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Oct 23, 2017

Bad managers are excruciating for employees and expensive for businesses. We know this. Countless studies have already proven it.

The more confounding issue: If we know how important good managers are, why do so many companies tolerate poor management? The short answer is, it’s hard to get management right. But if you’re committed and ready to invest the effort, these three steps can help.

First, Get Manager Selection Right

Too many people are promoted because of their technical skills, not because they’d make effective managers. If this is happening at your company, make it your biggest priority to ensure that first and foremost, employees are promoted into management because they will be good managers.

Start by defining what it actually means to be a good manager at your company. I know one HR leader who tackled this problem ingeniously:

  • First, she looked at employee retention data and engagement survey results over the past year and identified teams with the highest retention rates.
  • Then, she interviewed managers and direct reports on those teams to understand what they were doing right.
  • Finally, she distilled this information into a set of core behaviors that became the basis of a new manager training program.

Once you’ve established these core behaviors, apply them to your hiring process and make sure every manager at your company knows them inside and out.

Second, Manage Out Bad Managers

Bad managers harm engagement, well-being, motivation, productivity, and ultimately cost you a lot of money (that’s an understatement). Unfortunately, this means finding and managing out the poor managers at your company.

Just as engagement survey and retention data can help you identify great managers, it can also help you spot underperforming managers. Look for teams with high turnover and low engagement, and speak with employees to diagnose what’s going on. Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions such as:

  • Why do you think there’s been high turnover on your team this past year?
  • What is the biggest stressor at work you have right now?
  • If you could fix one big challenge your team has right now, what would it be?
  • How would you describe the mood of your team as a whole? Why?

If you discover that poor management is at the heart of the problem, you can choose to coach the manager (Allison Green has a great article on how to determine coachability), help him or her transition to an IC role, or, if the situation is truly hopeless, part ways with much dignity, fairness and generosity as your company allows.

Third, Get Manager Development Right

Even if your company’s managers possess the right qualities, they’ll struggle without support. Training classes are great, but they aren’t enough. Managers may feel like they can’t take time out of their busy schedules to learn, so you need to:

  • Make training classes mandatory (and get buy-in from managers’ managers to do so!).
  • Provide a bite-sized resource that managers can access in between training sessions.

One approach I’ve seen work well is to tie in-person training to significant events on the HR calendar, such as annual performance reviews. An online resource can provide great pre- and post-reading for these training sessions, as well as give managers year-round support. Finally, give managers the opportunity to meet and learn from each other a few times a year through informal workshops and peer learning groups.

In a nutshell, developing managers ain’t easy. It takes time, resources and a willingness to step out of your HR comfort zone. But you’ll be richly rewarded with higher profits, a happier workforce and maybe even a coveted seat at the executive table.