The Gallup Organization surveyed over 7,000 members of the US workforce and found that half of them have left a job at some point in their careers solely because they could no longer put up with their manager. MSN, 4/2/15
In a recent on-line exchange of views on the role of a manager, a sometime consultant in management and frequent blogger on the subject confided to me his belief that “the average manager really isn’t competent, and I’m convinced that the average employee knows it.” It is a rather blunt assessment of the state of the management art that is hard to fully refute. It appears to be a widely held perspective on the capabilities of managers in general. Each morning the business page of my newspaper offers a new take on the incompetence of managers as depicted in Scott Adams’ syndicated Dilbert strip. Every day, Scott Adams gleefully skewers bosses as clueless dolts or strategically challenged domeheads. His mocking depiction of management has endured over multiple decades.
Most management advice focuses on how to be an effective, good-guy manager. Apparently, a good many working managers disregard that counsel and thereby incur the lasting animosity of employees. If a manager wants to be more than just effective, there is merit in addressing the question in the title of this piece. Mere admonishment to be positive, inclusive, and open to employee need does not help avoid the mistakes of judgement or action that incur worker antagonism. Practical advice is needed.
A common mistake is attempting to “motivate” someone by making promises or representations that cannot realistically be kept. It is risky to suggest that a promotion or large raise in pay could be forthcoming when specified results are achieved. Threats or promises put forward to motivate desired behavior are almost always bad practice, even if made in earnest and carried out. They are most likely to be invoked when commitment and teamwork are too weak to produce the desired performance. It is the equivalent of motivating fighters into battle with a whip. The right approach is to develop commitment to the team and its objectives. That takes competence.
A manager will evoke special enmity from an employee for tendering an unfair judgement of that employee’s motive for action taken. Prematurely offering criticism of action or performance before getting all the facts gives the appearance of disinterest or prejudice. Calling out someone for poor productivity when the problem is inadequate training, lack of the manager’s support, poor materials, or interference from others will be seen as incompetence or disinterest. Misjudging the employee’s purpose in going outside formal lines of communication implies mistrust of the employee’s intent. It may also suggest that the manager lacks confidence in his/her use of authority and fears that control over the workplace will be lost. When employees read it as such, it plants the seed of contempt and disrespect.
The manager who neglects to seek out relevant experience or information from employees is likely to be seen as incompetent, even when the action taken is effective. Making a poor decision for lack of that information will almost surely be derided. People need to be valued for their special capabilities. The manager who makes major plans and decisions without help becomes isolated from those who must implement them. The obverse of this error is the manager who passes problems on to employees without guidelines for their solution. This manager can be seen as trying to avoid responsibility for the eventuality of failure. Too much “participative management” is not a good thing.
There are no easy paths to mastery of the manager’s craft. The role of manager imposes the requirements of accountability, responsibility, and effective exercise of authority. From the employee’s perspective, a manager exercises awesome fate control over career and economic circumstance. Neglect or mishandling of any part of the manager’s role can be taken as incompetence. Authority, in particular, must be exercised with great restraint and delicacy. Ill-considered judgments, criticisms, and actions will not pass unnoticed. The manager is always in the center of the spotlight for those who are managed. Dealing with that reality demands the confidence and grace that comes with competence.
For more from Glenn Bassett, check out his book The Manager’s Craft: Exercising Control, Building Commitment, Sustaining Productivity.
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