Ask any manager what excites them about their role and it is unlikely that many will say “I just love managing people”
Managing budgets, managing projects & managing customers seem acceptable and even exhilarating on occasion. But managing staff and direct reports? Most managers would really rather not have to. Many would run a mile if they could. (Some do!) And others flatly refuse!
It’s as if the management of people is considered an unproductive and unnecessary distraction from the business of running a business.
Now I know I can be an awkward so-and-so. You see, I often change my mind. Sometimes I don’t feel well. Occasionally I need feedback. Once in a while I have a bright idea and I want someone not only to listen to it but actually do something with it. I like to know where I’m going, and I like to know that I will be supported when the going gets tough.
I might occasionally have a disagreement with a colleague and need some help resolving it. Every so often I want to be stretched and I’d like someone to facilitate this for me. And on rare occasions I actually feel so motivated that I do more than is asked of me or even good for me. Why wouldn’t anyone want to manage me? Am I so dissimilar to the majority of the workforce? OK, so some will be less demanding and some will be more demanding. But I think my requests are reasonable and fairly representative of most people. So, why does this make me so terrifying to managers? Am I really such an ogre? I think I’m a pussy-cat!
Why Has Management Developed at all?
I like managers. I think they have an important job to do. There’s a reasons why we’ve felt it necessary to have them.
Communication. As organisations expand, the need to control the flow of information has led to the creation of a management structure.
Decision making. This is generally better if it is owned by a small group of people. We’ve needed to create levels of authority with increasing powers to make decisions, and we’ve created managers to handle the largest ones.
So we can argue quite convincingly that management is a necessary tool that contributes to organisational success, on the whole. But it doesn’t explain why so many managers don’t like managing people (not just the awkward ones like me, but people in general). To do that, we have to look deeper.
“You want me to manage people? Are you serious?!”
I recently sent an article to a manager which covered the subject of how to manage poor attendance issues at work. The reply I received was this:
“The actual topic is much more in HR’s domain than mine and I try not to go there too much.”
What a sad indictment of our management capability. I haven’t yet figured out how it is possible for a general to win a battle if no-one turns up for duty. So how can managers manage the delivery of projects without making sure that people turn up for work? Why do they think it’s not their job?
We should never have let it get this bad. Because now, when we ask them to do it, it feels like they’re being picked on. Now it feels punitive. Now it feels like someone is passing the buck. There are so many grievances being created that the change is faltering and slow and painful.
WHAT HAPPENED TO SWITCH THEM OFF MANAGING ME?
A. Poor Career Management
What do we do when we spot someone doing a job really well?
Some bright spark at some point in the past obviously thought, “I know, we’ll stop them doing what they’re good at and get them to do something they haven’t got a clue about. We’ll promote them. That’ll be a great way to show how much we value them.”
What’s more shocking is that this solution has stuck.
Many managers didn’t set out to become professional managers. They didn’t decide at an early age, “I really want to learn how to manage people like Tim Lambert, and make that my career”. They become managers only because they were technically gifted in some other skill area, and the only way their employers knew how to reward them was by offering them a new role.
This lack of imagination about the way we reward people for the contribution they make, has a lot to answer for. It seems we still haven’t found a good alternative to promoting them up and out of the skill set that we wish to reward them for.
What other way is there for us to get on? It seems we have no real alternative other than to buy in to the whole promotion thing.
So a skilful teacher seeks to better their career prospects by applying for headship posts. The result is that they are now no longer required to teach, but to manage those who do. It’s a different skill set so it’s no wonder that some of them haven’t got it.
The skills that got them to this heady position are not the skills that will enable them to be successful in it. So it’s tempting to devalue the people management function, or to try and pass it on to someone else such as heads of department or deputy heads.
The same happens within our commercial organisations. We make people who are technically brilliant manage other people who are technically OK, and we no longer require them to exercise their old technical skills. How mad is that!
People might want the trappings of success (the managerial title, the extra cash, the kudos) but they don’t necessarily want to take on board the messy baggage of people. They don’t want it, because some of them aren’t equipped for it, and it wasn’t part of their game plan.
B. Unhealthy Dependence on Internal Specialists
I’d have a gardener to do the weeding, another to do the planting, and possibly another to do the designing (because they are all different skills): then I’d have a lighting expert to create the right ambience in my home; and an electrician to take care of my wiring and plug sockets.
I’d also have a decorator to keep the place looking ship-shape and fresh; a chef to prepare my meals (as long as they were low-fat); a fashion adviser/buyer to make sure I didn’t always look like a dog’s dinner; and someone to educate me on good music so that I didn’t have to constantly embarrass myself when people ask me, “What music do you like?” And if I needed a lobotomy, I’d go to a brain surgeon rather than try to dig around in there myself.
