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Is it time to retire the title of manager?

In an era of endless disruption, the word feels increasingly dated

Source | | Adam Bryant

Every year, the professional wordsmiths and gatekeepers of various dictionaries announce their lists of new words deemed to be in sufficiently wide use as to warrant their blessing and inclusion. Among Merriam-Webster’s new words and phrases of 2019 were deep state and fatberg (a portmanteau of fat and iceberg, describing a large mass of fat and solid waste that collects in a sewer system). Gig economypain point, and haircut, in the business sense of an asset suffering a loss in value, also got in.

I’d like to propose an alternate list: words that we should consider retiring. Not that they should be deleted entirely from the English language, of course, but just moved out of popular usage. And at the top of my list is manager

The word has had a long and useful run. In the days when industry dynamics were more predictable, executives could focus their attention internally, searching for opportunities to “manage” or refine their processes, and using techniques such as lean manufacturing and Six Sigma to achieve quality improvements and cost savings. The role of managers was clear: The company gave them assets, including time, money, people, and other resources, and their job was to optimize those resources to within an inch of their lives.

Quality and cost efficiency will always be crucial measures of corporate performance, but what a manager does to achieve them seems increasingly out of step with the times, especially when you consider the word’s roots: Its etymology ties to back the handling of tools, horses, and other animals (manus is Latin for hand). In previous decades, management thinkers such as Henri Fayol (pdf), for example, parsed the function of managers into five roles: to plan, organize, coordinate, command, and control. And not all that much has changed since — despite the entire forests that have been sacrificed in order to print management books — until now.

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