Good managers are super rare. 82 percent of manager hires end up being the wrong one. (Whoa.) Here’s why (kinda).

Straight up and honestly, the last five or six managers I’ve had have been somewhere from “horrific” to “OK periodically.” No one has been great. The reasons can vary — most of the time it involves simple communication, but sometimes it does involve the idea of micro-managing, or expecting things an exact specific way even if the outcome is the same if it’s done another way. This is all fairly common, and accounts for the insanely low engagement scores globally. (I wrote a post about an employee engagement survey at the University of Minnesota that goes into this too.)

Here’s a new(ish) article from Harvard Business Review, which delves a little deeper. Here’s a doozy of a statistic:

Gallup has found that one of the most important decisions companies make is simply whom they name manager. Yet our analysis suggests that they usually get it wrong. In fact, Gallup finds that companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time.

First reaction?

Companies fail — FAIL — to find the right manager more than 3/4 of the time? LOLz. This isn’t per se surprising, but goddamn, that’s a depressing stat.

The article goes on. A good manager needs to have these core traits: ability to motivate, assertiveness, ability to design a culture of accountability, relationship-building, and strong decision-making. That’s a lot. It’s not quite “a laundry list” but it’s a lot. So how does this all shake out?

Gallup’s research reveals that about one in ten people possess all these necessary traits. While many people are endowed with some of them, few have the unique combination of talent needed to help a team achieve excellence in a way that significantly improves a company’s performance. These 10%, when put in manager roles, naturally engage team members and customers, retain top performers, and sustain a culture of high productivity. Combined, they contribute about 48% higher profit to their companies than average managers.

So about 1 out of every 10 people should become a manager, but 82 percent of the time, a company is choosing one of those other nine people to actually become the manager. That also makes sense. The No. 1 fundamental reason I’d assume there is simply politics. Managers are often chosen based on (a) tenure or (b) ability to manage processes well, which is vastly different from managing people well (people have emotions; Excel files do not). I’d also reckon — this is observation, not science — that it’s possible people with all those traits above could (a) get bored in a hierarchal structure and just leave or (b) not be the best at the political bullshit that ultimately helps you get the managerial promotions. Sometimes smarter people don’t like the small talk, you know?

So what can be done?

The HBR article talks about using “predictive analytics” to find managers. I think that’s a good idea on face, but no one really understands how big data works (for realz), so I feel like that would ultimately get messed up. (“The data’s not right. Promote off gut!”) The first, and easiest (I think) thing to do would be to look for people to promote to managerial roles who are respected. You can generally tell — explicitly — within a company who is respected. Even if they lack some of the core skills, just having that respect will allow them the ability to develop them. When you promote the hard-charging Type-A people into management, that becomes a fucking train wreck. They’re literally starting from the back of the race at that point, and because they’re people who want to be in control, they’re gonna make the situation worse before they make it better.

“Training” is a big thing in companies, and it’s a double-edged sword. When companies go through bad periods, training is usually one of the first things they ax. But training is also one of the singular things that makes a good company great — i.e. access to it. Manager training should be commonplace and routine. Managers should be trained on communication (massively important), building relationships, working with others, rolling out new plans, etc. This should happen at least once a month, if not more. The goal should be to create “an organic” culture — not one that feels forced with a billion meetings and check-ins. Those ultimately create burnout; feeling like you’re part of a team, as opposed to part of a work team, should be the goal of the manager.

A lot of this comes back to the message from the top — is that message about people, or about products/revenue? If it’s about the former, you’re in a good spot to evolve as a manager. If it’s about the latter, you’re pushing a boulder uphill.

Here’s the final aspect of manager training (two-fold), and I’ve seen this in numerous examples (myself and my friends). First off, managers need to understand — when they become managers — that it’s quite possible those under them won’t work the exact same way they do, because, well, er, people are different. If the goal is “C,” and the manager would follow “Path A,” but the employee would follow “Path B,” and both get to “C” under-budget and ahead of time, it doesn’t fucking matter that the employee followed B. If your focus is on outcomes/deliverables (as most orgs’ focus are), then employees should have the ability to work in their own style so long as those are being met. Managers often get promoted and think “Well, I’ll impose Path A on this team.” That leads to dis-engagement.

Final thing: empathy. It’s nowhere in this process: hiring, recruiting, managing, etc. If you manage four employees and pass one in the break room, ask them about their life, their family, their day, etc. You don’t need to be their best friend — that’s a common trap point for managers, especially new ones — but you do need to show that you care. The manager I had this summer would frequently walk past my office and say nothing despite making eye contact. Isn’t that odd? She also wouldn’t tell me when she was gone for 3-4 days at a time (also kind of odd). Just try to make some kind of connection; you don’t need to invite them over for linguine, per se, but you need to show an interest, even if it’s feigned. Just like there’s been base psychological studies about smiling at people on the street, so too can a quick 30-second check-in with a manager make an employee feel better and work harder.

It’s always been kind of amazing to me that despite decades of research and studies on managing, hiring, recruiting, etc… no one really knows the best practices here. Of course it’s a moving target and an imperfect science, but you would think the percentage of bad manager hires wouldn’t start with an “8,” right?

Ted Bauer


  1. When you see how someone typically gets promoted into management, could it be any surprise the result is often so awful? As you said, take someone who is very good at one job (usually task oriented production), then place them into a totally different type of job (managing people), for which they in all likelihood have had no education, experience, training or aptitude. Compared to how carefully employees are vetted for most jobs, this casualness is just stunning. I suspect this is a lingering effect of Taylorism, which disrespects employees and essentially treats them like children or machines.

  2. This problem is built into the system. No amount of “management training” can fix it. Self-managing teams, divisions, and entire organizations address this, by giving people more of what they want – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The ability and opportunity to contribute, learn, collaborate, co-direct. The best “natural” managers know this and make it happen. And, we can make it happen in any organization, if we move beyond the dead-end model of “management” that we’ve been stuck in for decades.

    • Yep. So instead of fixing it like we would a product issue, we hand it to HR — who essentially makes it worse. And the circle repeats.

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