The Problem With Management's Workhorse

01 Aug 2019


Ever since my first few years as a software developer, I’d always wondered why it was that no matter how much work I finished, and how well-received the work was, that I always seemed to get more and more work to do. It seemed like rather than being rewarded with a break from long hours, I’d get more and more work that would require continued long hours. As my career has progressed, and I’ve experienced other roles such as project manager, build engineer, senior developer, team lead, manager, and director, I’ve learned the answer to this question and many others.


Although I was a team lead before I was ever a manager, I didn’t really understand the point of view of a manager until I became one. This is still really suprising to me, and I’m not sure whether it was just some form of naivety or a general failure of empathy on my part. My experience with management had two components. Before I became a manager, I had completed an MBA, but that academic experience didn’t fully illuminate what goes through the mind of a manager. When I finally became a manager, it was working with my employees through both their accomplishments and failures that started to give me a deeper understanding of what I’d been through in my career. With that description of my experience, I’ll answer a few questions that always plagued me in my early years.

Why is the employee who completes the most work given the most work?

Often managers will give the most work to the employee who does the most work. This might seem like a tautology, but hear me out. There is a line of reasoning like Newton’s first law that someone who does something is likely to continue to do something. If you have someone who commonly works long hours, they are likely to continue working long hours. If you have someone who does quality work, they are likely to continue doing quality work. As a manager, it is really easy to give the most work to your workhorse and rely on them, and this is why a lot of managers will do it–because it is the easy thing. People will always gravitate towards making the easy choice.

Where this becomes a problem is when you have someone like I was who didn’t understand the reason behind it. I actually thought that my work was lacking or that my contribution was lacking, when that was certainly not the case, as indicated by glowing performance reviews.

I think it’s also problematic when it starts to become exploitation. Perhaps the manager knows that the employee avoids confrontation and so won’t push back on unreasonable requests. Maybe the manager knows the employee is stressed out from financial troubles and decides the employee will accept a smaller raise.

Why is the workhorse not be commensurately compensated?

People often wonder why they are not paid more. Everyone wants to be paid more, but if there is someone who does 80% of the work, why would they not be paid some large percentage more than someone at their same level on the team?

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, especially in companies with greater headcount, Human Resources often has a tight rein on salary ranges by grade. This is for compliance reasons such as equal opportunity and other related legislation. It also makes sense when you think of it in terms of standardization. Someone in Human Resources, might find it is easier to compare people when they are arranged in tiers and to try to constrain people within boundaries by those tiers.

Many managers, rather than having studied or specialized in management, are promoted through the ranks having previously been in some other sort of non-leadership role. Worse is that companies rarely have some sort of training program for new managers. These managers might lack the sort of flexible thinking that may be required within the framework of a big company. The bigger the company, the more a manager might be constrained in what she can do with traditional compensation. Even in this rigid atmosphere, managers typically have other things they can do including:

  • Being more flexible with working hours and remote work
  • Encouraging and giving time for more professional development such as conferences, hack days, 20% time, and mentoring
  • Assigning the type of work that an employee most desires
  • Using technologies that the employee might want to learn
  • Creating at atmosphere that encourages positivity, teamwork, respect, and fulfillment
  • Listening and being responsive to all of the employees needs

Why does management make choices that make the work more difficult?

Middle managers are often trying to make sense of company goals and the goals of their direct superior, then try to direct their teams towards those goals. Hopefully their own goals align to these goals as well.

An individual contributor often has goals and priorities that have accreted slowly during their tenure. While this sort of experience makes someone an SME and the go-to person during periods of stability, during times of large organizational changes it can be characterized as calcification. Employees each have goals that may not align with organizational goals. When organizational goals conflcit with personal goals, it’s a recipe for disaster.

One of the biggest reasons employees find it difficult to make sense of management’s decisions is misalignment. Often middle management has existing stakeholders whose goals will be misaligned with those of the IT or Product. Middle managers also have personal goals that may be tangential to organizational goals. During my stint as manager, I wanted to keep on doing development even though it conflicted with the goals of the organization and team. Decisions I made during this time may have been seemed mystifying to my reports, especially since I didn’t communicate my personal goals to them.

What to do

As someone who has experienced all of these problems, and has gone full circle from an individual contributor to leadership positions and back to an individual contributor, there are certain things I do to address these issues.

Firstly, I try to understand clearly the expectations of the team. Although I tend towards being a workaholic, if that’s not the culture of the team, it doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run for me to work long hours. In fact, it definitely hurts my home life, stunts my personal development, and sets unrealistic expectations for the team and our stakeholders. Time spent completing a task for work means less time spent learning new technologies and staying up to date with current technologies. There’s also a limit to how much someone can grind, so it’s best to save the grinding for times when it is absolutely needed such as (hopefully infrequent) fire fighting. Spending extra hours working when your team members are not can also breed discontent and a feeling of resentment to those who aren’t putting in the same number of hours. This is counter-productive because rationally, work should be about output and productivity, not raw hours.

Next, I try to align my own goals with those of the team, my manager, and the organization, in that order. Although I think organizational goals are more important than any one person’s goals, there needs to be a level of trust in your manager that they are steering you towards that goal. This is the same kind of trust that a manager gives you when they aren’t micromanaging you. While there can rarely be 100% alignment, the task of introspection and subsequent analysis is healthy. An example of this, is when I started professional development, I had a great attachment to the code I wrote. I’d resent it when people criticized my code, rewrote it, or when it wasn’t used (as in the case of a cancelled project). Becoming a better developer and team player has meant letting go of the attachment to my code in favor of a more team and organizational view. I have learned to accept when my work is discarded for the better of the organization; however, this doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my work! Instead, I try to discover how my work is furthering the organization and find myself often pushing back when the connection isn’t clear.

Finally, I constantly try and struggle to be more empathetic to my team members and manager. Patience, empathy, and love are they keys to leading a good life. With respect to team members, I assume each person is doing her best and try to give them all the time I can spare. Being generous with my time is something that I have struggled with. For my direct manager, I avoid creating too many expectations of them (especially if they don’t have formal training or don’t have a huge amount of experience being a manager). I also try to remove myself as a concern for my manager by anticipating their needs and doing my job well. What I ask in return from my team members and manager is respect and patience, in turn.

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