Three Nations

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
–Sybil, or The Two Nations, by Benjamin Disraeli

Any company over a certain size – say, ten people – is going to start stratifying into different social groups. These groups think differently, act differently, communicate differently, and have completely different concerns. Far from being dysfunctional, this is a completely necessary development – you need someone thinking about the grand vision. You need someone working out the little details. You need someone coordinating between groups to make sure people aren’t stepping on each others’ toes. What starts as a natural task-based division quickly solidifies into a fairly predictable set of layers.

Strata

At the top of any organization is the inner circle. This is the smallest group, composed mostly of top executives and occasionally one or more random people who’ve gained admittance through some special circumstance – say, a huge business success, personal relationship, or plain old longevity. There can be an odd combo of jockeying for position and cameraderie in this uppermost group, especially in organizations with charismatic leaders.

The next level down is made up of VPs, directors, and managers. This is the group that needs to have access to a certain amount of “secret” information, and wields some control over other people’s careers. They need to be able to hire, fire, promote, and transfer; give raises and bonuses, approve vacation time, evaluate and discuss performance. There are mini-strata within this, of course, but the key is that everyone in this tranche knows how the system works, and can take part in conversations that would be verboten one level down.

Lastly, you have the individual contributors. These are the doers, the people who actually get the necessary work done. Their tasks are more well-defined than the upper strata, and they are strictly forbidden from knowing certain classes of information (i.e., those deemed “sensitive” by HR). Members of this stratum have the least information regarding the inner workings of the company, despite the impact it has on their lives.

Responsibilities

The inner circle concerns itself mostly with vision, strategy, and culture. Each individual has her own particular area of responsibility, concrete goals and personal style, but her most critical tasks are to determine direction, create systems, and build a learning organization that can function without her on a day-to-day basis. E.g., the Sales VP might be on the phone with clients for much of the day, but she’s also responsible for creating a sales division that can perform effectively without constant supervision.

The manager class is tasked with taking the abstract goals of the inner circle, and converting them into concrete results. While showing initiative is the key to rising up the ranks in any job, in this case it’s usually done within the context of predefined goals. E.g., hiring more/better candidates, improving a team’s productivity, managing risk effectively, developing team members, facilitating communication, reducing attrition, raising morale, improving quality, and most importantly, delivering product. Managers aren’t tasked with coming up with grand visions for the company – their success is almost always predicated on their ability to execute on someone else’s plan.

Individual contributors work on projects. Their tasks can usually be broken down into discrete pieces that each have time estimates, risk assessments, and so on. For these, success is usually based on being able to beat expectations – working faster, doing more, delivering higher quality, showing more responsibility and ownership, etc., than expected at their specific grade (junior, senior, principal).

Moving from individual contributor to manager can be an orderly process (a senior individual contributor demonstrates managerial qualities, and is mentored into the role) or a desperate one (the result of a long-standing open req, an inability to find a good external candidate, and a process of elimination).

Moving from manager to inner circle is hard. Individual contributors and managers are both working on different aspects of the same problem, but the inner circle doesn’t just require a different set of skills, it requires a creative vision that’s hard to demonstrate in the daily grind of getting things done. It also requires an employee to be re-evaluated by the inner circle – from a manager who successfully turns abstract goals into concrete tasks, to a leader who can drive direction. Unsurprisingly, inner circle members are frequently recruited from outside the company.

Modularity

The inner circle worries about strategic threats, managers worry about the nuts and bolts of running the company, and individual contributors worry about technical challenges.

The inner circle doesn’t want to know about the complexities involved at the management level, they want to know about progress toward and potential risks related to the vision. Managers don’t want to know about the low-level technical details of tasks at the individual contributor level, they want to know higher-level project status and risks. Of course, when things go sideways it’s their job to get involved and help out, but the perfect direct report is the one who saves her boss time – not the one who needs constant handholding – and gets things done on her own, quickly, with high quality.

