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Jan 26, 2015

If you’ve read any significant amount of literature on management, you’ve likely come across the Peter Principle – that people will get promoted to their own level of incompetence.

The idea is that people are promoted to management positions because they’ve proven to be successful at the core function of their current job, not because they’ve been successful at the core function of their new job – managing a team of people.

There are a lot of things that can happen when people who aren’t very good at managing people assume management positions. Today, we’ll look at just three:

  1. They focus more on process than on people;
  2. They don’t delegate;
  3. They dismiss the importance of morale.

They focus more on process than people

Consider this story: A recent Harvard MBA graduate that found herself in a newly created VP position of a technology company. She was young, brilliant, extremely disciplined, and immediately started applying everything she learned in business school.

One of her first big ideas was to measure productivity by measuring the amount of time each developer spends in front of his or her computer and divide it by the revenue brought in by the products they created. She planned to use this method to decide who would be promoted and who would be fired.

What she failed to consider in her perfect formula is that the developers weren’t doing all their work by themselves – they were collaborating in random patterns, making it impossible to figure out who was responsible for what product. They would also step away from their machines and work with each other in more informal settings – playing Frisbee in the hall, sitting the lounge tossing a ball back and forth, etc – as a way to talk out programming problems.

When this was pointed out to the young VP, she simply dismissed it and continued on with her plan.

The end result? Within a few months, all of the developers had stopped talking to her and refused to come to her meetings. Within six months, the young VP was let go.

Process and policies generally have good intentions, but when they are created in a vacuum without considering the human elements involved, they will ultimately fail, or drive your best employees away. Instead, focus on getting to know your people and understanding what drives their productivity.

Then, work with them collaboratively to build a structure that will support it and key performance indicators to measure it. Top-down rule rarely works – the more your team buys into it, and feels ownership over it, the better.

They don’t delegate

I once read that management is the art of losing control. This is a scary concept for most managers, who think that managing people means controlling every aspect of their subordinates’ day, and every element of their output.

Remember, they were promoted to their positions because they were good at the core task; what does it say if they delegate and their employees start to outshine them by finding a better way to accomplish a task?

But if a manager isn’t delegating, they are not only holding back their employees from growth opportunities and professional development, they are costing the organization money. Here’s why delegation is so critical from a business perspective.

Think of a manager that has three people reporting to him. The manager has his tasks to perform, and his directs have their respective tasks.

Each of those respective tasks has a different value to the organization and, for the sake of making this easy, let’s just say the manager tends to take on the tasks that have a higher dollar value to the organization. Because the manager (presumably) makes more money than his subordinates, it costs the organization more for him to complete a task than it does for the direct reports.


Now, what happens when the manager is able to train and develop his direct reports so that he can delegate the tasks to them?

Assuming a relatively equal output, you’ve now reduced the cost of completing the task, garnering more ROI for the organization. You’ve also freed up the manager to take on additional tasks at that same cost level that may result in a higher value for the organization when they are completed.


As a manager, it is your responsibility to delegate. And to do that effectively, you need to give your staff opportunities to professionally develop, experiment, and shine on their own.

The best managers do two things: They get the obstacles out of the way and set up their employees to be rock stars. When you refuse to delegate to them, you do neither.

They dismiss the importance of morale

I once consulted for an organization where employee morale was in the gutter. The staff was excited about the core tasks of their jobs, and enjoyed doing them, but was constantly being brought down by a management team more obsessed with office politics than end results.

I had a very frank conversation with the president of the company and told her that if she didn’t make strides to start fixing the morale problem, she was going to lose some of her most productive employees. She looked me in the eye and said “I don’t care.” To her mind, morale had nothing to do with achieving results.

She continued down her path without making any of the changes I suggested and, predictably, she lost several core team members within a year, which just dragged down the morale of her organization even more.

Repeat after me:

  • When your employees are happy, they are more productive. Study after study proves this to be the case.
  • Happy employees also get better performance evaluations, are more creative, and engage in more organizational citizenship behaviors.
  • Happy employees get along better with their managers. That should be benefit enough!
  • When unhappy employees quit, that costs your organization a lot of money.

Morale matters. It’s not an abstract concept, and it has a very real impact on the bottom line. The best managers understand this and make it a priority on their teams.

Is the answer to get rid of managers?

Zappos made headlines when they announced a restructure into a holacracy, which will eliminate managers and job titles. It’s an extreme move that is a retaliation against the tensions caused by bad and ineffective management. But, it’s simply going to cause an entirely new set of problems.

The answer is not to do away with managers – the answer is to them train to be good managers.

This is not something they are taught in school, nor is it something they are likely to learn on the job (unless, of course, they’ve had a great manager who has mentored them). Put the resources into training the people in charge of your people, and you’ll see the results in increased productivity, job satisfaction, and the bottom line.

That’s just three of our manager pet peeves. What ones would you add to the list?

This was originally published on Zen Workplace.

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