Five Easy Pieces—The reverse management phenomenon

Failing at the basics

Executive summary

The Urban Dictionary defines reverse management as "when management tasks are completed by personnel that are typically under a manager who was responsible for the tasks but failed to do them in a timely manner." Different than bottom-up management, reverse management happens when a manager delegates their own work to their reports, and instead turns their focus to completing the operational tasks that are the responsibility of their reports, effectively trading places and inverting the organisational pyramid structure. Having experienced this peculiar phenomenon a number of times, I’m using this Piece to reason about its causes, and elaborate on its effects.

Failing at the basics

The role of management

Management is put in place by company owners to manage its resources productively; the most important resource of all being the people in the company. A manager's focus should be on results and people: to produce results while retaining people. Reaching and combining these goals requires a management system that not only sets direction, defines and delegates tasks, but also looks after the individual interest of every report in their career. Though management is an art and not a science, the basic responsibility is establishing system of communication between manager and reports.

In place of a system

A manager that fails to establish this system is likely be overwhelmed by the amount of tasks, plans and budgets, and requests for reports they are met with and required to handle. The quick and easy, but destructive, solution is to off-load these responsibilities onto directs who are normally only operationally responsible for their own areas. As a result their attention is divided between execution and management, neither of which is likely to be done optimally.

The prerogative to meddle

Being freed of their own responsibilities, the manager now has time to dive deep into various functional areas and nitpick on things that are done less than optimally; i.e. micromanage. It goes without saying that there is always room for improvement, and doubly so once an employee’s capacity is stretched by work not normally part of their responsibilities. As a result, there’s no shortage of things for the reverse-managing manager to “improve” while at the same time failing at their own job. (Coincidentally, this is also why every micromanager has failed their job, because they have taken time from their responsibilities to do things that they should not be doing.)

Steve had to complete the reports just hours before they were due for the meeting that was planned months in advance because his manager had spent the last few months procrasturbating. Thanks to Steve's Reverse Management the meeting was able to proceed and the company didn't look like a sack of dicks at the meeting. - Urban Dictionary

Life in the inverted pyramid

While this inversion can feel like a benefit to the manager, freeing up time and giving them the illusion of control by taking a hands-on approach to operational work, the effects that are not seen are numerous. The integrity of the team's work suffers because of misalignment; the direction that is supposed to be given by the lead is missing. Lack of ownership demoralizes when reports neither own the managerial tasks handed down to them, nor the operational work that are their real responsibility. Everything is subject to change at the whim of the inverted manager.

Lackluster results and no people

It is confusing to find oneself in this situation and to try to make sense of it, because one is under a manager that doesn’t do their job of managing at all, while at the same time micromanaging everything. Going back to the two goals of the manager, to produce results while developing the people in their team, we see that they have failed at both. There is no trust between manager and reports, morale is low, and people who can will leave ASAP. And all of this because of a manager who failed to do what is prescribed in every text of management basics: set up a system for communicating about work, in order to build trust and set direction.