Why Undermanagement Persists: The 7 Management Myths

Most managers want to feel they contribute to the mission and do right by their teams, just like any employee at any level in the organization. So why they don’t take a stronger hand?

Unfortunately, most managers have bought the false empowerment philosophy that is constantly peddled in and out of the workplace. Most don’t take a stronger hand when it comes to managing—they don’t even perform the basic tasks of managing. Most managers undermanage.

Of course, the reality is that most mangers want to be good, if not great, at what they do. They want to feel they contribute to the mission and do right by their teams, just like any employee at any level in the organization. The question is, why don’t they? I ask managers every single day why they don’t take a stronger hand. They almost always give me the same reasons—what I call the top seven management myths in today’s workplace.

#1. The Myth of Empowerment—The way to empower people is to leave them alone and let them manage themselves.

This is false empowerment, the #1 myth in the workplace. What is the reality? Almost everybody performs better with the guidance, direction, and support of a more experienced person.

So why do managers often second-guess their own instincts to take a stronger hand? Precisely because they have been ingrained with the mantras of false empowerment. When managers do take charge, employees often recite these same mantras, complaining of micromanagement.

So what does real empowerment look like? If you want to truly empower people, then you simply must define the terrain on which they have power. That terrain consists of effectively delegated goals, with clear guidelines and concrete deadlines. Consistently articulating with every direct report the appropriate standards and expectations is the hard work of managing. Within clearly articulated parameters, an employee has power. Limited power, yes. But it also has the great virtue of being real power.

#2. The Myth of Fairness—The way to be fair is to treat everybody the same.

Of course, treating anyone differently on the basis of their gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, or anything else that has nothing to do with the quality of their work is wrong. But the reality, as any one of your employees could tell you, is that we are not all winners at work. It is true that some people put more thought, effort, and dedication into their work each day than others and produce outstanding results.

Treating everybody the same, regardless of their behavior or their work outcomes, is totally unfair.

What’s truly fair? Doing more for some people and less for others, based on what they deserve —based on their performance. That is why it is so important that managers keep track of employee performance against expectations every step of the way.

#3. The Myth of the Nice Guy—The only way to be a strong manager is to act like a jerk, but I want to be perceived as a “nice guy” by my team.

It is true that many managers act like jerks. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are strong leaders. It just means they are acting like jerks.

Sometimes when managers hear me say, “It’s OK to be the boss,” they picture bosses they’ve known in the past who they remember as being particularly, well, “bossy”—arbitrary, out of line, loud, mean, and even toxic or abusive. Let me be very clear: That is notwhat I’m talking about.

What I’m also not talking about is the widespread phenomenon of what I call the “false nice guy complex.” The “false nice guy” managers refuse to make decisions, give orders, or hold people accountable. The wielding of authority by one person over another seems wrong to them. 

What is the reality? Real “nice guy” managers do what it takes to help employees succeed so those employees can deliver great service and earn more rewards for themselves. The best way to avoid being a jerk is to accept your legitimate authority and be comfortable using that authority legitimately.

#4. The Myth of the Difficult Conversation—Being hands-off is the way to avoid confrontations with employees.

Most managers find that the most painful and damaging aspect of managing is when they must have very difficult conversations, sometimes even confrontations, with employees. They believe that being a highly engaged manager requires or causes these confrontations, whereas being a hands-off manager allows them to avoid these confrontations altogether.

The reality is that being hands-off in your management style makes these confrontations inevitable. When managers are highly engaged, these confrontations rarely occur, and when they do, they are not so painful as they might be otherwise.

It takes guts to take charge and be a strong, highly engaged manager, but probably not for the reasons you think. Managers shouldn’t be afraid of a few difficult conversations. It takes much more dedication and courage to adopt a long-term transition in their management style that ultimately results in less difficult conversations overall.

#5. The Myth of Red Tape—Managers are prevented from being strong because there are many factors beyond their control: red tape, corporate culture, senior management, and/or limited resources.

Managers tell me every day that despite their best efforts, they are held back by rules and red tape and contracts. Some managers hide behind this challenge as an excuse to not manage at all. Usually, right beside them in the organization, is a manager dealing with the very same rules and red tape and contracts and find ways to make it work.

Focusing on what you can’t control makes the most powerful person weak, whereas focusing intensely on what you can control—to the exclusion of what you cannot—will always make you stronger. The fact is, there are so many things within your control: you, your guts, your skill, your habits, and your time. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a strong leader who talks to employees more often, one-on-one. You don’t need permission to set people up for success, spell out expectations clearly, clarify goals and guidelines and deadlines.

#6. The Myth of the Natural Leader—I am not “good at” managing.

The underlying theory here is that some people are natural leaders and, therefore, the best managers, whereas others are not natural leaders and, therefore, are destined to be not-so-great managers.

The best managers are people—whether they come by it naturally or not—who leverage the best proven techniques to get the best performance out of their people every day. Anyone can learn those techniques. Anyone can practice them until they become honed skills. Anyone can continue that practice until it is habit.

#7. The Myth of Time—There isn’t enough time in the day to manage people.

This myth is based in a very concrete reality: Managers have zillions of demands on their time, including the multitude of tasks, responsibilities, and projects that fall outside of their responsibilities as a manager.

But the real solution is perhaps a little counterintuitive at first. Since time is so limited, managers definitely don’t have time notto manage people! When managers avoid spending time up front in advance making sure things go right, things almost always go wrong. Small problems pile up and ultimately become big problems that require a ton of time and attention to correct. Those problems can be avoided altogether if managers are highly engaged from the start.

If you put your management time where it belongs and attend to the basics every step of the way, the time you do spend managing will be so much more effective. In a 15-minute conversation, you have the potential to engage hours or even days of an employee’s productive capacity. Very quickly, things will improve, and you’ll start to get much of that management time back.

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.



Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done”( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.