Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”
Recently, I was interviewed by Radhika Panjwani for the Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail, exploring the topic of why promoting your star employee into a managerial role may not be a good idea, and can in fact lead to serious problems for the team and organization. Among other things, we discussed The Peter Principle – the idea that “in hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his/her level of incompetence,” which was made popular back in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter in his bestselling book, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.
As I shared in the interview, the challenge for many organizations is that there simply aren’t many people who are truly up to the task of effective, empowering leadership. Contrary to what people say today, everyone is not a leader, and certainly everyone is not a good one. Great leadership requires training and experience, as well as solid, constructive feedback about our approach, communication style, managerial focus and more. To be an effective leader who engenders trust and support and delivers great results, we also need emotional self-mastery and self-awareness, strong communication, healthy boundaries, a strategic mindset and a keen understanding that leading is not doing other people’s jobs for them.
From my view through coaching thousands of mid- to high-level professionals globally, a key initiative that is missing in today’s organizations is offering ongoing leadership training and guidance that builds a process of encouraging people to take on “stretch tasks” that help them prepare for leadership. That includes helping them engage in higher-level thinking, problem evaluation and solution, brainstorming and sharing their ideas to a wider, more senior audience, and thinking more strategically about how their role and tasks fit into the larger picture.
We need to also encourage employees to think and behave as inspiring, empowering leaders. For that to occur, organizations must provide ongoing opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship of employees, where successful leaders can be matched with emerging leaders and provide real-time guidance and feedback. The ultimate goal is to give employees a true chance to make a bigger positive impact if they wish to.
So what’s going wrong today with so many managers? What are the key attributes of an incompetent manager or leader?
Overall, I’ve seen there are four categories of managerial incompetence that cover the wide spectrum of what is going terribly wrong with managers today:
1) They’re doing not managing
These folks have often been effective at “doing”—meaning, executing functions and tasks of their jobs well (and often these are sales roles where they’re generating a good deal of revenue for their companies). Because of that, they have been promoted to a managerial position. But many have never received any training on how to lead others well. “Doing” and “managing” are radically different endeavors that require different skills, experience and focus. Motivating and supporting employees to collectively pursue a specific leadership strategy or vision is very different from straightforward execution of job tasks.
2) They lack strong communication skills and relational connection
Poor managers often haven’t developed the communication skill and ability to say what needs to be said honestly and openly, with empathy and care, in ways that truly motivate others to act in support of the manager’s visions and goals.
3) They have insufficient emotional self-mastery
To be an effective manager, we have to have a handle on our emotions and understand how to relate to people in a healthy and productive way. Poor managers often let their emotions run rampant and get the better of them, and don’t have the emotional self-awareness to lead in positive, motivating ways that inspire trust, belonging, and engagement.
In addition, they often can’t see their own blind spots and areas of weakness, bias and imbalance, and aren’t open to feedback that would support them to change and grow.
4) They don’t know how to lead through times of deep change
As we’re all seeing right now, we’re in times of deep change and in many cases, great instability. Bad managers often haven’t acquired a sufficient understanding of what change really is and how change impacts human beings. On the flip side, they don’t understand what propels growth in people, and what helps employees come together collaboratively to work together through fear-inducing times of change and rapid growth.
All of this requires the manager to undergo their own personal and leadership growth process, and to address and overcome their fears, biases, and faulty assumptions, so they can foster a culture where people feel safe and understood, and can share their vulnerabilities and concerns when the necessary changes are difficult.
Other ways that managers fail their people involve emotional mistreatment and eroding trust and respect, including:
- Demeaning and ridiculing their employees publicly or privately
- Suppressing or disallowing questions that employees need to ask, to do their jobs well
- Making employees feel “stupid,” inadequate, or inferior when they struggle or don’t meet expectations
- Refusing to make regular time to meet with their employees and give them the constructive guidance, training and feedback that they need
- Blaming their teams or employees for under-performance when the manager is actually the one responsible
What are the costs of a bad manager?
Most of us have experienced firsthand the painful repercussions of a bad manager. And for organizations, the negative impact reaches far beyond a specific dollar amount. It’s a widespread hit to the work culture as a whole.
