Passing Stupid Down the Line

Jul 24, 2018 | Business, Cooperation, Human Resources | 0 comments

No one is just born to be a manager. In most organizations, it is the people who excel at their jobs that are usually given the chance to be made managers. However, this approach has hidden challenges.

People who have been subject-matter experts about a particular process, technology, or system are now told to give up all this knowledge and acquire a new skill set–one which they may have never had before–becoming a subject-matter expert in managing people.

Typical of most organizations, new managers are not given any tools or training to help them learn these new skills apart from some sessions on how to requisition staff, and approve expense forms, time-sheets, and vacation requests.

And it is at that point that a very common phenomenon happens:

  1. The new manager, who used to feel at the top of her game, now feels very insecure and inadequate. “How do I get people to do what I need them to do?” “How can I be assured that they take their jobs as seriously as I used to?” “How can I trust the members of my team?” “How can I make sure my team members respect me as their new manager?”
  2. Very quickly, the new manager typically experiences a sense of loss of competence. “I used to know how to do that, but I don’t quite remember the steps anymore.”
  3. This insecurity and loss of competence often results in the manager feeling that she needs to “stay on top of things” to make sure that there are no problems or complaints.

And so the once very competent subject-matter expert becomes either a micro-manager of tasks, or a very autocratic manager who wants to direct everything their team is doing.

Managers with this background make decisions for their teams rather than with their teams. They make decisions without the benefit of the nuance and complexity that their team members deal with on a daily basis. They arbitrarily make commitments for their team without consultation and then impose deadlines that their team members are expected to honour.

Team members respond to such a management style by adopting a sense of resignation about their jobs. They come to see that to survive their work days, they do exactly as they are told; they do not offer constructive suggestions (because it will either be ignored or generate more work for them) or feedback to their manager (because it may encounter resistance or resentment); or they focus on completing the assigned tasks, rather than the reason for the task in the first place (because their job performance is assessed for compliance, not creativity or strategic vision).

The result is a team on auto-pilot. Sure, work gets done but it often has a marginal level of quality and productivity; it lacks a focus on continual quality improvement; and it doesn’t embrace teamwork or customer service–key indicators that separate a company from its competitors.

Whenever I was given a new team to manage, I would have a new team huddle where I would introduce myself and some of my practices and values. One mandate I would always give my team was this: “You’re job is to tell me before I say or do something stupid.” I was aware that this was a courageous manifesto for a new manager to announce.

As a manager, it is impossible for me to know all the nuance and complications of every aspect of my team’s work; I need the input from my team to understand the costs and risks of various decision choices facing me. My job as manager is to bring out the best in my team and for that to happen, I need their cooperation, engagement, honesty, and feedback. I need to trust them to tell me what I need to know to make our work together as meaningful, productive and with as much quality as possible–and I need them to trust me that I will take their candid observations and genuinely reflect on their feedback even if I am not in a position to act on all of them. We conquered a lot of challenges this way.

Instead of passing stupidity down the line, good managers enable their team to provide good, honest feedback and advice upwards to the manager. The result is often a team that performs well, enjoys its work and working with each other, and tries to find new and better ways to achieve its objectives.

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