How did we get Here: Why Don't Managers get the Right Support?

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Article Summary

  • Why should I read this?  If you’re a manager and you’re not getting much help from your organisation, this may help you understand why (and some of the things you might be able to do about it).  If you have HR/People/Ops responsibilities, there may be some points which cause you to reflect on whether you’re giving managers the best support you could be. 
  • Managers don’t ask for help: management is often treated as something you should just be able to ‘figure out’ (it’s not).  This makes high performers (which managers generally are) more unlikely to ask for help when they struggle.  This means they’re likely to make mistakes, and become unhappy in the role. 
  • Organisations don’t measure it: the impact of poor management is hard to measure and generally has lagging indicators (e.g. downturns in morale and performance, people leaving because they dislike their boss).  This means the problem is generally not addressed until/if it gets really bad - in the meantime, managers are left with little support.  
  • It’s a hard problem to solve: improving team management is often complex, difficult and time-consuming. Not typically three adjectives which mean anyone rushes to take ownership of the issue internally.

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Given the immense benefits of great managers, we’re consistently struck by how limited the support is for people in these roles in organisations of all sizes.  

However, our discussions with managers and people professionals have given some insight into why that might be the case. We wanted to share them here in case they resonated with others. If so, we would love to hear from you - you can get hold of the team on either the live chat, contact us or through hello@inkommon.com.

Some managers don't ask for help

"When I got promoted I was like this is an insane opportunity for someone my age, so I can’t tell anyone that I’m really struggling."  (Kommon Interview)
"All my direct reports were so distinct in their mentalities, it was almost as if it was devised to make it as hard as possible by some kind of higher power"  (Kommon Interview)

Asking for help with anything at work can be difficult.  It can make us feel vulnerable, incompetent and needy, particularly in a high-performing team.  In many cases though, good workplaces will emphasise that the tasks you have been given are complex, and that if you need help, you should ask for it.  We found that management responsibilities often don’t fall into that category.  In fact it can be the opposite, with managers often falling back on two damaging myths.

Manager myth-busting

Myth 1: ‘You’ll just figure it out’
Myth 2: ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t’

Myth 1 is perpetuated by bosses who probably weren’t given the assistance they needed when they first became a manager, and have forgotten how much they would have appreciated it. It neglects to acknowledge people management as a complex responsibility, and discourages managers from asking for help with something they’re just meant to ‘know’ how to do.

Myth 2 is slightly different.  It relies on the fact that good management behaviours are tied to a combination of skills which are complex and hard to learn - emotional intelligence, organisation, communication, influence, delegation, empathy etc.  Some people will come into the role with a more sophisticated skillset and take to it more naturally (the ‘Haves’) and some do not have any of these traits at all, and shouldn’t be managers in the first place (the ‘Haven’ts’).  But to focus just on the Haves and the Haven’ts is to ignore another huge group.   This group is those in between.  The ones who have all the motivation and aptitude to grow into good managers, but need some help adjusting to a complex role.  SPOILER: this is most managers!  

You can probably see now how the damage is done.  By reducing bosses to ‘Haves’ and Haven’ts’, when anyone in this middle group struggles, they will assume that actually they’re just a ‘Haven’t’.  Not only will this discourage them from asking for help, but also from really trying to better themselves in the role at all.

"Management is not for the faint of heart. While being a great manager is really hard, it’s incredibly rewarding — and something I’ve chosen to spend many of my waking hours trying to get better at." Raylene Yung, former Engineering Director, Stripe & Facebook

You’re really good at other things, so why not this? 

There’s another factor at play which exacerbates everything else.  Generally speaking, people become managers because they’re good at something else (particularly in the absence of technical career development paths).  The best salespeople become sales managers, the best software engineers become engineering managers etc.  As Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and management pioneer, has said, this is almost inevitable - what are you going to do, promote the average ones?  

The issue here is that the brilliant employee who was told to ‘figure it out’ will be even less likely to ask for help, because they’re used to not needing it (particularly on something which no-one has told them is hard). 

What happens if no-one says anything

If managers don’t ask for help, this causes several problems for organisations.  First, they will make mistakes.  One report suggests 60% of managers fail or underperform in the first two years. Second, they will be unhappy.  No-one likes to fail at a portion of their role; particularly those who are used to doing well.  Managers are likely to be high performers, and no organisation benefits when these people are down.  Third, people’s behaviours influence others around them.   If no-one is asking for help, the problem is only going to perpetuate itself. 

And finally, if managers are struggling but don’t speak up,  the only way an organisation will be aware that it has a people management problem is if it detects it institutionally.  As the next section will demonstrate, that can be really difficult to do.