You see, all these things are things I am hopeless at. But I’m not rich, so I have to manage.
I have to buy my own flares and fluorescent shirts; I continue buying from the Easy Listening section at the music store; I decimate my plants at pruning time (when is that, by the way?); and I have a stack of light bulbs at home, none of which actually match the light fittings I have. I have yet to start digging around in my skull, though some might say I should give it a go.
How joyous to have a specialist available: it lets us off the hook. So, if it’s an IT issue, then the IT department should deal with it. If it’s a financial issue then the Finance Department should deal with it. And if it’s a people issue, that should go to Personnel. Great! Job done!
But it begs the question: what’s left?
Of course, we should allow people to play to their strengths, and where specialist expertise is required, we shouldn’t be afraid to access it, but the dependency on HR departments has got out of hand. It’s almost as ridiculous as saying, “I shouldn’t have to talk to my staff because I’m not the Head of Communications”
This situation isn’t helped by the apparent need some specialists have to prove their worth and justify their position. They start creating complex models, systems and processes, and issuing them like diktats throughout the organisation, just because they can, or because they can’t see anyone else doing it.
This creates internal antagonisms, where managers and employees subsequently find themselves jumping through hoops trying to make a system work that seems not to bear any relation to their real world.
And it also reinforces the idea of the ‘specialist’ function. It gives reluctant managers some justification perhaps in saying, “It’s not my job to do this. I’m not the expert.”
It’s a situation that has got so bad in some companies that senior people have started to say, “enough is enough”, and they have tried to pass the responsibility for people right back to the manager.
But as companies have sought to devolve more and more HR accountabilities to front line managers, some managers have dug their heels in and put up a fight.
I don’t condone it, but let’s be fair: it’s not hard to see why. To them it’s the latest in a long-running trend of passing more and more down. It started with losing secretarial and admin support so now they spend more time typing and making travel arrangements.
Now they are being told they’ve got to do Return-to-Work interviews, Appraisal Interviews, Succession Planning, Disciplinary Handling, Training Needs Analysis, & Coaching. “When am I going to find time to do any work?” they cry.
C. Them & Us
We’ve switched them off by making their job almost impossible. We say we want collaborative management styles and employee engagement, but then we go and create organisation structures that make this nigh on impossible.
We’ve created so many barriers between managers and employees that it has encouraged some managers to retreat back to their positions of safety: back to their reliance on old technical skills. And for some it has resulted in very unhappy relationships between them and their people.
Some managers feel like they’ve been thrown into a lion’s den with their arms tied behind their back.
“Our people are our greatest asset”. I am your greatest asset. You keep telling me this. It’s a cliché, I know, but I’d like to believe it.
So why do I keep seeing evidence to the contrary?
I know management is a powerful and responsible position. But it can feel like hierarchies are created simply to satisfy a desire some people have for wielding power, and that doesn’t go down well with employees.
We’ve been narrow-minded in the way we appoint and support people in this critical role, and it’s left some employees believing they’re not valued. I am prepared to accept that a person’s value and importance might be measured by their span of control and their increased authority to make decisions, but the upshot of this can be that less value is placed on front-line staff, setting up an automatic barrier between a manager and a direct report.
Sometimes it’s clear that management is primarily intended as policing (which is a sad waste). This doesn’t make us feel great and it’s even more galling when the policing doesn’t actually happen!
It looks like we keep building more and more layers of management because we don’t trust the layer below. The result is a situation where everyone is covering their backs and no-one’s looking out for me.
We create management positions just because we can’t think of a better way to reward or keep valued employees. This doesn’t make for competent management.
Honesty is the Best Policy
We put people in management roles that can’t do the job. They don’t bring the requisite skills. I need a manager who brings patience, strong communication skills, great listening, sharp organising, fine judgment, a capacity to be firm and supportive, and who feels comfortable giving feedback. But this isn’t usually what I get. Instead I get great Engineers, Researchers, Analysts, Scientists.
HOW ARE WE GOING TO SWITCH THEM BACK ON TO MANAGING ME?
There are times when I want to be managed. Not too closely, perhaps, and not all the time, but I definitely want someone to provide me with a rich and satisfying work experience.
For those of us who have had the benefit of a great manager, we know just how inspiring and positive it can be. But it’s too hit and miss, and it’s usually ‘miss’.
I believe there are ways to help managers manage me, and gain some mutual satisfaction from doing so.
First we need to put people firmly on the management agenda. If we don’t we may only really attract future managers who see this as a dispensable accountability.
