Why we promote the wrong people and complain when they fail.
By Thomas O. Davenport
You envisioned that you would be leading people who looked up to you and treated you with respect. That’s not how the world looks these days to many employees on the verge of promotion into their first leadership position. Increasingly, workers see managerial jobs as endowed with minimal rewards and packed with major headaches. It’s no surprise anymore that so many people hide under their desks when the boss comes around to tell them they’ve been promoted: In a 2009 survey by global temporary-staffing firm Randstad, more than half of the respondents said they’d prefer staying off the management track.
What makes being a first-line manager so unattractive? On one level, the answer is obvious—just look around today’s workplace. As downsizing lengthens everyone’s to-do list, expanding workloads add new burdens to the manager’s job. With many organizations expecting managers to act as player-coaches, both performing and overseeing work, their roles often become complex and unwieldy. Organizational flattening and widening of managers’ spans of control stretch their ability to spend time coaching, or even to become acquainted with, any individual employee.
Not that most employees wish for more of their boss’s attention: Twenty-first century workers are remarkably confident in their ability to direct their own work. In Towers Watson’s 2010 global workforce study, 78 percent of the respondents said they feel comfortable managing their work on their own, with little direct oversight from managers. And they’re independent in other ways as well: plugged into information sources and social media, hardened by labor-market ups and downs, and willing to assume responsibility for their own careers.
Modern managers must come to work each day ready to deal with these savvy, connected, sometimes-cynical employees. It’s a population that consultant Miki Saxon calls “an enlightened, demanding, and independent workforce that has no problem voting with its feet when unhappy.” These workers want supervisors who recognize their abilities, meet their need for information, tell them the truth, respect their freedom, and reward their success. It’s a daunting list, one that many overworked managers often find difficult, if not impossible, to deliver.
And these factors don’t fully explain why employees and managers alike so often find their relationship frustrating and unfulfilling—why so many supervisors are seen as horrible bosses. To understand the full story, we must look beneath the apparent effects of workday realities. We must go to a deeper stratum of mental and emotional elements that affect how people experience their work and perceive their relationships with peers and managers.
It’s Good to Be the King
How well have managers, as a population, met the requirements posed by the evolving workforce? Not well, according to their direct reports. In Towers Watson’s workforce study, manager performance ranges from a depressing 55 percent favorable for providing clear goals (what could be more basic to the job?) to a dismal 39 percent for helping people with career planning, a key demand of employees in almost every company.
Poor manager performance takes a heavy emotional toll; a 2007 study of workplace emotion by a University of Minnesota team of researchers concluded that “employees experience less optimism, happiness, and enthusiasm when they interact with supervisors than when they interact with customers, clients, and coworkers.” Little wonder employees find that over-assertiveness and other manager transgressions reduce the engagement, enthusiasm, and optimism they feel at work. And little surprise that managers, faced with this emotional ambiguity, so often find their jobs stressful and unfulfilling.
Yet no large organization can function without some kind of vertical structure. Even in small, spontaneously formed work groups, someone almost always emerges as the de facto leader—it’s an imperative of human nature. Any evolutionary psychologist worthy of his framed Charles Darwin poster can explain why it’s good to be the one on top: because being higher on the organizational ladder brings more of the goodies that everyone values. In one laboratory experiment, high-powered individuals more often helped themselves to extra food, chewed with their mouths open, and got crumbs on their faces and on the table. And high-level people feel better too—in surveys, those with greater power more frequently express and experience positive moods and emotional states.
It’s easy to see why humans evolved leadership behaviors—they confer obvious advantages in surviving and finding a mate. But we also evolved a facility for evaluating our relative status in a given hierarchy and assessing the costs and benefits of competing for a higher position.
And there are tangible benefits to followership. For one thing, in choosing to step in line behind the leader, we avoid potentially dangerous status battles required of those who aspire to leadership dominance. Those battles range from physical conflicts to political contests to proxy fights.
Nevertheless, in forgoing the battle for status, we inevitably give up something. Hence, the decision to follow rather than lead engenders resentment, leaving followers deeply ambivalent and frustrated by those benefiting from their higher positions in the hierarchy. We have to wonder how much of the resentment about micromanagement has a genuine cause (a controlling supervisor) and how much of it stems from internal conflict that leads us to label almost any manager attention as micromanagerial. Perhaps the fault, dear employees, lies not (entirely) in our managers but (partly) in ourselves.
