Fixing bad managers

25 April 2019

This article was featured in the May 2019 issue of the magazine.

Julie Lock, general manager (Flexipay) for Mitrefinch Ltd, reveals the problem and the solution

We’ve probably all experienced a bad manager. There are those who seem lost on a power trip, eager to discipline when someone steps out of line. Some are experts in their field but lack basic people skills to manage a team. Then there are those unapproachable managers who seem inconvenienced by their team’s needs. 

If we’re exposed to bad management practices on a daily basis, it’s because of a wider failure in the way we prepare and train people to become managers. In many cases, people become managers following a lengthy period cutting their teeth in lower positions. While a person’s job title can change overnight, it doesn’t mean their skills also do.

Let’s look at Dave, a typical example. After leaving school Dave starts working for a large department store in the warehouse where he spends two years picking and packing orders. He moves to the shop floor for three years working on the checkout, before moving to the customer services desk. After two years Dave is identified as a future store manager – after all, he knows the business inside out. Now a store manager, Dave receives detailed training on the processes involved in management, from appraisals to disciplinary procedures, and becomes an expert on company policy.

There’s only one problem…Dave has no idea how to manage people, but he’s gone from being everyone’s friend to everyone’s boss. Herein lies the problem – we don’t equip our managers with the skills to deal with the human element of business. We may train managers on setting goals, but do we teach them how to coach and mentor people to reach those goals? We may train managers on how to record underperformance, but do we teach them how to have difficult conversations with employees?

Though managers brought in from outside may have plenty of managerial experience this doesn’t necessarily mean they are skilled in people management. Such managers often come with something to prove, which means they tend to over-compensate in certain areas to ‘prove’ their managerial abilities. This could mean being overly bossy to demonstrate their authority or overly friendly to get people to like them – neither of which is the right approach.

...very specific training is needed...

What can we do to help? In addition to knowing about procedures and processes, managers need to understand how different people react in different situations and to recognise the impact their own behaviour can have on others. This involves a very specific set of skills, so very specific training is needed.

Are your management training plans mostly about procedure? If so, you’re not dealing with the human aspect of management, and chances are your managers are lacking in this area. Introduce a training programme that covers everything needed to transition from a regular job to a managerial position. Training on the human side of management should be kept separate from the procedural side.

Ensure that your managers are skilled in dealing with different types of personalities, behaviours and emotions, as well as handling sensitive or difficult situations. Ensure they understand how this affects employee engagement.

When an employee is promoted to a managerial position, they can go from being everyone’s mate to an ‘outsider’ overnight. It is vital that they are prepared for the changes to their working relationships, and fully skilled to establish and maintain that new line in the sand.

Managers also need to be aware of the potential for workplace personal bias. If a newly promoted manager holds a grudge about an individual from a previous role, how they manage that person is likely to be affected and their judgement clouded.

While assessing others’ performance is a key part of management, managers should be encouraged to assess and self-critique their own actions and decisions. It is also critical that managers have a mentor; someone they can turn to when unsure how to proceed.

Managers need support, training and guidance, but if after receiving these they are still not able to manage people effectively – particularly if this is leading to disengagement and low morale – it’s time to reconsider their position. When doing this, remember the great qualities that led to the person becoming a manager in the first place, so try and find a way to bring these to the forefront by repurposing the person in a more suitable position. There are plenty of roles that aren’t based around managing people.

In some management circles any subject involving emotion, wellbeing or caring is somewhat patronisingly referred to as ‘tea and sympathy’ training. In a way this is understandable – the role of managers has traditionally been to keep people in line, not understand how they feel. But this is the 21st century, and that’s no longer good enough.