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Leadership Lessons: Poor Managers Thwart Good Organizations

Over my career, I enjoyed full-time employment with eight different organizations, and with the exception of the last one, in each case I joined a good organization and then ultimately quit a poor manager. The last one is the notable exception because that’s when I quit to start my own organization and no manager, good, great or brilliant could have kept me on the payroll. 

Over the years, as I’ve listened to friends and associates relate their work experiences and soaked up a myriad of stories from the workplace, I’ve come to the conclusion that my “joining and quitting” behaviour wasn’t that unusual. We join organizations and we quit managers. This isn’t an idle observation; it’s an incredibly costly one. How much of our turnover is due, not to official management philosophy, but instead to either ignorance of that philosophy or simply due to a single manager’s inability to manage?

If we take the time to carefully examine how people become managers, this isn’t that surprising. We promote ‘doers’ to supervisory positions and rarely make any effort to train them how to ‘supervise’ rather than just ‘do’. Perhaps more to the point, when we first become managers, we’re typically oblivious to the fact that ‘management’ is a fundamentally different task compared to anything we’ve done in the past. This can lead to incidents worthy of the most amusing TV sitcoms.

Many many moons ago, (yikes… about 325 moons ago to be precise) I was promoted from an analyst position to a supervisory role, for the next 2-3 years I stumbled along the rocky road to management, inflicting pain and anguish on myself, my staff and my clients. Why? Because I really had no clue what it meant to be a ‘manager’ of people.

As a manager, my department was responsible for an awful lot of work. Even though I had six people reporting to me, I operated under my old belief that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. Have you ever seen someone trying to do the work of six people? People would see me barreling down the corridors of the organization and dive out of the way, for fear of being run over. The “do it myself” philosophy is a successful strategy for a hands-on problem solver, but for a manager? It was a disaster. A manager must learn to delegate, and it’s not something that’s intuitive.

By doing the work myself, I was communicating very strongly that I didn’t value my staff – people quit managers for that reason.

Once I grasped I had to rely on other people, I started to give them assignments, but I didn’t trust them. It was my department, I was responsible for getting the work done correctly, so I micromanaged them. This is a euphemism for what I really did. I perched on their shoulders looking at their work. I constantly kibitzed. I reached for the keyboard. I interrupted. I intruded. All with the best of intentions. What it took me a long time to learn on my own, was that what a good manager must do, is give up control, in order to allow their people to work. Yes, as a manager I was responsible for the work, but that did not mean I had to have full control from minute to minute. As a worker that makes no sense, as a manager it’s our new reality.

By micromanaging I was communicating very clearly that I didn’t trust my staff – people quit managers for that reason.

Even with the rudiments of delegating under my belt – I was a very busy person. There was lots for a manager to do. People to see, reports to write, information to gather etc. etc. That didn’t leave much time for inconsequential meetings with my staff and certainly no time for one on one meetings. I prioritized what I thought was the important stuff, and left no time for my staff. I was a manager in absentia. I didn’t realize that until I made the time to know more about my people, that I’d never be able to create a team, instill loyalty or give my ‘human resources’ a sense of purpose.

By not making time for my staff I was communicating very loudly that I wasn’t interested in their well-being and growth – people quit managers for that reason.

Those are just three mistakes made by a somewhat reasonably intelligent person thrust into a management role without training. There were other mistakes I made, and some that I intuitively avoided. I never chastised an employee in front of others – but I’ve seen new (and sadly older) managers do that. I never broke a promise to an employee, but I did inadvertently play favourites. I gave the most interest assignments to the most capable – without realizing that that created resentment amongst other staff members – and without realizing that interesting assignments are the best training tools at my disposal and the very best way to motivate people to excel and to build loyalty.

It requires no mean intent to be a bad manager; all that’s required is ready made ignorance. The cure is a minimal continual dose of management training provided before, during and after the transition to managing people. People quit bad managers. Regardless of how good the organization, no matter the public image, it’s the person we report to who has the greatest contribution on our daily work experience. Bad managers drive out good employees. 

By the same token, a good manager, one who treats their employees fairly, honestly and with integrity will retain staff in all but the most tyrannical of organizations. Even though Gandhi wasn’t a traditional manager he had it right, “Be the change you want to see in your organization” – even if his ‘organization’ was the entire world. His wisdom still rings true, for better or worse it is individuals who create the world/organizations we live in.

© 2015 Peter de Jager – Reprinted with Permission