Why do so many managers have poor people skills?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the archive). This week’s question is from Bobby [with 305 votes] is Why do many managers have poor people skills? 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

14 Responses to “Why do so many managers have poor people skills?”

  1. Dave

    Good article. Concise language.
    Also, couldn’t say no to “make Berkun happy.”
    Hope you have a wonderfully happy day!

  2. Sean Crawford

    For point four, one tool is to have an exit interview with anyone leaving, the interview to be done by someone who is not the immediate manager, such as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) or the Vice President of Human Resources.

    Say, what’s a KPI?

    1. minion

      This exit interview theory assumes the higher level is willing to take action on the word of the person leaving. Sounds great in a management textbook and simply doesn’t work in reality. No one makes policy or management changes on the word of a disloyal ingrate leaving the fold.

    2. Graham

      In my experience, exit interviews reveal nothing most of the time, and are a tickbox exercise for HR. The person leaving is usually unwilling to reveal all of the reasons why they decided to leave, because they do not want to dynamite bridges.
      There is also the reality that a lot of departures in corporate America right now are involuntary; in those situations an exit interview would be bizarre:
      Employer: So why are you leaving?
      Employee: Because you WFR’d me?

      I have had conversations on a similar but related topic, when corporations finally realize that they have a problem with one or more leaders, or the leadership of the corporation, after a number of employees have left. When the realization dawns that many of their best people are fleeing, the corporation suddenly starts asking employees for input, ideas and feedback. The blindingly obvious response to that change (apart from the obvious “what took you so long?”), is that the people they should be asking for input from are the former employees. They were the people that found the corporation hostile, and moved on. Yet I never hear any stories about failing corporations asking ex-employees why they left.
      The entire way in which corporations treat exit interviews as an administrative tick-box process, not an opportunity to gain insight, speaks to the lack of seriousness that corporations attach to leadership interpersonal skills. To put it another way, if corporations really valued interpersonal skills, Bob Sutton would never have written “The No Asshole Rule”.

  3. Simone Cuomo

    Great question, and fantastic answer.

    I would probably add that unfortunately employees are usually promoted to managers because of their “good performance” at their current position!

    In many instance ( for my case the IT sector), you see great developers moving up to managers (because as you said it is the only way forward), but the two position cannot be compared in terms of skill-set required and will therefore only produce bad managers.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Indeed – this is in a way what the Peter Principle is about: people get promoted for the wrong reasons until they’re in a job they’re no longer good enough at to get promoted again.

    2. Scott Berkun

      All the feedback loops have problems: it requires a leader who is willing to expend energy to seek out (the possibility of) unpleasant truths. They do exist. As do organizations that fall into fewer of the traps of “HR as anti-bodies against progress”.

  4. Sean Crawford

    To Minion:
    the trick is to look for patterns in what people report, to be scientific, like a spymaster who does not go by a single unverified piece of intelligence.

    Back in my boyhood (born in the 1950’s) it might look bad on your resume if you left, instead of working your way up from mailroom to President, but that is no longer the case. Leaving does not make you an ingrate, job hopping is the norm: That’s why yuppies make more than my father did—they have to be paid market rate, not the “pay your dues” rate.

    (Inflation, from the 1970’s on, has incentivized swift restructuring and asset selling)

    I can remember a “winner” leaving the company and telling his peers he reported that his immediate manager was a bully. You can bet the word went around, and the manager noticeably smartened up.

    Say, I have to wonder, Minion, whether you have one eye or two. I loved the first movie, and really enjoy the CD soundtrack (with songs not in the film) on road trips in my car, but the sequels… are only sequels.

  5. Val

    “six specific reasons” – ok, now I need to know the 6th.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Good catch – I guess by the time I got to #6 I’d forgotten it. Fixed now. Thanks.

  6. Wendy Mann

    The hardest thing to do is to work for I manager that has no emotional intelligence or people skills it just makes everything miserable.. Sometimes I feel like I’m working in a place thats just a joke.. People can be late everyday like and miss days every week and it’s OK I just can’t be associated with that kind of companies




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