? Does it mean that the work requires more corruption? No. You’d be a fool to believe this.

Likewise, ýou’d be a fool to believe that higher management layers require higher mental processing ability. The reason managers are probably (on average) smarter than non-managers is quite obviously a side-effect of the promotion game. There are few high positions available in traditional hierarchical organizations. Everyone who wants to make a career and earn more money is required to play this game! For various cultural and political reasons the promotion game favors people with grey hair, the male gender, white skin, and a less-than-honest approach to climbing the corporate ladder. The promotion game also favors smart people.

It is the game of climbing the corporate ladder that benefits those with higher mental processing ability (and length, and white skin). But when those smart people get settled in their comfortable chairs on those higher management levels, they might be disappointed.

The actual management work that needs to done at those higher levels has absolutely nothing to do with mental abilities. In fact, the smartest thing to do would be to delegate as much as possible. The work they keep for themselves might only be just a little complex. Just look at me! I’m CEO of Happy Melly, and I do almost nothing!

It’s the best way for managers to keep a feeling of control.

Read more: check out my Management Workout articles.

Management Workout

(image: (c) 2009 Ars Electronica, Creative Commons 2.0)

Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”