Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Manager as a Temp: Preparing for the Modern Labor Market

The news keeps telling us that employment is becoming a more-temporary state, with job changes both the result of footloose employees and of firms treating their workers as easily replaced, downsized, and upsized as needed. Not to mention that many now work as contractors, not employees, like Uber drivers. In these stories, the managers are typically cast as the bad guys treating everyone else as expendables. There is some truth to that, but there is a flip side: managers are also temporary. They are quickly moved around or even fired, and they also try to use job changes to move up faster than they could by staying in place.

How can managers be temps? Not only are managers credible to their subordinates only if they are expected to stick around for a while, but their chances of being promoted depend—ironically—on being able to signal that they are in it for the long run, even in a firm that habitually lets managers go. Well, for every problem that can’t be solved, there is a business school claiming to solve it. Research in Administrative Science Quarterly by Gianpiero Petriglieri, Jennifer Petriglieri, and Jack Denfeld Wood looked at how the participants in an MBA program used their education to make themselves more portable across firms and jobs. They were learning to turn themselves into managerial temps and use it to benefit their careers.

Like any education, business school is a journey, and the path and destination are unique for everyone. But there were clear patterns that tell us a lot about careers, and about management, in the current labor market. One path was to use the education to adapt both skills and identity to how firms now treat their workers, including managers. This is an instrumental pathway, where the idea is to understand the rules of the game and play it well. The other path was to use the pathway to explore one’s own preferred role in this world, and shape an identity that matches this discovery. This is a humanistic pathway, where the idea is to understand the parts available in the play and audition for the one that is the best fit.

These paths cannot easily be taken while working, because the everyday demands of actually managing make the learning process difficult, and changing identity isn’t possible either because everyone looks for and values constancy. So education acts as a valuable hiding place—a bubble, or a deep dive—where changes can happen and it is possible to emerge fully formed, or at least nearly so.

The next question is of course what the manager temps will do when they manage worker temps. Will work get easier when both manager and managed understand that they are not in the firm to stay, and the most stable part of their identity is its portability? To know that we have to wait for more research.