7 Causes of Undermanagement—And How They Affect Direct Reports

Undermanagement is a success-crushing syndrome worth fighting against. Indeed, the consequences of undermanagement make the impact of micromanagement look like nothing.

Although undermanagement is not a household word like micromanagement—yet—it should be, because undermanagement is a success-crushing syndrome worth fighting against. Indeed, the consequences of undermanagement make the impact of micromanagement look like nothing:

  • Unnecessary problems occur.
  • Small problems (that could have been solved easily) turn into big problems.
  • Resources are squandered.
  • Employees perform tasks/responsibilities the wrong way for longer periods of time.
  • Low performers hang around causing problems for everyone else (and collecting the same paycheck as everyone else, too!).
  • High performers get frustrated, lose commitment, and think about leaving.
  • Employees are not set up to perform at their best.
  • Managers spend their management time in all the wrong ways.

Most managers undermanage. Here are the top seven reasons why they undermanage and how it affects you directly:

1. They are afraid of micromanaging. I often say that micromanagement is a giant red herring. Is there even such a thing as “micromanagement” at all? Of course, some managers overdo it sometimes, but the vast majority underdo it. Real micromanagement, if it exists at all, is quite rare. The funny thing is that most cases mistaken for micromanagement turn out to be undermanagement in disguise. Here’s one scenario:

Your manager asks you to check in with him every step of the way in order to make basic decisions or take simple actions. Is this a case of micromanagement? No. If an employee is unable to make basic decisions or take simple actions on his own, that’s almost always because the manager has not prepared the employee in advance to do so.

Of course, there are cases in which managers do overdo it. Sometimes this is the result of an obsessive-compulsive manager, or a manager who wants an assistant at his beck and call—and that is not a management relationship. Or maybe it’s just the manager’s first day managing a new employee. The good news is that when managers accidentally manage too closely, they can just step back a little. No harm done. But if they undermanage, the harm is pervasive and damaging to everyone involved.

2. They are afraid of being unfair by not treating all employees the same. This sense of false fairness often means managers are unwilling to provide employees with extra rewards when they go the extra mile. Since managers can’t do everything for everybody, most of them take the easy way out, rewarding nobody. Limited resources for rewards are further watered down by trying to spread them around equally. The result: Low and mediocre performers enjoy the same rewards as high performers such as yourself! When your manager suffers from this “false fairness” syndrome, she fails to give you—her best employee—the flexibility you need to continue working hard and smart and deprives herself of a key tool for motivating her employees. What’s truly fair? Giving you the chance to earn more or less based on your actual performance.

3. They are afraid of being perceived as a “jerk” and want to be seen as “nice.” Are they really being “nice guy” managers by failing to provide the direction, support, and coaching employees need in order to succeed? In truth, they are simply letting themselves off the hook, to avoid the uncomfortable tension that comes with being stuck between the boardroom and the front lines—the one who has to negotiate the competing needs and desires of the employer and the employee. They are refusing to take responsibility for their authority, which has real consequences that are anything but nice: Problems occur, sometimes big ones. When problems are not dealt with, sometimes they turn into disasters. The best way for manages to avoid being a jerk is to accept their legitimate authority and feel comfortable using it. Real “nice guy” managers do what it takes to help employees succeed so those employees can deliver great service for customers and earn more rewards for themselves.

4. They are afraid of having difficult confrontations with employees. Many managers find that the most painful aspect of managing is having difficult conversations, even confrontations, with employees. Such managers often avoid day-to-day conversations with employees about their work because they are trying to avoid these confrontations.

If you and your boss are not having regular conversations, then neither one of you is experienced at them. If you and your boss are not talking regularly, your boss probably has not been making expectations clear. So when a problem absolutely must be dealt with and he finally confronts you, he is more likely to be frustrated and angry. The conversation will not only come as a big unpleasant surprise to you, it is more likely to become heated. There is only one way managers can avoid difficult confrontations: having lots of mundane conversations about the day-to-day work before anything goes wrong!

5. They are afraid to break organizational rules and procedures and feel constrained by bureaucratic red tape. Dealing with all the complexities of employment rules and organizational procedures can be a pain in the neck. Still, some managers hide behind this challenge as an excuse to avoid managing. Others work through the challenge every day in order to make sure the employees they manage are getting the management basics. How should your manager work within and around the rules? She should learn them backward and forward—and then work them. Performance is always the fair and legal basis for discriminating in the workplace. As long as your boss can demonstrate that any rewards or detriments to you are based solely on your work performance, there is no basis for a claim of unlawful discrimination.

6. They are natural leaders, but not very good at managing. Yes, some of your managers might be gifted natural leaders. If so, then congratulations are due. The natural leader is, of course, blessed with a rare gift. And you are fortunate to have a gifted natural leader to follow… maybe.

But most workplaces are missing leaders at all levels who consistently practice the basics of management: providing direction and guidance, holding people accountable, dealing with failure, and rewarding success. These are the most important elements when it comes to helping you get more work done better and faster, avoid unnecessary problems, solve problems quickly, stay on track, succeed, and earn more of the credit and rewards you need and want. Managers don’t need to be natural leaders to do this. All they need to do is consistently practice management basics.

7. They feel like they don’t have enough time to spend managing you. Most managers get caught in a time-trap: Managers feel like they don’t have enough time to manage, so they avoid having regular one-on-one conversations with employees to make sure they are on track. As a result, things go wrong, sometimes terribly wrong.

Good managers know they can’t afford not to spend time managing you. They have regular one-on-one conversations with their employees setting expectations, goals, deadlines; assigning necessary resources; solving problems; course correcting; reviewing work in progress and planning of next steps. If your boss does that with you for a few weeks, mark my words, more and more of your conversations will be “good news” conversations, there will be few problems to fix, and your boss won’t be wasting any time.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website, www.rainmakerthinking.com.


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