There are a lot of bad managers out there—and they don't even know how bad they are. Most managers are promoted because of their past success in different roles, not because they have good management skills. Chances are they mean well, but they work with a mindset of self-preservation and self-interest—and that doesn't make for a healthy, productive workplace.
In Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions (Oxford University Press, 2017), Samuel A. Culbert, a researcher and professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, explores the underlying influences and common mindset of bad but well-intentioned managers and the damage they inflict, and provides advice to help them do a better job. Culbert is also the author of Get Rid of the Performance Review (Business Plus, 2010) and Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-talk at Work (Stanford Business Books, 2008).
Bad management is the norm, Culbert believes. He cites annual Gallup polls that conclude that 4 out of 5 people in management lack the talents to manage others effectively. Most bad supervisors think they're doing the best they can to deal with difficult situations. Even their direct reports don't always know when they're at the receiving end of lousy management. Other times, of course, a manager is so bad that it's painfully clear to direct reports—if to no one else—that the manager's actions hold them back from working better.
There is no quick fix to the problem. That's because it stems from the U.S. workplace itself. For one thing, the underlying culture discourages people from speaking up. Far too often, managers hear that everything is fine, when that's far from the truth.
Deep down, most managers know that what they do day-to-day is more "right" for them than their employees, the author says. That's why they feel uncomfortable when the topic of management styles and practices is raised. They feel vulnerable and insecure and fear how other managers view them. It's only natural that they come to believe they need to protect themselves. With an eye toward demystifying managers' resulting subterfuge, Culbert identifies several self-protective behaviors, including:
- Engaging in speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, see-no-evil groupthink—perhaps the most egregious of self-protective behaviors.
- Being seen as hardworking and overloaded to deter those who might criticize them.
- Being viewed as open-minded and willing to be influenced, even when their minds are made up and there's no going back.
- Borrowing authority by using the voice of a more powerful individual to advocate an action that's good for them.
Culture changes very slowly, but that's what's needed for better management. Managers need to move beyond implementing plans and checking up on individuals. Quality management requires a genuine focus on others, Culbert writes. Good managers don't withhold information, practice backroom politics, or make cohorts feel insecure or inept. But to get to that point, company leaders will have to lead a culture change.
More than anything, perhaps, managers need to feel secure, Culbert says. Company leaders and managers' bosses need to value their work. That will help them act with more authenticity and integrity in every exchange. But only a change in mindset from company leadership down through the ranks will get us there.
John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.