Why do we put up with so many bad managers?

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businessman shrugging his shouldersImage source, Getty Images

Would you ever hire an accountant with no bookkeeping training? How about a doctor who hadn't been to medical school? asks author Alison Green, and the creator of the workplace advice column Ask a Manager.

We tend to agree that most skilled jobs require some amount of formal training - and yet for one of the jobs that is most key to companies' success, we frequently throw people in with no training at all: managing.

Many, many people get promoted into management jobs because they were good at something else. They were a good engineer or a good fundraiser, and so they're asked to manage engineers or fundraisers.

The problem is, the skills that it takes to manage people well are often a completely different skill set from whatever work the person was doing previously.

Image source, Alison Green
Image caption,
We frequently throw people in to managing with no training at all, says Alison

You have to know how to set clear expectations, how to delegate responsibilities, how to check in on work as it progresses without micromanaging or being overly hands-off, how to hire great people and develop them, how to give feedback, how to have difficult conversations about performance problems and other tricky topics, how to hold people accountable without being a jerk, how to resolve conflict - the list goes on and on.

It's hard work, and it doesn't come naturally to most people - which is why most of us make a ton of mistakes as we're learning.

And it's not that companies never provide any support. Some managers get sent to one- or two-day management training courses, where they're supposed to learn the basics. But a one- or two-day class just gets your feet wet; it shouldn't be the entirety of the support that new managers get - and yet it often is.

Other managers don't even get a class; they're just thrown in and left to wing it, with little guidance or support from above.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Two-day courses are not enough to turn people into effective managers

No surprise, then, that there are loads of terrible managers out there:

  • Managers who assign work without being clear about what they want, and who frustrate their staff when they keep sending it back for revisions, without having ever laid out a clear vision in the first place.
  • Managers who won't address problems and let serious issues fester on their teams for months or even years because they want to avoid awkward conversations.
  • Managers who who treat employees like wayward children.
  • Weak managers, rude managers, waffling managers, tyrannical managers - there are so many different varieties of managerial incompetence.

And yet the quality of managers has a direct impact on a company's bottom line - as well as on its ability to attract and retain great employees and to get the best results from them while they have them.

Bad managers drive away good people, and hold teams back from achieving what they otherwise could. So why, then, don't organizations put more of an emphasis on training new managers in how to do their jobs?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Learning to manage isn't a short process and one class isn't going to do it, says Alison

Part of the answer is that employers simply don't value management enough as a skill of its own. They see someone who's good at their job function and assume they'll be good at managing people who do that job function too.

They don't sufficiently appreciate the skills it takes to make the transition to managing. Part of it, too, is tradition - if you're a manager who didn't get much training and had to figure it out on your own, it's easy to think that that's just how it works and others can do it too.

And part of the explanation is time and money - it takes resources to train people to learn a new and complicated skill. Learning to manage isn't a short process and one class isn't going to do it - it's a long, ongoing process of learning, and it takes continuous support from more experienced managers who can mentor newer managers and weigh in and advise when new and complicated challenges come up, as they inevitably will.

Employers would do well to consider pairing new managers with more experienced colleagues - but doing that means valuing management as a skill in the first place. And until we do that, it's certain that bad managers will continue to flourish.

For more workplace letters from Alison Green and other contributors, download the World Business Report podcast.

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