Eleven Mismanagement Issues That Lead to Fake Work

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Dec 28, 2010
This article is part of a series about Editor's Pick.

Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 18 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

By Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson

Managers live in a difficult place: They are often caught between their bosses and their work teams, so they have demands above and below them. Not only are they caught, but they are being pulled in many directions.

Given that tension and the competing demands most managers face, it’s no wonder that we hear so many comments like these:

  • My boss is a bureaucrat. She loves to make sure that everyone is loaded down with useless paperwork. She had to do it before she was a manager, so now we have to do it, too.”
  • “My supervisor is a dictator. He learned his management skills in the military. He can’t talk; he bellows. He doesn’t listen. He blames, he punishes.”
  • “Our project manager is useless. She never makes a decision. She hates and avoids all conflicts.”
  • “Our manager is very creative, but he’s entirely out of touch with reality.”
  • “My team leader never communicates anything but he thinks he does, which is very frustrating. He actually has no idea what communication is and how he could be more helpful.”

Consider the issues that affect work — and cause fake work — and try to determine whether your company is being affected by any of the management problems we detail below.

Eleven mismanagement issues that lead to Fake Work

  1. Looking at work from 30,000 feet will not get real work done on the ground. Managers, especially in upper management, often spend too much time looking at the organization from 30,000 feet — high up in the executive offices with no sense of the details — and spend too little time on the ground communicating with those who don’t get to fly so high. The managers don’t understand employees’ work and therefore aren’t in a position to understand or solve problems, to address the barriers that stand in a worker’s way, or discuss perfor- mance with any real knowledge.
  2. Management and micromanagement are not the same thing. When micromanagers check up on and insert themselves into every task, employees feel like children. Micromanagers eventually end up taking over the work while the team simply yields to them. It hurts loyalty, trust, and respect.
  3. If you do it, they will let you. If you insist on doing, reviewing, or redoing tasks, your employees will do less and less, or cease doing tasks altogether, assuming that you will revise their work anyway. This is an extremely important concept. Managers, like the micromanagers above, often rewrite reports, fix e-mails, critique behaviors, and review everything. Ultimately, this makes employees feel disempowered and disrespected. Managers do need to provide guidance and coaching, but if they take over projects or tasks, employees will find ways to reduce their work and allow managers to do more of it.
  4. Failing to understand strategy will disarm teams. Often managers don’t understand strategy and they don’t understand their role in implementing strategies. They become the barrier between the critical goals of the company and the work the team could do to make those goals real — the precise opposite of what a manager should be. For example, at the project level, managers seldom link their projects to the strategies of the company.
  5. Not clarifying and translating strategies into work hurts alignment and execution. Without a manager learning about, understanding, communicating, and translating strategies into tasks, teams can’t align their tasks to strategies and do real work.
  6. Trying to align employees will end up as fake work. Managers believe that they can align their teams but they can’t. Alignment is a people task between individuals on a work team. Managers have to get involved but must not interfere with the process. Teams will align themselves if their manager adequately explains strategies and helps prioritize and align critical tasks.
  7. Bureaucratic behavior seldom serves the team or the company. Often managers set up illusions of work. They delegate and demand repetitive, useless tasks that follow the patterns of businesses dating to the start of the Industrial Revolution. It is pure fake work that creates huge deficits in employee commitment and care. It steals time and effort from the real work that employees should be doing in the first place.
  8. Delegating fake work causes confusion and conflict. Often managers come up with off-the-cuff ideas that they insert blithely into work processes, rather than thoughtfully aligning them with a strategic plan. Their employees get whiplash as they try to stay abreast of the latest directive. Then those same managers seem surprised when their teams are never really on track.
  9. Rewarding fake work creates a chasm between managers and their teams that is hard to close up. Rewards are very important in the workplace. Rewards include promotions, bonuses, and certificates, but more important, they include public comments, special privileges, and kind words. Anytime a manager rewards an employee for doing fake work — even in the subtlest way — it propagates a system of fake-work behaviors that becomes ingrained in the workplace. It affects teamwork and confidence in the manager and skepticism about real work and its value.
  10. Managing performance through traditional review systems enables fake work. We like to call typical performance review processes “systems of surprise.” Under this approach, managers don’t set expectations, communicate, provide feedback, monitor results, or respond to variances any time but in a meeting a couple of times a year in performance reviews. And then, in those reviews, employees get hit with the surprise. Sometimes the surprise is that the manager has no idea what the employee has been doing. Sometimes it’s that the manager is disappointed with the employee’s work although they agreed on the priorities. Sometimes managers ignore results and accomplishments, but have remarkable memory for the smallest problem or disappointment. These systems often distort reality and seriously impair the work of individuals and teams.
  11. Failing to remove barriers and advocate for employees will hurt performance. The workplace is mired in procedures and policies that are simply barriers to real work. Managers who don’t help rid their teams of these intruding tasks, processes, and bureaucratic policies will deal instead with unmotivated, unfocused workers— and of course, lagging results.

Excerpted from Fake Work  — Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever But Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem, by Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson. Copyright 2009 by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, a division of Simon & Schuster. Reprinted by permission.

This article is part of a series about Editor's Pick.