Why managers don’t manage, and how to help them

There are three major reasons why managers don’t manage:

  1. They’re uncomfortable in their role.
  2. They lack confidence in their skills.
  3. They simply don’t know what to do.

Managers have to make difficult and sometimes painful decisions. Addressing poor performance, imposing discipline, transferring or demoting employees, and responding to grievances can cause even seasoned managers to lose sleep. Acting as judge and jury can be unsettling, particularly if your employees are former peers and friends.

Some individuals are just not psychologically suited or emotionally ready to be managers. I have a classic example.

I was teaching a class on supervisory skills to newly promoted managers. After hearing about the responsibilities inherent in the position, one manager came to see me at the break. She had decided she no longer wanted to be a manager if she might have to discipline or fire an employee, particularly someone who had been a long-time peer. She left the class and effectively demoted herself back to her previous non-supervisory position.

How would you know that managers are uncomfortable with their role?

  1. They are still performing the work they did prior to their promotion to manager.
  2. They give good evaluations to employees regardless of their performance.
  3. They prefer to be friends rather than their employees’ superior.
  4. They do not address performance issues.
  5. They articulate their unhappiness and discomfort to colleagues.

How can you help your managers past these barriers? You can build your managers’ comfort in their role by having pre-supervisory training programs for aspiring managers. This training can help potential managers understand the full range of their responsibilities and the difficult decisions they will be expected to make. They can try out the role in various simulations, which will enable them to make an informed decision about their true interest and readiness for a managerial position.

Another option is to ensure that the recruitment and selection process clearly spells out what managers are expected to do and what that really means for the new manager. Use behavioral and scenario interviewing for potential new management hires. Provide questions related to the difficult real-life decisions that managers need to make, and ask the applicants to explain how they have handled the situations in the past and how they would handle them now.

Some managers avoid making the difficult decisions because they are afraid of making a mistake. They lack confidence in their ability to assess a situation and determine the best way to respond. Or they take action and then second-guess their decisions. Very often, these managers operate in a vacuum, without sufficient access to or support from other managers.

How can you tell that a manager lacks confidence?

  1. They come to human resources to discuss every employee situation.
  2. They back down from their suggestions at the first sense that they lack support from their peers or upper management.
  3. They get very stressed over decisions they need to make.
  4. They do not initiate any changes in their staffing or operating procedures.
  5. They hide their lack of confidence behind bluster, bragging, and blaming others for inadequacies.

When managers lack confidence, their employees know it and may try to take advantage of it by manipulating or misrepresenting facts or issues. As a result, their employees are essentially in the driver’s seat. Then it becomes very difficult for the manager to manage daily activities, implement change, or impose discipline. Managers may hide their shortcomings by refusing to accept responsibility for their actions or inactions.

A case in point occurred when a bank changed its software. The bank branches started losing member deposits. The branch managers literally could not locate where the deposits had been directed. Managers in the central office blamed the branch managers for their incompetence. It wasn’t until we brought all of the managers together that they were able to remember that they shared the same goal: to serve the members. Once the faultfinding ended, the central managers were able to admit that they had not properly trained the branch managers on how the new software worked.

You can build your managers’ confidence by providing mentors drawn from the more seasoned and experienced managers. The mentors can help the new managers understand the company culture and upper management’s expectations. The mentors can also share their experiences, including their mistakes, to encourage and support the new managers.

Another option is to establish meeting times for managers from throughout the company to get to know each other and establish relationships that will provide mutual support and encouragement. Once those relationships are established, managers will be able to use their peers as sounding boards for decisions or initiatives they are planning.

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What are clear indicators that your managers need training?

  1. They second-guess every decision they make.
  2. They don’t make decisions.
  3. They have no idea how to handle employee issues.
  4. They have a management style that is not conducive to good employee performance or morale.
  5. They are unable to meet program goals.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve provided management training to long-term managers who had never been given any training before. They had been operating on blind faith and good sense, and often in the dark, hoping they were doing the right thing. When managers aren’t given the skills they need to be successful, it is generally a recipe for disaster.

For example, I was called in to help a nonprofit organization because the employees were making costly mistakes. After investigating, it became clear that the managers had never communicated their needs and expectations to their staff. The managers automatically assumed that their employees knew, possibly through osmosis, what they were expected to do. The managers had never been given training on performance management or delegation.

In another instance, I consulted with a government agency where a manager had been charged with discrimination against women. It was alleged that he showed favoritism to his male employees when making assignments, so the women were denied the experience necessary for them to be promoted to higher levels.  

The manager was appalled by the discrimination complaint and justified his assignment decisions on the basis of perceived readiness to perform. The women employees would come into his office to discuss different ways to approach the assignment and the manager assumed that they needed him to tell them what to do. In fact, the women only intended to use him as a sounding board. He had not intentionally discriminated; it was just that he had never been trained in the differences in problem-solving styles between men and women.

The best way you can build your managers’ capabilities is through training. Often, particularly regarding discrimination complaints, companies wait until there is a problem before scheduling training. As you can tell from the examples I’ve shared, managers really need the training at the beginning of their careers. One training session will not provide all of the skills of a manager. There are so many changes going on in the world and in business, it isn’t possible to anticipate all of the new knowledge and skills that managers may need. Training in management basics and the complementary soft skills will provide a good foundation.

Training will always be necessary if there are changes in policies, procedures, operating systems, or strategic goals. If there is a pattern of behavior that indicates a manager lacks the necessary knowledge or skill to handle certain situations, training should be an immediate consideration. Another way to identify the need for training is to ask managers what they need in a way that supports their growth and development, rather than couching any training need as corrective or remedial.

In a survey conducted by the Center for Learning and Performance Technologies in 2017, over 5,000 managers were asked to rate the usefulness of 12 work-related learning methods. The least-valued learning methods were classroom training — essentially lecture and death by PowerPoint — and e-learning. Conversely, self-organized and self-managed forms of learning were rated highest.

The classic leadership development program, conducted in physical isolation from the organization and outside of its operational context, needs to be replaced by experiences that build in real work, risk, and accountability; intentional networking; exposure; collaboration; just-in-time-learning; and on-the-job problem solving. The most effective learning comes from experience, experimentation, and reflection.

Deborah Spring Laurel is the chief learning officer of The Peer Learning Institute.

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