advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

The work needs to get done

I’m a mid-level manager who works in a time-sensitive, and relatively intense work environment. While I’m a fan of employee empowerment and do my best to create a humane and supportive workplace, at the end of the day the work still needs to get done. People have to understand this – and if that means I have to crack the whip every now and again to make sure it does, so be it. In my opinion, that’s just part of my job. – Name withheld       

You didn’t say what line of work you’re in, so I can only guess.

But unless what you do involves saving lives—managing first-responders, for instance, or other healthcare workers where the timely delivery of services is critical—then I’m not sure the work you’re referring to necessarily “needs to get done.” If you manage a fleet of delivery trucks, for instance, or a call center somewhere, well…you get the idea.

What would be more accurate to say is that YOU need the work to get done. That’s an entirely different proposition altogether.

Managing isn’t about doing the work yourself, of course – or at least that’s how Harvard Professor Linda Hill characterizes it in Becoming a Manager (2003). Managers, she writes, “get work done through others.”[1] From your perspective then, it is indeed imperative that the work be completed, and in a timely fashion. But that’s because if it doesn’t, that reflects poorly on you, as a manager. It is in your professional interests to see that it is.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Capitalism is, after all, largely about self-interest. As any economist might tell you, it is marketplace actors all behaving in accordance with their own best interests that is responsible for any and all efficiencies the so-called free market has to offer. What you might fail to realize, however, is that what’s in your best interests—and even in the interests of the business itself—may not be in your employees’ interests. In fact, their motivations may be just the opposite of yours.

Let’s assume for a moment that you don’t work in a life-saving or healthcare-related field. For your employees, “getting the work done” could very well put them out of job – if they work under contract, for example. Or, if they’re on salary, working harder and doing more isn’t necessarily going to be reflected in their paycheck, is it? And if they’re paid by the hour, dragging their feet a little may actually be to their benefit if it gives them more hours, or puts them into overtime.

But I can hear your counter-argument already: If the work doesn’t get done, won’t that jeopardize the business itself – and therefore everyone’s job? Doesn’t this make getting things done in my employees’ best interests too?

Sure – but now you’re asking workers to put their long-term interests ahead of their short term ones. A business’ success or failure is a complex thing, and depends on so many contributing factors, most of them beyond the control of any single employee. So to expect any individual worker to connect their on-the job-performance to the organization’s success is asking a lot. A bigger paycheck will always trump the quasi-abstract notion of long-term job security. And for a worker who may already feel like an easily replaceable cog in the corporate machine—as opposed to a valuable organizational asset—it’s an even bigger ask.

Besides, isn’t this precisely how CEOs and other executives often behave? Don’t they likewise focus on short-term goals as opposed to what’s in the long-term interests of their company? I’m thinking specifically of meeting quarterly earnings reports or whatever simply to keep shareholders happy. Isn’t that in fact what their bonuses are tied to? No – the long- vs. short-term argument strikes me as duplicitous, hypocritical, and self-serving.

Capitalism. It’s a slippery thing.

What you can be sure of is that your employees are just like you: They’re primarily motivated by self-interest. So the only way to get them to do what you want them to do is to align their interests with yours.

In an ideal world, your organization’s management would realize the best way to do that is to modify your company’s compensation scheme. Everyone should be rewarded when the “work gets done” and the company profits as a result. That means everyone would receive their proportionally fair share of the financial pie.

I don’t imagine you have the organizational clout to bring about this needed change yourself. But until that happens, I’m afraid managers like you will always feel the need to “crack the whip” every now and again. (By the way, that’s a terrible turn of phrase in this context; I urge you to resist using it.)

But to my mind, getting your organization to the point where workers’ interests are aligned with those of the business—and yours—is work that needs to be done.



[1] Hill, Linda – Becoming a Manager, 2003, (Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA), p. 14.