In terms of the cost of a bad hire, there are many estimates out there, with anywhere from $17,000 to $240,000. From what I’m hearing as a career and leadership coach and trainer within and outside organizations, there’s an even greater negative impact than a specific dollar amount. It’s been shown in numerous research studies that of all the factors propelling people to leave an organization, it’s often bad managers that drive people out the most.
For example, in my recent LinkedIn poll, I asked this question:
“Which one of these four factors would be the strongest impetus for you to quit your job, or seriously look for another job?”
The answer: A stunning 51% of 2900+ voters indicated that a terrible manager would be the strongest driver to quitting, even over not being allowed to advance (19%), knowing your salary is too low (16%), and being discriminated against (14%).
Again, a poor, ineffective or disruptive manager impacts turnover, morale, engagement, trust, belonging, loyalty, productivity, innovation, company performance, reputation, and more.
What can employees do if they are under the thumb of an incompetent or damaging manager?
Here are 5 steps to consider:
Assess the entire ecosystem that allows it
A workplace is a “system” and systems operate with certain processes, most of which focus on “homeostasis” (keeping the system the same). Often, bad managers aren’t just a “one off” problem but a sign of a bigger, more prevalent problem. The work culture and leadership sustain the problem, by failing to take action or addressing the root causes such as managers hurting morale, mistreating employees, causing fear or generating instability and conflict on their teams and more. Take a long, hard look at the work culture as a whole, and make a decision if this is really a place you want to stay and give your all to. And get clearer on if you really want to continue working for this specific manager by asking these questions.
Determine the specific ways in which this manager is detrimental to the team or organization
Assessing the specific way in which your manager is detrimental to you personally or the team can help you figure out what to do next.
In a Forbes interview I recently conducted with Tessa West, author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What To Do About Them, she describes 7 types of jerks at work. For each type of negative “jerk” behavior, there are specific ways to handle the problem. Decide how prevalent the bad behavior is, and if you need to address it directly or some other way.
West offers three small steps to begin with, to address the problem: 1) Embrace small conflicts, 2) Give feedback that is small and frequent, and 3) Create a network that is broad not just deep.
Interview regularly outside your organization
Another essential approach to making sure you don’t fall under (or remain stuck under) a terrible manager involves interviewing regularly for jobs outside your current organization.
Almost nothing is as information- and feedback-rich as the process of interviewing outside your current company for another job. It will give you so much essential knowledge—about your current value in the market, about what other work cultures are like, about your competitive advantage (and if you need to expand that), and about the compensation and benefits you could be earning, and new directions you can take.
For many professionals (if not most), they wait far too long before they interview at other organizations because they’re deeply afraid of change or fail to believe in their own talents and abilities. Don’t make that mistake. Interview regularly and do what’s required to stay competitive in your field. That way, you won’t feel you’re being held hostage by a terrible manager or an organization that doesn’t do what’s required to build a safe, productive environment where you can thrive.
Finally, reclaim your self-esteem, power and confidence
The best way to ensure we don’t have to remain in a job, team or organization that is damaging, is to reclaim your confidence and self-esteem. You can do that by recognizing what my research working with thousands of professionals has revealed are the 7 most damaging power and confidence gaps that keep us from reaching our highest potential and most important and exciting goals for a happier, more rewarding career. A staggering 98% of professional women are experiencing at least one of these gaps and 75% have three or more:
The 7 damaging power and confidence gaps are:
Gap #1: Not Recognizing Your Special Talents, Abilities and Accomplishments (63% have this gap)
Gap #2: Communicating from Fear, Not Strength (70%)
Gap #3: Reluctance to Ask for What You Want and Deserve (77%)
Gap #4: Isolating From Influential Support (71%)
Gap #5: Acquiescing Instead of Saying “STOP!” to Mistreatment (48%)
Gap #6: Losing Sight Of Your Thrilling Dream for Your Life (76%)
Gap #7: Allowing The Past To Continue to Define You (62%)
The sooner we can close these gaps and become more confident and empowered in our own lives and careers, the sooner we’ll find better ways to work—with managers and leaders we respect, who value and support us in return, as we engage in doing work we enjoy and are proud of.