I was about to give a leadership talk. And while listening to the topic before me, another speaker told the crowd “people don’t leave organizations, they leave managers.”
And his obvious point was to put some pressure on our newest batch of managers. To make sure they understood the gravity of their new responsibility.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how ridiculous this line is. It’s a good sound bite. But it’s also complete garbage.
I won’t disagree that people leave managers. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever worked with a bad boss.
But people also leave the organization. Because there’s really no difference between the two.
If an organization has poor managers, then it’s a poor organization. They’re complicit in allowing bad managers to stay in their positions. So if an employee is leaving a poor manager, he’s really leaving a company that has elected to support a poor manager.
So we need to stop saying this phrase. It lets the company off the hook. It lets them rationalize not taking action to address the real problem.
Management is the Organization
“Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it’s a magnificent profession.” – Clayton M. Christensen
Managers don’t do the real work. They’re involved in the process. And they help wherever they can. But when it comes right down to it, they aren’t the people who generate the real value in our companies.
If you ever want to test this, try to have a manager create something from scratch. More often than not they’ll freeze up. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to start with a blank page. They’ve forgotten how to take that first step into creating a tangible product.
And maybe that’s okay. Because managers have a different role to play. They’re there to lead and develop. They influence through motivation and vision. And they reinforce the culture by recognizing performance and addressing issues.
But they do this as a conduit. They represent the company’s mission and values and demonstrate that to their team. So it shouldn’t be surprising that employees often associate their manager’s values with their company’s values. That’s how the company represents itself to them.
So a manager’s behavior quickly becomes an employee’s vision of the company culture. Because whatever behavior it is, if it’s allowed, it becomes company-endorsed.
How Do We Get Bad Managers in the First Place?
“Leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow.” – Dogbert
Nearly everyone’s had a poor manager at one point in time. I’ve got several to choose from. One couldn’t make a decision to save his life. Another was prone to bouts of random yelling. And yet another was completely unburdened by the presence of any ethical standards (he was eventually found guilty of fraud charges).
Who among us hasn’t wondered, “just how did this bunch of losers get promoted in the first place?”
And there’s probably lots of different answers, but it often comes down to two key principles.
Scott Adams developed the Dilbert Principle to highlight the practice of promoting the least competent performers into management as a means of keeping them from doing the actual work. We want our highest quality engineers and programmers doing the work, not dealing with management issues. So we promote those that aren’t critical to the product.
How often will an organization look at it’s management candidates and rule people out because they’re “just too critical in their current role?” We rationalize it away by saying that we just don’t see someone’s career going down that path. And explain that they’ll have more success and influence if they continue within their current role.
Yet the only reason that someone is “too critical in their current role” is because they’re covering for a larger weakness in the organization. Leaving these talented people in place allows the organization to not confront this lack of depth, and continue in happy ignorance of a serious future problem.
Conversely, the Peter Principle, a theory developed by Laurence Peter in 1969, demonstrates our tendency to promote people up to the level of their incompetence. Where the Dilbert Principle suggests we avoid promoting those who excel in their positions, the Peter Principle targets this practice. It says our best engineer must deserve that promotion to management. And that our top programmer is clearly ready for the challenge of leading people.
This principle thrives in companies where management doesn’t focus on developing leadership skills in their employees. Most people understand that engineering skills don’t necessarily translate to management skills. And simply because someone can develop software code doesn’t mean they can develop people. But if a company hasn’t challenged their employees to lead, they can’t assess their leadership skills. If they’ve never asked their employees to influence a team, they don’t understand their management capabilities. So they rely on technical skills. Not as a preferred method, but in the absence of a better one.
Both principles focus on how people perform in their current jobs, not how they’ll perform in their future ones. If we want to stop the stream of poor management promotions, we need to focus on what it takes to be a successful manager.
And to do that, we need to start preparing employees with leadership challenges well before they’re being considered for promotion. We need to let them overcome adversity early in their careers. Otherwise the stakes are too high when they eventually see these challenges.
And from the companies I’ve worked with, most recognize this practice. But we also need to recognize that no hiring process is foolproof. We will make poor decisions. It’s the elite organizations that can then recognize and handle them.
Would I Hire This Person Today?
“No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.” – Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
My wife became a Konvert recently. I’m under a lot of pressure to tidy away all of my things.