  1. Tim Eiler

    As long as organizations are led by agents who are incented to produce short term results, and who can be themselves easily replaced, getting the kind of alignment you talk about will happen so few times that, as engineers like to say, it can be modeled as zero. Leaders of the kind that run capitalist organizations in today’s economy typically view those who work below them as relatively-easily-replaceable cogs, in my long career experience. As you say, why would such a line worker or manager risk their short term gain for the longer term company’s success and *possible,* though not terribly probable, long term employment? Though most people probably don’t know the academic theory of time value of money, most people are pretty astute at recognizing that a dollar in one’s hand today is worth more than two dollars in the hand a year from now, especially if there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the two dollars. Most employees don’t want to be that paperboy from the movie “Better Off Dead.”

    • the subordinate

      Believe it or not, it’s a non-zero number.

      You’re gonna want to check out “The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack (1992, updated 2013). It describes how a group of former managers from International Harvester built a company with $400M in revenues by sharing profits with employees.

  2. mary

    Agree about use of the term “crack the whip.” It could apply to what is done to horses, etc. to get them to move faster, but it also connotes disciplinary techniques used in American slavery, the British Navy, and other intitutions with inhumane histories. These associations alone suggest it would be best, anymore, to find some other way to put this sort of idea across.

  3. WayneMC622

    Besides contract work that gives payment for specific tasks accomplished, it seems overly simplified to tie individual compensation directly to the work getting done. I’d like to hear some specifics about what such a compensation scheme would look like. It seems to call for everyone being rewarded for finished work regardless of how much they’ve contributed to getting it done, and that potentially harbors problems. I envision, for example, three people working on a project and only one of them ending up doing the bulk of the work (because the self-interest of the other two is to get money without having to work for it–why should Joe and Sally do much if they know Samantha is the kind of sucker who will just do it all for them anyway?). Expand this scenario across everything in the organization and the problem magnifies.

  4. Derek Steel

    Most people work and are compensated based on a broad set of expectations having to do with a body of work that needs to be done in some kind of time frame. If you’re hired as a worker with no direct reports, then you typically work under a manager and your job is to get done what the manager says they want done, *when* they want it done. If you don’t, you’ll eventually be fired, and appropriately so, since you’re not upholding your end of the basic deal you’ve made, which is to get money in exchange for getting done what is asked of you. The manager is basically in the same position – that is, required to get done what his/her overlords demand, also in a timely manner.

    I think what’s not being addressed well enough in your post is the idea of completing work in a “timely manner.” You suggest that timely manner does not matter except for stuff like medical emergency work and delivery businesses, etc., but that’s not really true, or not for you to say in such a general way, because every business needs things done in some kind of specific time frame. Sure, some time frames are potentially more urgent or less urgent than others, but they’re still part of every project and every business. Managers who are keyed into the larger picture will rightly worry about time frames, because they know that a small delay here combined with a small delay over there can easily create a big delay overall, and that can be a problem for the big picture of the business. In a restaurant, for example, a series of 30-second delays by servers, expediters, line cooks, bartenders, etc. can easily balloon into an intolerable wait for customers, even if none of those delays in and of itself is particularly long. The same phenomena is true of in projects and businesses of all sorts, so I think brushing off the idea of time frame, or questioning its validity, as you have done here, is giving short shrift to the actual challenges faced by managers.

  5. Bill

    As I read this I kept thinking about the Hollywood writers and actors strike, the UAW strike and the ever-constant discussion of AI and how it will affect employment and who will be affected. It was interesting – and educational to me, more than any ‘think piece’ I’ve read about AI and employment – to learn what the striking writers in Hollywood were asking for. And what management agreed to.

    It seems like the writers did a great job of defining the central issues about pay, intellectual property and quality of life / work stress. And management seems to have understood they need the writers to not only WRITE, but also to not disrupt their business model by striking and not attending awards shows, promoting movies.

    I’m definitely no expert but this seems like a possible inflection point, at least in terms of clearly outlining the risks to employees in all industries from AI and shareholder value-obsessed managers.


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