Why are we so bad at management?
‘My boss is an idiot’. You hear people complain about their boss all the time. No wonder. Most people are entirely unsuited to management. The range of skills to be applied and the personal qualities required to apply them make being a manager a hard job to perfect, yet most new managers arrive in their first position, often through a technical specialism, with neither the character, experience, or training for the job.
All managers face the same set of challenges, no matter their seniority or organisation:
Management would be so much easier if didn’t involve people. The skills involved in line management are hard to acquire. Even if you get it right with one team, a new person joining the group can change the interpersonal dynamics in ways you’re not prepared for; or a sudden change of circumstances (eg a need to cut costs) requires a different combination of skills to be applied to the same team. Human motivation is complex. People are constantly changing. You can never get it right for long.
Leaders are a minority among us. Most of the character traits that make good leaders are naturally acquired. If you are not born with them there are limits to what you can achieve. It is easier to round off sharp edges than to encourage someone with no edges in the first place.
The point of managers is to change things. They wouldn’t be needed if the world was not full of problems, surprises and challenges that businesses must change to adjust to. We all find change unsettling. It inevitably brings conflict. Some people do not like conflict and avoid it at all costs; others are so goal-oriented they are too pushy and find nothing but resistance.
Managers are paid to get things done, but not everyone has the line management, project management, prioritisation, negotiation, finance, marketing or communication skills to get things done. They lack the basic tools for the job. Management is like a toolbox. You should be skilled in the use of as many tools as possible. That way you’ll be able to select the right tool for the situation you find yourself in.
Individuals are not naturally strategic. It is not easy to ‘see the unseen’. It requires insight to reveal hitherto hidden truths about your business and develop plans based on these insights. Without the ability to see the big picture we would all still think the earth is flat with the sun going around it, right? Some people are not smart enough. Others are too smart and freeze up. Still others spend too much time on the easy internal stuff they can control, and miss how the outside world has changed.
If you lack confidence, stay away from management. It will brutalise you. A lot of the behaviours that people complain about in bad managers stem from a lack of confidence. To an extent confidence can be developed, but a large part of it is innate. Not everyone has the emotional balance and maturity to succeed in large organisations, or the self-regulation that inspires confidence in others.
The world is full of difficult people. You need a broad complement of personality traits, behaviours and techniques to enlist them to your cause. If you’re encountering passive aggression it means you are in the middle of a turf war. If you are encountering an emotional argument (eg such and such is bad), you need to be aware that reason and logic will have no effect and be able to adjust your approach accordingly.
Few of us can live up the ideals of a perfect manager and, given these challenges, all managers will fall short from time to time. However, your boss may well be incompetent. It is not uncommon. It might be they just find management too difficult.
A lot of people apply for management jobs because they want the extra money or feel they are entitled to the higher status but they are not well suited to the role. These people, lacking faith in their own abilities, are the ones that exhibit the poor behaviours – bullying, indecisiveness, ass-covering, poor communication, failure to develop others, micro-managing – that people complain about.
Faced with the myriad challenges of management, the bad boss might lack the opportunity or willingness to learn. If they are inexperienced they need time to acquire some scars on their back, but if they don’t reflect on their experiences they won’t learn from earlier mistakes anyway.
Perhaps they have had no formal training. Only the large global companies put serious effort into management education but often restrict its availability to the rising stars on fast-track programmes. This leaves plenty of managers without much attention paid to their development. Perhaps a bad manager lacked a role model or a mentor that could put an arm around them and give them some advice or share experience.
Even where a manager is motivated to teach themselves, there are limits to what they can learn. An MBA for example is an academic qualification. Management is, above all, a practical enterprise. If you read any of the books written by successful CEOs explaining how they reached the top the knowledge doesn’t really equip a new manager with the skills they need to get to the middle. You need to reach the middle before pushing on to the top.
Sometimes we fail because we were not sufficient skilled or circumstances conspired against us, but sometime we just make mistakes and should have known better. Some people go to some length to avoid admitting mistakes, but a confident person is not embarrassed to admit mistakes and apologise. They know a mistake doesn’t make them a bad person. Their sense of self-worth is not tied to specific actions, or even what other people think.
Whatever the reason, bad managers begat other bad managers so it is more than just unfortunate if you find yourself in this situation.
It shouldn’t surprise us that people are always complaining about their boss. The bigger surprise is that good managers exist in the first place. But there’s no need to cut your boss any slack. They are, after all, paid well to do the job so they too should be held to account for their performance.
If you want to know why we are so bad at management, the answer is simple. Management is difficult.