Then we should turn on the heat by:
Being Honest. Tell new managers what is expected of them – clearly!s
Keeping people in roles where they can best utilise their skills
Exploring different ways of rewarding high performers other than promoting them
Fishing for generalists – go looking for management capability which is unrelated to specialist technical skills
Only creating management posts when there’s actually a management job to be done
1. Stop stitching them up and start being honest with them.
The function of management is to manage, and since all management activities involve people somewhere along the line, it’s inescapable that managing people will be a significant element.
It might be hard to swallow, but it really can’t be negotiable.
You wouldn’t expect a Priest to say “I’m OK with everything, except I won’t preach”.
We wouldn’t accept it if a teacher said, “I’m happy to prepare the lesson plans, but I don’t want to teach”.
And we’d be a bit shocked if our plumber said, “I’ll fit your new bathroom, but I don’t do pipework!”
People management is an integral part of the management role. You can’t divorce the two and you can’t pick and choose. So:
Managers need to know this before they become managers.
They need to be equipped with some of the skills before they are appointed as managers.
They need to recognise that the added reimbursement which accompanies the promotion is commensurate with the size of the challenge.
Depriving managers of this information isn’t helping them. They go into the role blind as to what is expected and required of them. Sometimes, they accept promotion without realising that they have now got a management role, because this isn’t made explicit.
They become offended and defensive when they suddenly realise what the role apparently entails. They resist it. Or they do it badly.
This isn’t good for anyone, especially for people like me and all our various needs. Where am I going to get my feedback, my direction, my support, my challenge?
2. Keep Specialists in their specialist roles
Why don’t we leave them where they are, where they are happy and able to make the biggest contribution, (if they are performing well and there is a role for them and that’s where they want to be)?
Why penalise them by requesting that they no longer do the things they have developed a talent (and possibly a love) for? Why make giving up something you love a condition for success?
3. Reward exceptional performers differently
A specialist will retain a vested interest in practicing or promoting their specialism. After all, it’s what they like and what they are good at. So we need to find other ways to reward them.
Expand their role, give them greater authority; let them work on bigger projects; use them as role-models; and if necessary, pay them more. But don’t automatically promote them into management if that isn’t what they want!
4. Start Fishing for Generalists
The manager’s role is broad and complex. It has to be because it brings them into contact with complex characters like me. It draws on a diverse range of skills and involves many varied activities.
I need my manager to be able to help and support me in ways that go far beyond what a specialist can do. I might need access to specialists as well, but I need my manager to fulfil a different function (or many different functions).
So if we are to find and appoint people who can do this, we perhaps shouldn’t be looking just in the Specialist pool for our management potential.
People who are very skilled at one thing are not automatically going to be great at another thing, like management. Some of the best tennis coaches in the world never achieved playing success. They know the game, and how to play it, but they can’t necessarily play it as well as they can help others play it. And some of the greatest players make the lousiest coaches!
So we need to cast our net wider than those specialists at the top of their game.
For management roles, we need to be looking for people who can flex and be responsive in ways that meet the varying needs of different situations.
We need to go fishing in a different recruitment pool, and promote the idea of being ‘generalist’ more vigorously.
This doesn’t mean that we want Jacks of all trades, who aren’t really very good at a lot of things. Managers need to be highly competent in a lot of areas. And they need sound knowledge of the areas they are managing in order to build skill and credibility in managing the activities and careers of specialists in their care.
People are demanding, so we need to demand something different from our managers to satisfy these demands. Our managers need to be well equipped to get the very best out of me and others like me.
5. Create Management Roles Only When There is a Role for Management
If this means losing some people because you cannot satisfy their career aspirations that is a lower price to pay than making a job up for them.
Sometimes we create management roles that are best filled by administrators. We pay a premium for this whilst getting a less efficient service.
Sometimes we add management duties to a role that was never designed as a management role, just to justify an increased pay scale. But we still expect the person to do all the work they did before, plus the management stuff.
So when we are considering creating or filling a
management post, we need to:
be clearer about what we want from the role and why we think it is necessary
be wary of the less savoury reasons that lead to the creation of a management roles
consider the impact of creating a management post or a new tier of management
analyse carefully the value of the post before we appoint or think of appointing.
Basically, if there is another way to do it, try that first before creating a management post.
Ain’t No Stopping You, Now
Great managers are great! But not all managers are great, or even managers!
In future, when we create managers and management structures, the least we can do is pick the right ones, let them know what the role entails and give them the tools to do the job.
And if you are one of those lucky managers that gets to manage me, console yourself with the fact that life will never be dull!