Striking a Balance
So even though we’re reminded daily that others get to call the shots, many of us prefer being followers. But that doesn’t mean that we like being told what to do. We submit to authority reluctantly, and we want those who have it to exercise it judiciously—with a light touch, or no touch at all. As a result, we place a heavy burden on managers to hit a target—a small target—between being too assertive and being too passive. A study conducted by Columbia University researchers concluded that there are two ways to get assertiveness wrong: by falling short when it’s time to take charge (“Why won’t she deal with the lazy sales reps?”) or by acting too aggressively (“Being hard-driving is fine, but this guy just won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion”.)
The happy medium is happy indeed. The Columbia research showed that managers who manifested moderate levels of assertiveness accomplished just as much as the most assertive, with far lower social costs (in the form of disgruntled employees). This doesn’t mean, however, that effective leaders are always moderately assertive. Rather, they display a range of situation-specific behavior. They take firm control of the reins when necessary and let the horses run free when they’re headed in the right direction.
The goal, therefore, is to transform managers into catalysts for employee performance, contributors to organizational success, and, in the best case, sources of competitive advantage rather just a hierarchical necessity. In the best of circumstances, good managers take the lead in creating an environment in which employees can give their best without being burdened, distracted, misguided, and frustrated. Achieving this transformation requires an organization to stop doing some things and start doing others.
The Big Kahuna Delusion
Many companies compound the frustrations of managers and employees alike by putting new managers into a professional death spiral. The downward descent begins right at the beginning—when companies promote their most skilled performers. In one study, 30 percent of managers in high-tech jobs reported that they advanced because of their specialized production qualifications. Their companies have fallen prey to the Big Kahuna Delusion: the notion that the most skilled expert will prove to be the best leader of other technical performers.
And things only spiral downward from there. Because the new manager is a top producer, her superiors, naturally, want her to spend plenty of time generating output. She finds herself in the role of player-coach, both leading and performing the same tasks done by those she leads. Also, because organizations are flat and getting flatter, the new manager—already expected both to make widgets and to lead widget-makers—often finds herself taking on more and more employees to supervise.
Some organizations, realizing that they have promoted skilled producers with no discernable relational or leadership abilities, will undertake to smooth the behavioral rough spots. But they sometimes go wrong by placing too much faith in training. And this dubious strategy becomes even less effective if budget cuts or shortsighted planning delays training until months into the new manager’s tenure—or leaves her with no counsel beyond a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing People. And there’s one final insult to add to all this injury: Some companies have introduced self-service systems that shift a heavy burden of administrative personnel tasks from HR to managers. Performing this administrative work further shrinks whatever time they had to address employee needs.
The result of all this: a manager who has neither the time nor the skill to create the productive workplace that employees demand. Remember, they come to work every day already doubting the competence of their immediate supervisors, in many cases with good reason. The death spiral creates a vortex of frustration that can produce only greater stress and burnout for managers and employees alike.
The first and most straightforward recommendation for dealing with the manager death spiral is, of course, to avoid dropping top performers into it. But keep in mind that, taken in isolation, each decision can seem sensible. Who’s really against having technically expert managers, cost-saving broad spans of control, disciplined oversight of training investments, and efficient manager self-service?
So the key is to change the process at the start of the death spiral—with assessment and promotion. In determining who has the capacity for successful leadership, at the supervisor level and beyond, organizations should of course place value on technical competence. They should put more emphasis, however, on identifying people who:
■ Emerge naturally as team leaders, gaining the regard and respect of their peers, not just for their technical knowledge but also for their empathy and judgment;
■ Are sought out by their peers for advice on many topics, not just technical ones;
■ Evidence an organizational perspective and an understanding of how the company works, how their units contribute to company success, and how their jobs, and those of others around them, fit into the big picture;
■ Demonstrate relationship savvy by dealing successfully with a broad range of personalities and perspectives; and
■ Aspire to a leadership position, not only because they will make more money but also because they find a realistic profile of the manager job to be appealing.
It’s only natural that, when assessing the pool of supervisor candidates, top management would first look to the most technically proficient—the best engineers, computer programmers, sales representatives—and sort for people who show at least a glimmer of potential to lead others. The problem, of course, is that this is where the Peter Principle asserts itself. Technical experts given managerial jobs for which they are unsuited will rise until they reach their ultimate level of leadership incompetence, which in many cases will occur immediately.
The converse—promoting those with demonstrated leadership ability but little expertise—is an equally flawed strategy: These managers can be undone by their lack of credibility or their inability to coach skilled technical workers.