Organisations don’t measure it

The quote ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is variously attributed to Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant and business theorist.  It makes the point that if you can’t define and track a variable, it makes it very hard to improve performance.  

Although there have been some recent strides in people analytics, for the vast majority of companies, the impact of good and poor people management is hard to identify in the short term.   This can mean good managers creating outstanding performance but not receiving the credit.  Much worse, poor managers can lead to a slow, insidious sapping of productivity, performance and morale over a period of months before anyone really notices it’s their fault.  Unless a firm is really focussed on the issue, this is very hard to track in real-time.  Particularly compared to the standard priorities of output/revenue/profit which are a) more easily trackable and b) have a more direct impact on the standing and wallets of senior leadership.

Severe lagging indicators

Eventually the pressures of poor management can build up and result in an event which causes everyone to sit up.  We spoke to one startup where half the engineering team walked out over the course of 2 weeks.  As the exit interviews showed, this was largely due to people being poorly managed.  Suddenly the conversation changes, because now bad management has shown it can have a very tangible impact on an organisation’s success.  Whether through the impact on shipping product, or a sudden rise in hiring costs, or both. 

Those who have been through this will know the pattern. Suddenly training budgets will be found that previously weren’t there. People professionals will be invited to attend board meetings.  If you’re really lucky there might even be a set of exciting new cultural values.  All coming several months too late. 

To a certain degree this is understandable - of course organisations should focus most on the metrics which determine their success and survival.  Andy Grove said that this dynamic is pretty much inevitable. He said good CEOs are by definition optimists, and optimists don’t pay attention to leading indicators of bad news.

But now that we know this is the case, shouldn’t the most sophisticated organisations be able to pay a little more attention to the issue.  The alternative is this boom-bust cycle of assistance where managers, particularly newer ones, struggle on for months or even years until an event of sufficient catastrophe nudges their leaders into action.  We should be able to do better.  

However, even organisations that have resolved to do better can find it a really tough task.

It can be a really hard problem to solve

After the fight to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010, David Axelrod, a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, gave him a plaque, which was engraved with some simple advice he had given him: ‘Hard things are hard.’

Put simply, the final reason managers might not get effective assistance in the role, is just because improving team management is often complex, difficult and time-consuming.  Not typically three adjectives which mean anyone rushes to take ownership of the issue internally.  

In an interview with John Doerr, Andrew Cole, then-Chief HR Office at Lumeris, said it took three years to strengthen their middle management.  He described it in understated terms as ‘a tougher nut’.  

For the sake of brevity, we’ll summarise here, but some of the reasons it’s difficult include:

  • The scalable solutions aren’t the effective ones:  bad management is something that takes place at the team, or even the individual level.  This means that effective solutions often need to be targeted with that specificity.  If you have an organisation of hundreds or even thousands of managers, that’s an immense undertaking and can often be ruled out for reasons of cost or practicality.   This can often lead to more scalable, but less effective, ‘solutions’ being rolled out (we talk more about this dynamic in this piece).
  • Removing bad managers can be really painful: sometimes raising management standards isn’t a case of improving individuals but removing those who are not up to the task, or worse, have become a bad influence on other managers.  This can be a tough nettle to grasp.  Often these individuals are high performers in other areas.  But even if they’re not, removing them temporarily will create significant management burdens on others whilst their replacements are found.  Often organisations choose to take the easy short term option of leaving someone in place and hoping things improve. 
  • Your innovators are already busy: often the best managers, who would have the most valuable input into reforming practices, are also your highest performers.  They don’t have any spare time, and if they did, it would go to delivering products and services.  This means the task often falls to central functions, typically HR/People teams.  Sometimes this can work, but often these departments are less effective messengers (as they’re more distant from the realities of being a frontline manager) and/or under-resourced (as a cost centre in the business). Not a recipe for effective change.

In these circumstances, it’s often easier not to spend too much time looking under the bonnet, particularly when it’s a problem that has lagging indicators (see above).  Much easier to focus on financial performance, throw in some employee perks, not question employee churn too closely, and avoid tough conversations with high-performers. 

But it could be so much better

To be clear, many successful organisations have been built using exactly the formula described in the last sentence.  However, it seems clear that the most successful organisations don’t wait for half their engineering team to leave to make their move.  They’re aware of the benefits of good management, and put processes in place to make sure that they’re taking advantage of the incredible point of leverage that is the manager.  We think this is where technology can play a role. 

If you have any comments or questions about this piece, please use the live chat, contact hello@inkommon.com or contact us.


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