Managers are imperfect — like everyone else

Unrealistic expectations can make them seem incompetent when they're not, says Paul Glen

When I first joined the workforce, I naively believed that workers supported their bosses and that bosses were generally deserving of respect, since they had been promoted by the sages who went before them. These were the days before Dilbert alerted the pre-career young about the messy realities of the workforce.

One of the reasons why the “Dilbert” comic strip is so funny is that we’ve all had incompetent and arrogant bosses at some stage.

Over the years, I’ve heard explanations for this pervasive failure of leadership that fall into two general schools of thought:

1. Defective people get promoted into management There are many subtle variations on this theme, but the key idea is that people eventually get promoted to jobs in which they are incompetent. Their unsuitability may be either technical or emotional, but either way, they enter their new position defective and are unable to adapt to the demands of the new job. In fact, it may be their defects that lead them to want those jobs in the first place.

2. The position of management, by its nature, corrupts the competence of those who hold the job In this narrative, people enter management in a generally capable state, but eventually they succumb to the temptations of money, power, ambition and hubris. The position of management is itself toxic to those who would dare occupy it.

Both explanations make good points, and I’m sure that many managers do fail for these reasons. Still, I get to meet a lot of managers, and most of them are neither incompetent boobs nor power-hungry tyrants. Most really want to do what’s best for their organisations and staffs.

Therefore, I’m not convinced that either of the stories above adequately explain why so many people feel that their managers really stink at their jobs. It seems to me that the most common reasons are more banal and less dramatic. In fact, I think that most managers don’t really fall flat at their jobs at all. Most managers perform most of the tasks of leadership with reasonable competence. They generally seem able to carry out their responsibilities. They generally display professionalism and comport themselves appropriately. What seems to go wrong is that each person has one shortcoming — one foible that everyone notices and no one forgives. They don’t really fail at their jobs. They fail at one aspect of their job, each one falling short in some idiosyncratic way.

And once this unforgivable something is recognised and generally acknowledged by the staff, the manager is considered damaged goods. From that moment on, the manager is no longer a competent person striving to do the best he can; he is instantly transformed into a caricature of failure.

Surely there are people who enter management damaged or are damaged by the experience, but to me, what seems most broken is our expectations of managers. Our managers fail because we believe that unless they are nearly perfect, they are failures. Few can live up to expectations of perfection or sustain the ongoing illusion that they live up to expectations.

And since those same staffers who disdain their managers eventually fill management positions, they bring their unrealistic expectations with them into the job, perpetuating the cycle of cynicism and failure.

So maybe the reason why so many managers seem so bad is that we judge them so harshly. This should not serve as an excuse for managers to fail to grow, improve their skills and learn from their mistakes. But if we humanise our conception of management and managers, perhaps we’ll notice that flawed people can be adequate or perhaps good managers, even with their sometimes annoying, sometimes amusing shortcomings.

Paul Glen is the author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology

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