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All Great Managers Are Exactly Alike!

managers suck

In many organizations, the role of the manager takes on a great deal of importance. After all, managers are expected to achieve results for their departments or work units. They receive credit when the department does well, and they take the blame (and sometimes rationalize it away) when the department does poorly.

Folks from Gallup recently posted a blog entry on the HBR Blog Network to explain the “traits” that differentiate great managers from the not-so-great managers. The five traits discussed involve ability to motivate others, assertiveness, culture (of accountability), relationship building and productivity-based decisions (as opposed to political decisions). Furthermore, according to Gallup, only 1 in 10 managers possess all of these “traits.” Apparently, most managers just plain and simply suck at their jobs, right? And if only organizations would do a better job of selecting managers, we could have more great managers.

However, there are some serious flaws with the assertions:

  1. Traits” are defined as “Enduring personal qualities or attributes that influence behavior across situations.” Most of the “traits” listed by Gallup are actually behaviors or outcomes (with the exception of assertiveness).
  2. Good leaders do not motivate others, but instead create an environment where employees can find intrinsic motivation. After all, intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic motivation, is the precursor for engagement. So, no matter how motivating a manager may be and no matter how assertive that manager is, if the people doing the work are not intrinsically motivated to perform that work, performance will not be optimized.
  3. While leaders can influence and build cultures, cultures can also influence and build leaders. Just ask the preeminent culture expert, Edgar Schein. Most managers do not create the culture of their department or unit. Instead, they typically behave in ways that are consistent with the established norms of the department/unit and the organization.
  4. Many managers fail because they lack the competencies necessary to manage the stress of their new role. Johnston and Lee found that within two years of a promotion, most managers’ well-being deteriorates. Hence, while some people may have some innate talents that might make them effective managers, most people still need training and developmental experiences to prepare them for the new demands they will face. This goes beyond just a matter of selection.
  5. Manager effectiveness exists along a continuum, and most managers probably actually fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I’ve never read a study that suggests that 90 percent of managers are horrible at their jobs, while the other 10 percent are great at theirs. However, this article seems to suggest just that. “Very few people are able to pull off all five of the requirements of good management. Most managers end up with team members who are at best indifferent toward their work — or are at worst hell-bent on spreading their negativity to colleagues and customers.” Hence, the implied conclusion here is that if the manager is not great at all five of the supposed traits, then workers will become negative and disengaged. That seems like an awfully long leap to me, and one not at all supported by a single empirical study I’ve ever seen.

In the end, the blog post proposes a variety of conclusions and assumptions that are really not scientifically established. The fact is that there is no one best type of manager. Each context, each situation, each organization and each work unit is different. I find it difficult to believe that we would ever conclude that what it takes to manage, for example, soldiers within the U.S. army would be the exact same sets of traits and behaviors that it takes to lead a team of synchronized swimmers. I’m pretty sure that someone like the late General George S. Patton, Jr., would have been horrible at leading a team of synchronized swimmers, but his behaviors and tactics led to some very effective management given his time and context.

The truth is, there isn’t going to be a magical set of factors that predict effectiveness in every context. Almost every contemporary theory regarding leadership and management emphasizes the importance of the fit between a leader/manager and his or her environment. Hence, to assume that we can boil down great managers to a list of five supposed traits harkens back to the early days of leadership theories – the great person theories – which have largely been pushed aside by more valid perspectives.

Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Suljo

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on June 11, 2014 2:18 PM.

Arkansas Psychological Association Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the previous entry in this blog.

Pre-Conference Training: Working Effectively as a Flexible Team is the next entry in this blog.

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