“I don’t know why our managers aren’t stepping up. We want them to act like leaders, but they just won’t do it!”
In my work with executives, I hear this all the time.
Some express frustration that instead of taking charge of their areas, their managers are too dependent on them for decisions. Others complain that rather than delegating to their teams, their managers are in the weeds, doing too much of the work themselves. Some grumble that their managers don’t put enough of a focus on their people, and as a result, morale in their areas are suffering.
Admittedly, these are all barriers that interfere with a manager’s effectiveness. However, what many executives don’t realize is that, often, their own leadership styles are inadvertently contributing to these difficulties.
Just last week, one of my coaching clients voiced similar complaints about the managers in his company. Although he and his colleagues on the executive team wanted them to behave “more like leaders,” many of their middle managers just didn’t seem up to the task. He expressed that he was at his wits end with respect to getting them to do what was expected.
As we explored the issue, it became clear that two factors were contributing to this dynamic.
First, the organization wasn’t putting enough of an emphasis on training new leaders. Although they rewarded high performers with promotions, they did very little to help them to develop the skills needed to lead effectively once they were in their new jobs.
The team was somewhat embarrassed to discover this seemingly obvious gap. Still, they were confident that they could establish a structured leadership development program relatively easily.
The second reason for their managers’ shortcomings was a little more complex. As we delved into the issue, we discovered that the company’s executives were inadvertently exhibiting a variety of behaviors that were contributing to the very behaviors amongst their managers that they were wanting to avoid.
In my experience, these behaviors are pretty common. Are you guilty of any of them?
1. Making Hiring Decisions Based Solely on Job Performance
It makes sense that the people who are performing well at their jobs would be the first ones considered for promotions into management positions. However, if proficiency or length on the job are the only factors you’re considering when making these decisions, you could be setting yourself up for future problems.
As an executive coach, I have sometimes been hired to work with managers who are doing poorly because they lacked the needed emotional intelligence or people development skills to succeed as leaders. In some cases, these managers didn’t even like leading people. However, they took the promotion because it seemed like something they should do to move forward in their careers.
To avoid finding yourself in this position, when you’re considering promoting an employee, make sure to be on the lookout for red flags that would indicate that someone might struggle as a leader. Then, come up with ways to test these out before you pull the trigger in promoting him. Perhaps you could let him lead a project and see how he does. Or, you could provide him with coaching ahead of time to see if his people skills improve in response to it.
Although you clearly wouldn’t expect a new manager to seamlessly adjust to the demands of his role, you should keep in mind that if you have strong concerns about the individual’s ability to lead, they’re probably there for a reason.
2. Reinforcing individual contributor instead of leadership behaviors
When you need to get something done, it’s natural that your high performers would be your “go-to” people. After all, of course you’re going to be most likely to delegate the task to the person you know can produce highest quality work. However, if you continue this behavior once you’ve promoted that person into a management role, you could be stifling her development as a leader.
Recently, a dissatisfied manager complained to me that her boss kept assigning her tasks that her direct reports should be doing. However, whenever she tried to push back by saying that someone on her team could do it, her boss replied with something along the lines of, “I want to make sure it’s done exactly the way I like it” or “I’m not sure they’re up to it.”
As a result, although she had a new title, she was being continuing to be encouraged to be a “doer” instead of a leader. She knew she needed to get better at coaching and delegating to people, but her boss simply wasn’t allowing her to develop these skills.
If, as a boss, you realize that you do this more than would be appropriate, commit to letting your manager grow by reinforcing leadership behaviors. Yes, it will require an adjustment on everyone’s part, but in the long-run, it will be worth it.
3. Not Delegating Authority
Another common behavior from leaders that can stifle the growth of their managers is being reluctant to let their people to make – and own – their decisions.
At times, this comes from a desire to avoid having others make mistakes or fail. If you’re the type of leader who consistently finds yourself swooping in to save the day whenever your manager struggles, you’ll prevent him from developing the resilience and problem-solving skills needed to excel as a leader. (And, if across time, your attempts at coaching don’t seem to be helping, you’ll have to consider the possibility that you may not have the right person in the right role).
On the other hand, perhaps you simply like to be the one making the decisions. Are you someone who is consistently convinced that your way is the correct – and only way? Or, are you someone who tries to make others’ works lives more efficient by drawing on your experience to help them to reach solutions more quickly? In either case, you could be training your people not to think, and instead, to rely on you for the answers.
Of course there will be times when you’ll need to jump in to help others so that they don’t make a fatal error. And, there are times that you’ll feel so strongly about the direction in which something should go that you’ll want to make the final decision. Still, be mindful that each time that you do this, you’ll be undermining your manager’s ability (and perhaps, motivation) to step up as a leader and take responsibility for his or her actions or decisions. Therefore, tread lightly in this regard, with the aim of coaching your people to develop sound decision-making processes and the resilience to bounce back and learn from mistakes.
Paul Osterman, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of The Truth About Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter, argues on a Harvard Business Review podcast that “middle managers make the world go round…at the end of the day, you need managers to make…organizations function.”
By putting an emphasis on making the right promotion decisions, reinforcing leadership behaviors, and empowering your managers to make decisions, you can increase the odds that the managers in your organization will exhibit the sorts of behaviors that will help your company to succeed.
Want to hear about more challenges leaders face? Listen to my appearance on “In the Workplace” on Wharton Business Radio.