Undermanagement is not yet a common household term like micromanagement—but it should be. For many years, I have been focused like a laser beam on moving the management zeitgeist and conventional wisdom away from the false empowerment thinking that drives undermanagement. I want to inspire managers to have the gumption to break the vicious cycle that makes undermanagement seem inevitable.
The Same Basic Story
This began back in 1993, when I started examining the work attitudes of Generation X, those of my own generation who, at the time, were just entering the workforce. At that time, I was focused exclusively on generational issues in the workplace. When I went to a company and interviewed its employees, it was usually the same basic story: Young workers felt they weren’t getting enough direction from their managers. They wanted more training, support, and guidance. They wanted more coaching and feedback.
I didn’t realize it then, but Gen Xers were really telling me they were being undermanaged. However, as my work continued, I noticed the problem spreading, not only to the next generation (Millennials) but to the next (Generation Z.) The traditional long-term hierarchical employer-employee bond was morphing into a short-term transactional relationship. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the workplace today.
Anyone involved in fighting the undermanagement epidemic is fighting against a strong tide. The fact is, undermanagement remains the perennial elephant in the room in most workplaces. The vast majority of leaders, managers, and supervisors fail to consistently spend time in one-on-one management dialogues with their direct reports to provide enough guidance, direction, and feedback. This problem is widespread at all levels of organizations in every industry.
Every day the world becomes more connected, competitive, information-technology driven, and global. The big picture is increasingly complex and unpredictable. Employers are more determined than ever to gain new efficiencies in productivity and quality, lower operating costs, and remain flexible. For their part, employees are under more pressure than ever to get more work done better and faster, and to survive and succeed, in order to take care of themselves and their families.
Managers, as always, remain stuck in the middle.
A Vicious Cycle
Anyone in a position of supervisory responsibility or leadership today is almost surely under more pressure than ever before. Yet most managers still buy into false empowerment thinking. They still resist telling people what to do and how to do it, hoping their direct reports are able to figure things out for themselves. Most managers still worry about doing more for one person or less for another, based on what they deserve, fearing someone might think the manager is being unfair. Most managers still want to be liked and thus soft-pedal their authority lest anyone think the manager is a jerk.
Don’t get me wrong: I realize managers are busy. Most are scrambling to balance their management responsibilities with their non-management responsibilities, and they simply feel they don’t have enough time to do both thoroughly and consistently. So, typically, they neglect their management responsibilities…until things go wrong. Then the manager rushes in to troubleshoot, firefight, clean up the mess, and get things back on track. By the time the manager is done, he or she has even less time than before to attend to management responsibilities. And the vicious cycle goes on.
Who needs a weak leader? Nobody.
Who wants a weak leader? Low performers who are hiding out, seeking to collect a paycheck, and hoping nobody notices. And they are the only ones.
Remember: If you are somebody’s boss, you have power in relation to that person’s livelihood and career. Their work is how they feed themselves and their families. It’s how they pursue their ambitions. This is how they contribute to the mission of your organization, how they serve your clients and customers. And you are the boss. That is a huge responsibility. It is not one that should be taken lightly.
Change Is Possible
Here’s the good news: We have seen time and again, example after example, when leaders begin concentrating on back-to-basics management, things get better. Productivity and quality improve, fewer unnecessary problems occur, and resources are squandered far less often. Even more importantly, low performers tend to leave on their own. High performers tend to stay and work better. And all employees experience improvements in morale and performance.
So what kind of boss are you going to be? It’s all up to you.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website, www.rainmakerthinking.com.