Management comes naturally to few people. It’s an extension of a common ability to organize effort towards an outcome, but with a mix of communication, analysis, risk assessment, and (even) empathy that makes the practice notably less intuitive.

Yet over the last century, we’ve increasingly organized ourselves in structures that require management as a function and professional practice. People must somehow learn to be managers, and understand what managers mean to them, in a wide variety of contexts.

This leaves a gap between individuals’ natural proclivities and increasing organizational needs. There’s not enough natural supply to meet growing demand. At the macro level, we fill that gap with graduate schools, in-house trainings, sink-or-swim learning by new managers, or simply privileged access to positions of power by elites (though this last one is admittedly suboptimal). At the micro level, we do something far more interesting.

We fill the gap with metaphors.

Few practices are as abundantly draped in metaphor as management. The manager takes on other professions as the conductor or engineer; sports roles as coach or quarterback; mechanical functions as hub or driver; or, somewhat oddly, as the workplace mother or father. (Similar metaphors show up in describing organizations.)

The metaphors serve two functions. First, they help a new manager to imagine him/herself in a more intuitive role. How do you work with staff? Well, they are players on the team and you are the coach! It doesn’t matter if you don’t actually know how to coach, conduct, or be a hub; the metaphor brings a sense of familiarity. This familiarity is reciprocally useful to those being managed. It creates a reference point for the relationship.

Second, metaphors create useful ambiguity. Management deals in uncertainties. Clearly defining roles might restrict an organization’s ability to handle new and unforeseeable problems. Speaking in metaphors leaves space for interpretation and new meanings, in business as in poetry. An individual manager can flex the supply of management to meet new demands.

Is there a best metaphor for management?

Not really, but some may be more useful than others, depending on your context. “Translation” has always been one of my favorites.

Being a translator means ensuring user needs are turned into technical specifications for the developers, and also that the developers’ needs are understood by the finance and operations teams. Each profession has its own discourse, reinforced by time spent with others speaking the same language. The manager needs to help each understand what their work means for one another.

There is also a linguistic and cultural component. Even if the whole team speaks English, there are many versions of English. A phrase like “that will be very hard to do” could mean the task will take time, or it could be someone’s way of refusing to do the task at all. Splicing the difference requires sensitivity to power dynamics, indirect communication styles, and personalities.

The metaphor of translation is especially useful in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams, where diversity can be powerful but the possibilities to talk past one another are high. Careful listening skills and questions are a manager’s best tools.

However, the translation metaphor is outdated.

I’ve increasingly started to amend it. Being a translator places a manager in the middle of the conversation. In a world of increasingly horizontal and decentralized relationships, this is inefficient and potentially adds distortions.

A better metaphor is the language teacher. You may need to occasionally provide direct translation, but it should be done with the aim of helping team members learn each other’s languages. Conversations should largely occur without your involvement.

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