#59 Why Do Bad Managers Succeed?

by Steven Cerri on June 3, 2008

It seems that bad managers go on and on and on.

Hello everyone!

Last week I published my May ezine/newsletter. It was focused on a specific management question, namely;

“Why is it that bad managers are successful?”

In the ezine/newsletter is referred to bad managers as managers who were mediocre and incompetent. Now I know those are relatively harsh words; “mediocre and incompetent”.

In fact, one of the email responses to my ezine was a very thoughtful and interesting response suggesting that a more appropriate label might be “naive”.

Naive may certainly be a reasonable label for some managers. However, naive implies a positive and good intention toward management. My experience is that there are also plenty of mediocre managers, those who just haven’t the training or the experience and are beyond their level of competence.

I’ve also worked for and with those managers who are absolutely certain that, through a gesture of power and authority, they are right in their actions toward management, no matter what. These, I label as the incompetent managers. (For more detail on this check out my ezine/newsletter that was sent to you last week if you were on my mailing list or you can subscribe at the right on this page.)

I have met plenty of managers in all three categories; naive, mediocre, and incompetent.

The next question one might ask is, what are the motivates for the actions of managers in these three categories? How do they view their direct reports? Is there a difference in the way they consider their relationship with their employees?

Lets look at how employees, the direct reports, are thought of.

Most of us are taught one of two philosophies regarding the motivations of most people in the workplace (even though our experience tells us that there are many different philosophies that ought to apply). The idea that there are two or at most three “groups” of employees seems to begin early in our education and continues on into college and beyond. It’s in our classrooms, in our media, in or textbooks.

That is, employees are placed into one of three categories when it comes to their workplace motivations…

The first group of employees is considered lazy and unwilling to take any initiative and therefore, must be managed closely and forcefully. This is often the way “less educated or less trained employees” are thought to be best managed.

The second group consists of those who take initiative and pride in their work, are usually better educated, and need little management and supervision.

And finally the third group consists of the entrepreneurs who take “ownership” of their work and don’t want any supervision and are best left alone to “create”.

These three “groupings” of employees often lead us to specific types of management behavior.

The first group, those who are lazy and don’t take initiative must be managed closely, forcefully, and constantly.

The second group, those who take initiative and pride in their work must be managed only a little, with some distance.

And the third group, those entrepreneurs, shouldn’t be managed at all … OK.. maybe a little, once in a while.

Schools teach this approach either overtly or covertly. Books present this approach. Other managers tell their management trainees this same message. Consultants and trainers teach this approach.

Except me. You won’t hear this refrain from me.

I don’t believe it.

Early in my management career I began to notice that there were times when, with the same employee, I was most effective if I left them alone and at other times more effective if I managed them closely. The same employee! Sometimes close management was best. Other times distant management was best. What was the difference that made the difference?

Slowly through my experience in the real world, starting in college, I began to develop a very different philosophy about management. Unlike most systems that attempt to reduce everything down to a simple rule or maybe two, I allowed my imagination to wander…. and…. I came up with seven parameters! Imagine, seven factors that determine the success of a management situation. Many people would cringe at the idea of a manager having to take into account seven different parameters in order to decide how to deal with a specific situation. It’s too complex! Well, not everything can be defined as a simple two-variable equation. (You should be interpreting significant sarcasm by now.)

You engineers, technologists, and scientists out there.. answer this question for me? Why is it that we can easily buy into the idea that spacecraft, buildings, biological systems, and quantum physics can be defined with complex, multi-variable representations, but “systems of people” are supposed to adhere to “a couple of simple rules”? The answer of course is that they don’t.

In my world, seven “contextual parameters” must be evaluated in order to define the best management style for a given situation. I call this process Contextual Definition©.

And once those seven parameters are accessed there are eight management styles to select from, one or two of which will be optimum for that given situation. This I call The Hierarchy of Contextual Leadership Styles©.

Together they define the best management style for a given set of employees in a given situation and I call that Contextual Leadership©.

The best management approach is only incidentally dependent upon the employee being managed.

So I don’t subscribe to the idea that the best management approach is to group people into two basic categories; people who are lazy and people who work hard. Although I certainly agree with the email that there are people who fall into those two categories and they generally trigger one of two management approaches.

But not everyone falls into one of these two categories. And there’s the rub. What to do about them? My seven parameters of Contextual Definition cover, at least as far as I can tell right now, the range of important parameters that a manager need consider when deciding how to manage a given situation.

Whatever category we can lump our employees into represents only one of seven parameters that must be taken into account to achieve management success.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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