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  • Paul Hollywell

Do We Really Need Managers?

Early on, the founders of Google conducted what they thought would be a revolutionary experiment. They decided to get rid of all managers and create a flat organisation. There were problems with hierarchies and they wanted to act upon it. The experiment was a failure. The lack of hierarchy created chaos and confusion. They quickly realised managers were needed to set direction and facilitate collaboration. Even Google needed some form of hierarchy.

Hierarchy is a vital aspect of most human groups. Groups typically need a leader, otherwise there’s a risk of conflict and indecision. So, if we need leaders and hierarchies, what makes a great manager? And how do managers create high-performing teams?

Studies have shown there are two different types of hierarchy with two contrasting leadership styles: dominance and prestige. Dominance occurs when a decision has been made and the leader needs to encourage the team to complete the task. Dissent and varied opinions are distracting and undermine achieving the end goal. Prestige, however, is crucial when evaluating options or creating new ideas. People need to speak up and offer alternative ideas, safe from any retaliation from a leader who interprets such contributions as a threat. Dominant leaders are, by definition, punitive. This is how they win and sustain power. They are also less empathetic. They don’t feel they need other people, so don’t tend to take their perspectives or read their emotions. Prestige-oriented leaders, on the other hand, recognise that wise decisions depend on group input, and so are highly attuned to what others are thinking and saying. This leadership style strengthens trust.

Great managers recognise when to be dominant and when to be prestige-oriented in their leadership style. So, how do managers create high-performing teams?

Google undertook a major investigation to identify why some teams perform better than others. They discovered that the mix of the team mattered less than how the team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions. Five key dynamics set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:

1. Psychological Safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable i.e. without feeling insecure or embarrassed

2. Dependability: Team members get things done on time and do high-quality work

3. Structure & Clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans and goals

4. Meaning: Work is personally important to team members

5. Impact: Team members think their work matters and creates change

‘Psychological safety’ was found to be, by far, the most important dynamic and underpinned the other four.

Great managers need to promote these five key dynamics, especially ‘psychological safety’, if they are to create high-performing teams.

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