This isn’t because people who manage (whether in the inner circle or at the manager level) are above the details, or aren’t interested – it’s because they’re already flat out just trying to keep up with their own responsibilities. The higher up the ladder you get, the more responsibility you have, and the bigger the cost of failure – far from being an invitation to lie on a divan eating peeled grapes, being promoted is typically a shove out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Imagine a team of individual contributors in which everyone was amazing, and needed no handholding or oversight. Their manager would still be incredibly busy – but the quality of her work would shift toward mentoring, career development, recruiting, development of systems, training, and so on. When individual contributors are at their best, their managers have more time to think about ways to push the organization forward, as opposed to spending most of their time trying to keep it from falling apart.

This does not mean that you should hide problems from your manager – hiding problems always ends disastrously. It’s normal to work through tough issues with your manager, and some things need to be escalated to be resolved. The point is that managers have their own tasks too, and while a large part of their job is to “clear the way” for the team, some team members need more support, some less.

Silos and secrets

Every stratum has its own special terminology, conventional wisdom, decision-making process, and rumor mill. These are, by and large, completely opaque to the other strata, which can sometimes result in one group seething with anxiety, frustration, or anger while the others work on in relative ignorance. Things that can be said freely to a peer can be impossible to share with a boss – particularly if that boss (or her stratum) is the cause of the problem. Likewise, it’s usually impossible to share a secret with someone in the next level down – they don’t have the context, or the clearance.

By its nature, the inner circle is the smallest, most elite group, and farthest from the actual day-to-day work. As such, it’s also the most likely to get out of touch with company culture and morale. One of the responsibilities of the management class is to communicate information up the chain. The danger occurs when this channel of communication gets shut down. When no one will tell the inner circle a home truth because they’re afraid of punishment, the inner circle can start getting dangerously out of sync with the rest of the company.

Managers are well placed to get information from many different sources – direct reports, business partners, suppliers, peers, their bosses. A lot of the time, this information is shared with the expectation that it will be kept secret, or at least kept within the bounds of the stratum. Performance issues, hiring status, the actual processes behind HR-related activities (performance reviews, raises, bonuses, promotions, firings), etc. Secrets at this level are tricky – managers need to be able to share some knowledge with their peers, while also being careful not to reveal HR-sensitive data.

Individual contributors make up the bulk of the company, and typically have the least information about what’s going on. In the absence of information, people make stuff up – and so, this is the group with the most active (and usually least accurate) rumor mill. Secrets are generally poorly kept, as low-level managers may also be in the know.

Truthtelling

All of this is normal, and doesn’t necessarily indicate dysfunction. As long as there are groups working at different levels of abstraction, and a formalized management structure that requires some people to deal with the unpleasantries of the bureaucracy, this kind of division is going to exist. On top of that, more information isn’t always better. I once worked at a startup where the CEO compulsively told everyone everything all the time, and the entire company went through crazy mood swings depending on whether a deal was “all but signed!” or had “unaccountably fallen through at the last minute.” The problem occurs when communication breaks down between these levels, and people start to feel that telling the truth is a career-limiting (or ending) act.

Every business has a culture, a set of official and unofficial ways of getting things done; many have explicit mission statements, or credos. Whether it’s “speed wins” (TripAdvisor), “don’t be evil” (Google), or “done is better than perfect” (Facebook), some have catchphrases that encapsulate a guiding principle. But every company also has sacred cows, third rails that everyone knows not to question, not to touch. There’s a tacit understanding that we can talk about strategy, about implementation, tools, etc., but we simply have to live with X. X could be TPS reports, poor equipment, office layout, an abusive executive, whatever. The point is that everyone agrees to a social contract in which something that’s clearly broken can’t be discussed or changed.

When communication breaks down between the levels, these problems proliferate. People well-placed to see oncoming trains become unable or unwilling to pass that information along. This in turn creates an atmosphere of fear and powerlessness, damages the business’s ability to make good decisions, and leads to good people leaving and bad people staying. It’s easy to miss when you’re in the middle of it, slow-boiled frog and all that, but give it a try – see if you can make a list of the things that can’t be discussed where you are. What would you do if you had to?

If you’re a manager, or in the inner circle, what are your people afraid to tell you? How can you make it safe?

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