Finding a Manager Among Leaders

David Bolchover
May 16, 2017

“Kill my boss? Do I dare to live out the American dream?” Homer Simpson’s musings provoke wry acknowledgement in many employees who have suffered under poor managers. It’s a fair bet that your least enjoyable and unproductive periods in work coincided with having a manager you did not respect and who did not value your contribution. The converse is also probably true. But if managers are so important, why are so few up to the job, and what can be done about it?

A US Gallup study revealed that half of the 7,000 employees it surveyed had left their jobs to escape a manager and to improve their overall quality of life. Moreover, 70 percent of the survey’s variance in employee engagement can be explained by the quality of one’s manager. The world of sport is full of such examples, with apparently unmotivated footballers suddenly excelling after the arrival of a new coach who believes in the player’s talent.

Unlike top sports teams, companies have not fully internalised the vital role of managers. A 2016 poll of UK workers is typical, with only 40 percent admitting to liking their boss. Admittedly, ‘like’ and ‘respect’ are not the same, but it is difficult to imagine productivity flourishing in an atmosphere of discord.

Hard grafters wanted

Business books and training courses routinely offer lessons in how to be a better leader. But leadership is different from management. The former focuses on the leaders themselves, and how they can inspire others or influence a working culture through what they say and do. Conveniently, leadership affects others through osmosis rather than direct contact. Management, on the other hand, involves dealing with other people’s messy realities, finding out what makes them tick and solving personal and workplace problems. Given this, who wouldn’t prefer to be a leader—more glamorous, less measurable, better paid with less hassle—rather than a manager?

‘You can’t train someone to want to manage people. And without that motivation, no amount of experience and guidance will help.’

For precisely this reason, management training tends to be less effective. You can’t train someone to want to do something. And without that motivation, no amount of experience and guidance will help. Real progress lies not in the development of managers but in their selection.

To identify those who positively want to manage others, companies must overcome systematic dishonesty within the organisation. Ask employees if they want promotion to a management position and the answer will invariably be an enthusiastic “yes”. Of course they do: it will involve more pay and status, and be a step closer to still higher pay and status in the corporate hierarchy.

A different reward system

This structural dishonesty can be countered in two ways. First, a manager’s remuneration must depend on managerial performance alone. When middle managers are judged on their individual rather than their team’s performance, they often lack interest in managing others well because pay and prospects don’t depend on it. By rewarding only their managerial accomplishments, companies will attract more of the right candidates for those roles, thereby improving overall performance.

Second, companies can provide alternative career paths for those excellent employees who have no desire to manage others. It should be possible, for instance, to become a senior executive without middle management experience. The two roles bear little relation to each other; and companies may find that a truly skilled, pragmatic and empathetic manager is rarer than they think.

Action points for selecting managers:

  • Send a clear message: Be explicit in internal communications about how the organisation values people-management skills.
  • Change the rewards system: Announce clearly that these people management skills will be rewarded accordingly.
  • Identify motivations: In interviews for management positions, focus on the candidate’s motivation and interest in managing others
  • Celebrate role models: Actively highlight proven people managers as role models within the organisation.

David Bolchover

Writer on management and the workplace. Author of three business books.