Managers All the Way Up: The Insanity Behind How We Treat Skilled Workers

by . August 16th, 2016

The idea of America as a nation of doers is under siege.

Despite all its flaws people throughout the world still look to the United States as a place where all things are possible.  In the minds of people the world over, American culture completely embraces the “can-do” attitude so necessary for entrepreneurship to thrive. It is seen as a nation of doers and creators.

This is still true. You don’t get to be the world’s largest economy – by an extremely wide margin – by not creating things. But there are several cultural trends indicate a shift in how people view creators and leaders who don’t earn their bread and butter wrangling other people.  And the meek don’t seem like they’ll be inheriting the earth – or anything else – any time soon.

Mincing buzzwords: What’s an “Individual contributor”?


One of my favorite new (often misused) buzzwords is “Individual contributor” or “IC”. While not yet on the Oxford Unabridged or Merriam-Webster dictionaries, the idea has been making waves for some time. Urban Dictionary defines it as “a non-management member of a business team…“, among other things.

What is clear is that most see a clear divide between IC’s and managers. And as far as leadership and “value” are concerned, the automatic response – at least in the American setting – is to value managers more.

This usually means paths to advancement and compensation almost invariably depend on being less of an IC at some point.

There’s definitely plenty of overlap between so-called IC and managerial tasks and positions. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that “skilled worker” and “exceptional individual contributor” are the same.

Diff’rent strokes.

DCF 1.0

There will always be more individual contributors, mediocre and skilled, than there will be managers. This is a given.

But it’s come to the point that in many organizations the only way to progress and get better compensation is to go neck-deep into management.

All too often, we hear of great engineers, design professionals, artisans, and other skilled individual contributors being promoted out of the jobs they are good at and forced into situations they aren’t suited.

Of course, anyone can learn management skills. But we’ll all have different aptitudes and temperaments for it. Not everyone gets self-actualized as a human being by managing others.

Yeah, you can go to business school and learn the ropes. Business school is a great experience. I’ve been to one.

But no one but the most cynical take up engineering, or learn the finer points of creating a fine dining experience, or learn how to use Adobe Creative Suite with the end goal of — wrangling — a bunch of different people.

Is it THAT crazy? Well..

Entrepreneurs have to suck it up and take both management and IC roles. That’s a given. It’s not negotiable. But not everyone wants to be YOU, the entrepreneur.

Many talented IC’s – whether through outside circumstance or some personal issue – never find it in themselves to be able to manage other people and continue to be happy.

However, it seems American culture has slowly shifted to generally value people-wrangling over more esoteric, less high-profile skills.

Is that so bad? There are necessarily fewer people who could be managers, and as management definitely isn’t an “easy” field, it should follow that managers are valued and in many cases, paid more.

But consider the following:

  • Since the 1950’s fewer and fewer Americans find themselves able to do what would have been basic handyman work. True, more people know how to use computers, but relatively few can put them together.
  • Around the same period, executive compensation dramatically increased in proportion to regular worker (IC) compensation.
  • Most of those jobs are now overseas.
  • People who would have gone into manufacturing jobs are overwhelmingly joining the service industry.
  • People are far more likely to call a contractor for simple plumbing, carpentry, and different household issues
  • Vocational education for skilled trades – ranging from culinary arts to programming and drafting, is rarely seen as desirable as a college degree.
  • Voluntary employee turnover – particularly of skilled workers- in the United States has been steadily increasing in the past decade.

So what?

True. Each of these individual points don’t mean much by themselves. It’s understandable more people proportionally are more interested in computers and new technology than they are with the finer points of making their own butter or creating better horsewhips. Lots of things simply didn’t exist then.

Other points aren’t as easy to explain. Fewer people are finding the runaway CEO compensation harder to justify for instance.The relatively low living standards working class Americans have with their counterparts in other industrialized countries is similarly harder for many to swallow.

Taking these points together though – even with whatever chicken or egg arguments are out there – it’s clear the role of the skilled worker has changed dramatically, as is how Americans value their skills.

How we view skilled workers today


In contrast to the American experience, Germany and Japan, countries generally regarded leaders in both their economies and quality of life have cultures that value individual contributors and skilled workers somewhat more than in the US.

They also don’t have as huge a disparity in compensation as the US. These patterns generally hold true with other highly industrialized countries all over the world.

But managing/entrepreneurship is hard! It follows it should be compensated more!

No one denies being a good manager is hard. Being an entrepreneur is generally even more difficult. But plenty of other tasks which do not require managing other people are just as hard and are just as vital.

If you don’t create an atmosphere where it is possible for talented individual contributors without management aptitudes to advance, a few things may happen.

  • They leave for greener pastures, taking their skills with them. (Worst case scenario)
  • They learn management skills necessary to advance, and they do well. They are then able to contribute as they used to. (Happens in fairy tales)
  • They learn management skills necessary to advance, and they do well. They are then less able to contribute in ways they are actually good at. (Best case scenario)
  • They learn management skills necessary to advance, and fail to do well in it.  They become less happy. They are then less able to contribute in ways they are actually good at. (Most common scenario. Not ideal.)

The likeliest scenario doesn’t bode well for most enterprises, especially given how ultra-competitive the job market is.

Plus, in most cases, the reality is skilled IC’s are forced by circumstance to do both IC tasks and manage, and this is especially true when there is a shortfall of necessary skill sets in a team. What do you think usually happens when they don’t actually want to deal with others?

It all comes down to happiness

When someone is unhappy with work, they consider quitting. Simple as that. In a 2007 study of Irish workers, it was found that for every person who quits a company, there are four more who have seriously considered it, but stayed. The pattern is more or less universal in Western cultures.

Unhappiness is all around, and endemic. This and the increase in voluntary turnover rates suggests more skilled workers are unhappy with their lot than ever before.

In his piece What Makes Us Happy at Work? Daniel Pink found most people found these 3 the most important:

1.) Autonomy

2.) Mastery

3.) Purpose


When you promote an IC to a management role and they aren’t suited for it, or don’t want it, you will be taking at least two of those things away from them.

It’s clear promoting individual contributors who do not excel into roles that don’t suit them or simply not recognizing the value of their work and failing to compensate them properly are unsustainable practices for any business. Your enterprise risks not only a talent drain, but is put in a real risk of bad management.

If your goal is to make as many people as possible unhappy in your organization as you possibly can, then you’re welcome to try that tried and tested formula for success.

How to avoid talented IC turnover in your enterprise:

  • Allow talented Individual Contributors a career path which allows them to further develop what they are good at – but don’t close management doors to them either.
  • IC should be focused on developing their skills, and passing on their skills to others, not with problems managers should be looking into.
  • Encourage a culture where hard work and a willingness to improve are valued over titles and seniority.
  • Keep command structures/hierarchies flat. This way, it’s easier for any team member to be heard.
  • Managers should be focused on keeping the ones under their wing happy and productive, not on IC tasks.
  • Realize that IC’s can be leaders through their work and influence, even if they are not managers.

It remains to be seen if the way Americans value skilled labor will fall more in line with their counterparts in other post-industrial nations, or what the shift will mean in the long term.

Right now though, it doesn’t look too good.

Additional Reading and Sources


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.