Managers: an explanation


One of the major objections of going to work (though probably not as major as the early rises, the commutes, and the general act of submission) is that you have to face managers.

These sentinels — remunerated snitches of the workplace — are constantly looking over your shoulder, insulting your humanity, and questioning your progress while simultaneously impeding it.

Today I read an intriguing theory (or at least an explanation) for the existence of their caste:

It begins – steel yourself – with a quick lesson from the economist Ronald Coase. In a free-marketeer’s perfect world, Coase said, companies would not exist: we’d all be free agents, joining up and splitting apart on a daily basis, as each new task required. But it’s hard to build (say) cars that way. Searching for the best-priced parts and qualified workers every day costs money and takes time. Companies bring it in house. This has its own inefficiencies: firms won’t always get the best prices, they’ll inevitably end up with some slackers – and, above all, they’ll need to hire managers to co-ordinate their activities, via meetings, paperwork and the rest. But to the owner, that trade-off’s worth it, because the alternative’s worse. What employees see as “pointless bureaucracy” is a company acting rationally to survive. There are bad managers, of course – but at least some of the bureaucratic crap, from this perspective, is intrinsic. Remove it and the organisation collapses.

Basically, civilised society needs an economy, an efficient economy needs organisations, and organisations need managers. The aforementioned downsides of this system are an unpleasant side-effect that we’re forced to go along with if we’re to enjoy the benefits of civilisation.

Personally, I don’t see that the end justifies the means. A bored majority slaving beneath these white-collar tattletales negates the benefits of having a civilisation in the first place. We might as well just all live in the woods.

But the theory offered at least allows us to understand why we have managers and, as Burkeman says, we can now enjoy a “better-informed cynicism”.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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