How We Made Bad Managers – and How to Fix it

Effective people management has never been more important, and yet we constantly hear about bad managers – what’s going wrong?

How We Made Bad Managers – and How to Fix it

With employee engagement finally recognised as a key issue, effective people management has never been more important.

And yet we constantly hear about bad managers – what’s going wrong?

We’ve probably all experienced a bad manager at some time in our careers. There are those that seem lost on a power trip, eager to discipline when someone steps out of line. Some are experts in their field, but lack the basic people skills needed to manage a team. Then there are those unapproachable managers who seem inconvenienced by their team’s needs.

Bad management can have a hugely negative impact on employee engagement, which ultimately affects an organisation’s bottom line. This can hardly be news to CEOs, which raises the question: why is this still happening?

Bad management is a systemic problem

It would be easy to blame bad managers themselves, but that would be missing the point. If we’re still exposed to bad management practices on a daily basis, it’s because of a wider failure in the way we prepare and train people to become managers.

No one starts out as a manager. In many cases, people become managers following a lengthy period cutting their teeth in lower positions. While a person’s job title can change overnight, it doesn’t mean their skills also do.

Let’s look at a typical example of this.

Someone – let’s call him Dave – leaves school at 16 and starts working for a large department store. His first job is in the warehouse, where he spends two years picking and packing orders. He then moves to the shop floor, where he spends three years working on the checkout, before moving to the customer services desk. After a couple of years dealing with customer complaints and returns, he is identified as a future store manager – after all, he knows the business inside out.

And so Dave becomes a store manager. He receives detailed training on the processes involved in management, from appraisals to disciplinary procedures, and becomes an expert on company policy.

There’s only one problem: Dave has no idea how to manage people. All of a sudden he’s gone from being everyone’s friend to everyone’s boss.

And herein lies the problem – we don’t equip our managers with the skills needed to deal with the human element of business. We may train managers on how to set goals, but do we teach them how to coach and mentor people to reach those goals? We may train managers on how to record underperformance, but do we teach them how to have difficult conversations with employees?

Often managers are brought in from outside the organisation. They may have a great CV with plenty of managerial experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are skilled in people management. Such managers often come with something to prove, which means they tend to overcompensate in certain areas to ‘prove’ their managerial abilities. Depending on the type of manager, this could mean being overly bossy to demonstrate their authority, or overly friendly to get people to like them – neither of which is the right approach.

What can we do to help?

In addition to knowing about procedures and processes, managers need to understand how different people react in different situations, and recognise the impact their behaviour can have on others. For example, a lack of sleep reduced self control that can lead to blunt, sarcastic responses rather than helpful ones. Understanding the impact of this involves a very specific set of skills, and therefore a very specific type of training is needed.

Take a look at your management training plans – are they mostly about procedure? If so, you’re not dealing with the human aspect of management, and chances are your managers are lacking in this area.

Introduce a training program that covers everything needed to transition from a regular job to a managerial position. Training on the human side of management should be kept separate from the procedural side.

Ensure that your managers are skilled in dealing with different types of personalities, behaviours and emotions, as well as handling sensitive or difficult situations. And make sure they understand how all of this feeds into employee engagement.

Preparing new managers

When an employee is promoted from a regular job to a managerial position, they can go from being everyone’s mate to an outsider overnight. It is vital that they are prepared for the changes to their working relationships, and fully skilled to establish and maintain that new line in the sand.

Managers also need to be aware of the potential for personal bias in the workplace. If a newly promoted manager holds a grudge over a particular individual from their previous role, the way they manage that person is likely to affected, and their judgement clouded.  

While assessing other people’s performance is a key part of management, managers should be encouraged to assess and self-critique their own actions and decisions as well. It is also critical that managers themselves have a mentor, or someone they can turn to when unsure how to proceed.

What if managers simply don’t cut it?

Just like every other employee, managers need support, training and guidance. But if after receiving these they are still not able to manage people effectively, and particularly if this is leading to disengagement and low morale, it’s time to reconsider their position.

When doing this, remember the great qualities that led to them becoming a manager in the first place, and try and find a way to bring these to the forefront by repurposing them in a more suitable position. There are plenty of senior roles that aren’t based around managing people.

Final thoughts

These suggestions are likely to be met with derision from some managers, who may think it a waste of their time or too ‘touchy feely’. In fact, in some management circles, any subject involving emotion, wellbeing or caring is somewhat patronisingly referred to as ‘tea and sympathy’ training.

In a way this is understandable – the role of managers has traditionally been to keep people in line, not understand how they feel. But this is the 21st Century, and that’s no longer good enough.

This blog post is part of a series on talent management in the 21st Century. If you missed the previous article, you can take a look here.