Why do so many companies consistently and with depressing regularity keep promoting people to people manager positions when the clearly lack people skills? They are not supposed to do the job, rather get the job done. How can the if they can’t inspire and hold their teams together.
It’s healthy to start by asking how many people in any profession are good at their job? I’m not sure that management is an exception. Perhaps in general we’re not as good as the basic fundamentals in most professions and daily tasks as we assume. Trying to find a good car mechanic, landscaper or or a general contractor (to, say, remodel your kitchen) isn’t easy. Good people are hard to find.
Specific to management, “people skills” includes a wide range of things that are hard to find in one person: emotional intelligence, empathy, communication skills, decision making talents, role definition, honest/trustworthiness, conflict resolution, political acumen and more. It’s a hard job that’s often not rewarded well.
Here are five specific reasons why many managers you experience have poor skills:
- It takes a good manager to hire one. If the head of the department doesn’t have good people and leadership skills, odds are low they’ll hire someone who does have them. Either they won’t be able to recognize those skills, or even if they do, they won’t prioritize hiring for them. This means good people skills are often an element of culture: some organizations truly value it and make sacrifices for it (e.g. paying for training to improve management/people skills), while others do not. If the executive is merely waiting to retire and is indifferent to the legacy they leave behind, many kinds of dysfunction and incompetence will go on until they finally walk out the door.
- If good managers are scarce they go where they are rewarded. Better organizations, and better teams in any organization, will have a higher standard for many different aspects of work. It’s wise to scout for which teams are managed well and use your network to find your way into them. The best career move is often to find a better manager, even if it’s not the ideal project or role (they will help you in ways than more than compensate for those sacrifices).
- If the only way to get a raise is to manage, people become managers for bad reasons. In most organizations the only promotion that comes with more financial rewards is to start managing people. They’re not doing it simply because they want and like to manage people, they’re doing it purely for mercenary reasons. Smarter organizations recognize this conflict of interest and have at least two promotion paths: one that is independent and centered on individual skill/influence growth, and the other more traditional path of management. The Peter Principle is real, which means if a person ends up in a role they’re not good at it’s often easier politically for their boss to leave them there than to deal with consequences of admitting to and correcting the mistake.
- Some bad people managers “manage up” well. Managing up is the skill of influencing superiors. This is an important skill for anyone, but especially for managers. In some cases a bad people manager can succeed well enough in other ways and persuade their superiors that they are doing a wonderful job. Unless their superiors provide a channel for feedback from line level employees (e.g. skip level feedback), a manager is never evaluated in an objective way on what working for them is like. Another signal to senior managers of problems is retention: if employees flee working for a manager at a high rate, that should be a warning sign to any executive who cares about how well people are treated. But if executives don’t care to know, dysfunction can be rampant and stay well hidden behind superficial metrics and KPIs. Most cynically, if executives have a strategy where they don’t want employees to stay with the organization for long, why invest in managing them well?
- Some people prefer to be managed differently. In some cases it’s not that managers are bad, it’s that they don’t match the needs of the people they are managing. Some employees want a stable easy-going workplace, while others are ambitious and want a fast pace and high adventure. Some people prefer a hands-off work style where they have high autonomy. Others need regular coaching and mentoring. Of course a truly great manager recognizes these different needs and strives to provide them (even if they require him/her to stretch beyond their own natural management style), but sometimes what is cast as “bad management” is really a mismatch of expectations.
Keep in mind there are some things you can do when working for a bad manager to minimize your suffering. And of course if you are a new manager yourself, this guide can help you to avoid the mistakes listed above.