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Why Managers Fail – And What To Do About It

Many organisations prefer to find managers through promoting staff in-house rather than bringing in new employees. There are good reasons behind this: the new manager is already known to their colleagues, and a promotion and the extra benefits it confers is a way to reward previous good performance.

However, this approach has drawbacks too, in particular, how managers promoted in this way may not have previous management experience – something that is too often overlooked. But these problems are not insurmountable. Here are five reasons managers fail – and what you can do about it.

Promotion is based on performance in an unrelated role

Too often, employees are promoted to managerial roles because they excelled in an unrelated role in the organisation. This practice is flawed, and heavily influenced by optimism bias – if they are so good at their job, they must be management material.

For both the incoming manager and those responsible for the promotion, the move is rooted in hope, not a clear understanding of that person’s competency for the role. Promotion based solely on technical competency does not appreciate the fact that successful people management requires a completely different set of skills.

Most non-management roles require individuals to work independently or as a part of a team, not leading the team and being in charge of managing, motivating, and coaching each team member. Yet because of their skill in another field, new managers are expected to hit the ground running and become an effective manager of people, an effective manager of priorities, an effective manager of outcomes, with little-to-no training or guidance.

What can I do about it?

Before a new manager takes up their role, invite them to be mentored by a successful existing manager for a few weeks or months. This will allow them to gain a clearer understanding of the day-to-day responsibilities of a manager, the challenges they face, and the skills required to do the job effectively.

Unclear relationships with former peers

In-house promotions often leave managers facing the task of managing the team of which they were previously a rank-and-file member.

This can be problematic, as there are naturally already established relationships with other team members that will inevitably change. Working with the same people but in different roles can create significant stress if the parameters of this new relationship (boundaries, expectations, agreed management style) are not clearly defined early on.

Unfortunately, the discomfort that can be caused from becoming the boss of former friends means that new managers can be reluctant to have these necessary conversations. Perhaps they don’t know how to approach initiating the conversation, or they fear the risk of upsetting former peers.

But this lack of clarity will only hinder the team in the long run.

What can I do about it?

A new manager promoted to lead their old team needs to understand that while they cannot be friends with their colleagues in the same way as before, that doesn’t mean they must take on a completely new, overly-assertive ‘boss’ persona.

New and established managers must be guided to find the correct balance that allows them to continue existing positive relationships while adjusting the boundaries and expectations of these relationships to accommodate the changed roles within them.

Continuing tasks from previous role

Sometimes, a manager will continue to perform tasks or work on projects that were a part of their previous role. There are numerous reasons for this – familiar tasks can be comfortable, perhaps even enjoyable, or the manager thinks another team member wouldn’t do it well enough, or is too busy.

Whatever the reason, it is important that managers leave the responsibilities of their former job behind them. A change of role requires a change of focus, and a manager’s focus should be on building relationships, creating value for the organisation, and enabling their team members to do their best – not on completing tasks that could be delegated to a colleague.

As well as being a poor use of the team leader’s time, the manager taking on other team members’ tasks is also detrimental to those very team members. Not delegating tasks means team members cannot learn the skills and competencies needed for them to perform optimally – so the manager’s actions are actively disabling their team rather than enabling it, and damaging their organisation’s effectiveness rather than developing it.

What can I do about it?

New managers must understand the importance of effective delegation. Delegating non-management tasks to team members frees up time and energy for the manager to focus on bigger-picture issues such as team priorities, enabling others to work at their best, and delivering value to the organisation.

Not managing upwards

The reluctance to manage upwards comes from a very understandable place – the need to avoid disapproval from the boss. However, though understandable, this instinct is extremely counterproductive, and can cause a manager to withdraw from the relationship with their boss until it is simply a process to be endured rather than a relationship to be developed.

A relationship based on the setting and completing of tasks is not one that will create the most value for the organisation – though the tasks may get done, were they really the highest priority right now? How many could have been delegated? What has been side-lined so these tasks could be completed on time?

What can I do about it?

A strong, high trust relationship between a manager and their boss creates a shared understanding of the team’s priorities and workload, ensuring a collaborative working relationship that creates value for the organisation.

It is vitally important that new managers have a conversation with their boss soon after taking on the role in order to establish how their new relationship will work: do they need a regular weekly meeting to establish priorities?

Or maybe they would appreciate being consulted before the setting of deadlines to ensure they are achievable?

Approval seeking

Though most people can immediately understand wanting to avoid the disapproval of one’s boss, less obvious is the pressure on a manager to avoid the disapproval of those s/he is managing.

This can be even greater if the manager used to be in a peer relationship with their team members. This can cause problems when a manager is reluctant to make the correct decision for the organisation for fear a team member may disapprove.

What can I do about it?

A manager, whether new or established, must be aware of the dangers of excessive empathy.

Though it is important to listen to team member’s perspectives, a manager is trusted to make decisions in the best interests of the organisation, and as long as they are working within the organisation’s established boundaries, the approval or disapproval of the team should not factor into their decisions.


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