And while we have very different thoughts on what exactly should “spark joy,” there’s no doubt it’s a great practice. Focus on things that are truly valuable and clean out the rest.
But what if we applied the same practice to our companies?
What if we asked, “if I was starting this practice today, would I do it?”
Or what if we asked, “if I’m hiring for this management position today, would I hire the incumbent manager? Is he still a good choice or is he no longer a suitable candidate?”
And if the answer’s no, why should we allow him to remain in that position?
Why should we continue to support something if we wouldn’t choose it today?
Are We Falling Victim to Sunk Cost Fallacy?
You’re going to see a movie which costs $10 a ticket. When you take out your wallet to buy one, you realize you’ve lost $10. Do you still buy the ticket?
Now imagine you bought your ticket in advance. But right before handing it over at the entrance, realize you’ve lost the ticket. Would you buy another one?
Both situations are the same. You lost $10 and need to pay another $10 to see the movie. But in a study by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, they found that people respond differently to each situation. In the first instance, only 12 percent of people would not see the movie. In the second, 54 percent wouldn’t.
The difference lies in our vulnerability to sunk cost fallacy, a tendency to make backward looking decisions. To focus on what we’ve already paid for something as opposed to the future benefits. In the study, people were biased when they felt that the $10 was used for a specific purpose and then lost. Which skews our value of it.
And we can see this same behavior in most companies. Whether it’s a product or a person, we value the investment that we’ve made. We focus on what we’ve put into this person so far instead of what we’ll get out of them going forward.
But when we overly focus on the sunk costs of developing someone, we fail to rationally consider the best future decision.
So we need to continue asking ourselves, “if we were making this decision again today, would we make the same decision? Why or why not?”
And that doesn’t make it easy. But we can better prepare ourselves by taking two steps. Understanding how to spot a poor manager. And lessening the negative stigma behind people stepping down.
Recognize Poor Management. It’s Not Just About Performance.
“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” – Albert Einstein
When I’ve asked most companies how they evaluate their managers, they’ll share metrics. One department gives delivery rate or defect totals. Another department proudly displays earnings or some fancy financial data.
And these are important. But should they be our main indicators of a successful manager?
What about developing people? Do we know which managers have developed and promoted the most employees? Few companies can tell me where employees gain the best coaching. Or which managers struggle with this.
Do we understand which managers are encouraging risk-taking as a means of innovation? And which managers are promoting conformity as a much safer option?
We’re very quick to recognize a manager who doesn’t hit this quarter’s numbers. We’re much less apt to realize when one isn’t setting us up for a strong long-term future.
Who among us isn’t quick to criticize a company that maximizes this quarter’s profits at the expense of long-term development? But if we’re only focusing on performance metrics, are we falling into the same trap?
So we need to understand our criteria for management success. Because until we do that, we can’t recognize when someone isn’t meeting it.
Find the Right Spot for Everyone
“The only thing we know is that this spot was the wrong one for the man. This does not mean that he is not the ideal man for some other job. Appointing him was my mistake, now it’s up to me to find what he can do.” – General George Marshall
It’s not an easy thing to ask someone to step down from their position.
But we do it in other situations. We reassign work and move people into different spots that best suit their strengths. We rotate people so they can take on new projects.
But we hesitate to do that with managers. And it shouldn’t be such a surprise. When we celebrate promotions as we do, a move to the contrary will seem like a failure.
Most companies celebrate management promotions. Some issue notices throughout the company praising newly promoted managers for their success. Most give additional raises and salary benefits. Getting to management is celebrated as a major accomplishment.
We send the message that to get promoted is to win. Which seems like a good message to send out. But it also means that when people decide management isn’t for them, they’re no longer that winner.
So we need to create an environment that recognizes the importance of finding the best fit for everyone. We need to celebrate any transfer or reassignment or promotion that helps someone find the place they can be most effective.
And we need to encourage people to have honest conversations. To have the courage to tell people this isn’t working and keeping at it is a poor investment of their time. And then work with them to find a better spot.
When we can do that, we’ll have a company where people are driven by their own effectiveness. We’ll have a company full of people in positions where they’ll grow and flourish. And we’ll stop losing people because we have bad managers. Because then we’ll no longer be a bad company.