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Why don’t bad management styles evolve out?

Bad Management Styles

If you believe in the idea of “corporate culture,” it would stand to reason that a culture evolves with new leaders and new employees. As the culture evolves, then, wouldn’t bad management styles have to evolve out? Certain characteristics of a population fade over time, right? So ideally, asshole managers would fade over time as well. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Bad management styles persist. They fray social bonds, they cost people money, and they straight up kill people. None of it seems to matter. It persists. Managers don’t get better. By some measure, 82 percent of them end up as the wrong hire. That’s an absolutely massive failure rate that would never be tolerated in most areas of a business, but somehow is tolerated when it comes to bad management styles.

So as leadership teams flip and new employees enter at the execution level, the culture changes. But as the culture changes, the bad management styles persist. Why is this?

First up: a quick video

Here’s an article from MIT featuring this video with London Business School professor Freek Vermeulen talking about bad management styles. The video:

Good stuff. He argues that bad management is like a virus in a corporation. Would concur. The other term you hear is “cancer.” Same difference.

So what are some of the root causes of bad management styles?

Could go on for days here. Instead, I’ll keep it somewhat short.

The first reason is that management is not intuitive for a lot of people. What gets you promoted is hitting targets. When you over-focus on that in other people (your direct reports), you become a slave-driving micro-manager. Most people can never make the cognitive leap from “how I executed” to “how I manage.”

The second reason is that companies persist making money despite horrible management, so no one really cares about the management being horrible. (Because the money is still there.) We want to think of ourselves as world-building titans as we toil in our cubicle, but the fact really is: work isn’t that hard, and technology has made it easier. A lot of “management practices” are really just invented hair-on-fire drama designed to increase our own feelings of relevance, self-worth, and having a stake in where we spend 10 hours a day.




 

So: we over-complicate work, and the management part of it isn’t intuitive. Those are your core issues.

What about the 1911 problem?

Oh yea. We still train most managers according to a 1911 set of guidelines. That was, uh, pre-WW1.

Just how pervasive are bad management styles?

Absolutely everywhere. We’ve all had terrible bosses. Here are 12 types. Want 7 more? There you go. The world is full of KPI-gagging, chest-pounding, target-humping, myopic revenue hounds. We’ve somehow come to deify these people for their income and their “dogged workaholic nature.” In fact, we just elected one such person as U.S. President! (I’m actually sure Trump is considered a good manager, but it’s only because his company is private and family-owned, and most of the execs are his kids.)

Could we do anything about bad management styles?

Of course. A partial list might include:

Most of these ideas are not revolutionary. But the one thing they have in common is establishing a clear tie between these concepts:

  • What needs to be done
  • How the executives view the processes and people involved
  • Some form of incentive/compensation

If you try to make decisions about management without considering the psychology of the execs or the potential incentive structure, it won’t go anywhere. It’s really that simple. No one is going to shift from being a shitty manager if being a shitty manager is getting that person rewarded. If you think some pie-in-the-sky “thought leadership” is our ticket out of bad management styles, I have a few bridges I can sell you. It’s all about knowing the ecosystem and tying it to the perks. That affects real change with most bureaucracy-mired drones.

What else would you toss on the pyre about bad management styles?

Ted Bauer

6 Comments

  1. This is a great question! You kinda offhandedly suggest, When people drive outside of their lane lines, they get popped in the wallet. That is a HUGE prescription with no hint of methodology. As you know, I hold that 360 Feedback with accountability (tie to PM) is the only way I know to do that systematically, consistently and fairly, when done correctly. Of course, that “done correctly” part is where organizations do not want to step up.

    • I think maybe I didn’t phrase that part super well. What I meant was — if senior leaders are becoming micro-managers and that’s affecting the workflow down the chain, there should be a way to financially penalize those senior leaders, as they tend to care about money, and thus maybe they would do it less and understand what the priorities and focus of their level are.

  2. This post asks the right questions I think Ted. It matters not to me that neither you nor I have all the answers. You ask about what other bad management practices we should dispose of. One which I observe more frequently these days is actually the opposite of the kind of machismo styles you frequently describe. It’s the failure of some junior managers to be sufficiently tight on discipline. Being afraid to level any criticism at their subordinates. Being unwilling to call out unacceptable behavior. Because above all they want to be liked, yet don’t know how to practice tough love.

    • This is particularly difficult when HR has a very sympathetic ear to even the most petty and childish complaints. This kind of environment detracts from the effectiveness of management. A manager can’t maintain high expectations when the employees constantly threaten to “go to Tracy in HR because “you’re being a dick” when I’m not actually being a dick.

  3. Ted,

    Good points. I think the most important one of all was when you wrote:

    “No one is going to shift from being a shitty manager if being a shitty manager is getting that person rewarded”

    That’s basic human nature and it’s the vast majority of company approaches. They reward managers only for whether the number was hit, the product shipped, or other execution metric (regardless of how it was accomplished). In fact, I’ve seen an inverse relationship between results and how awful a manager gets away with being.

    The good thing is HR is finally starting to get data driven. With that data they’re slowly moving towards understanding what really makes a good team vs. a bad one. When they can start correlating “wow, everyone keeps quitting that guy’s team” with “oh, it’s because of X,Y,Z” they’re both likely to do something about it, and have the financial metrics (cost of turnover, lost productivity , etc). Unfortunately, much of this is still hidden or not widely known (my stab at said calculation: https://getlighthouse.com/blog/calculate-value-good-manager-vs-bad-manager/)

    Are you optimistic it’s going to change?

    Thanks,
    Jason

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