I’ve been working 14 years in the IT industry, before that I’ve worked in all kind of temporary jobs while I was studying, summing up a total of 19 years working with and for managers from diverse industries and countries. The last 7 years of my career I’ve been a people manager myself.
I’ve had horrible, bad, good and excellent managers, but all of them, including myself, had something in common: managers fail and do mistakes.
In this post I want to describe some of the common reasons managers fail. To do it I’ve created a list based on the sources “Why Managers Fail” by Will Phillips and “Becoming a manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership” by Linda A. Hill.
The common reasons managers fail are:
- Unable to make the transformation which involves a profound psychological adjustment.
- Independent. Likes to accomplish things on their own.
- Poor interpersonal skills.
- Failure to adapt.
- The “Me Only” syndrome.
- Fear of action.
- Inability to rebound.
There is an additional point, which is not included in their lists but I think it’s crucial and makes lot of bad managers fail.
- Fear of building a great team.
Let’s analyze these points more in detail.
Unable to make the transformation which involves a profound psychological adjustment.
When people becomes manager they suffer a a transformation of identity, most of the skills for which they were bright and lead them to become manager are actually useless to be a manager.
This is very common in sales and technical positions, someone who is great selling doesn’t mean that can organize a full sales department. If we take the example of my industry, I have seen lot of times how the best developer became manager, the one who had the best coding skills, the one who finished his tasks always on time and with less bugs, the one who always solved the most complex tasks … just that one became manager. The problem is that those technical skills are not related to manage people, to deal with providers and vendors, to manage a budget, to be a good communicator and listener…
In addition to losing the sense of mastery and having to begin working on a new set of skills, you involuntarily move to what I call the “dark side”.
The dark side is that zone where you are not anymore part of the employees, you become “one of them”. How many times have you been in the coffee machine having fun, laughing … suddenly the manager enters … silence …. manager: “hi guys” … crowd: “hi” …. silence … everyone comes back to their desks…
You might be thinking: I’m a cool guy that will not happen to me. Assume it, you might be the coolest guy of the world, but there are always conversations where you don’t want your manager in. Therefore as a manager you are not part of the party anymore, you are the one who creates uncomfortable silence, you are on the “dark side”.
You have to be prepared for that change, because you are not an employee anymore. As a manager you are now an ambassador of the company.
Independent. Likes to accomplish things on their own.
This one is the classical “delegate” talk. New managers think it is easy to delegate, I mean you just have the delegate the duties and that’s all, isn’t it?
Delegate is probably one of the hardest things to master, you have to know what to delegate, because you can’t delegate all the duties. You will need to keep doing yourself many things and it isn’t easy to identify where is the barrier on what to do and don’t do.
You have to choose the right person to accomplish the work being fair with all the members of your team, you can’t give always the complex tasks to the one who solves them faster or the easy ones to the newbies. If you do it you will have one member of your team always stressed and the rest of the team will not develop their abilities appropriately.
When you delegate a task be clear on what to do and don’t expect the people will accomplish their duties in the same way you will do it, especially when you work with senior teams.
In my opinion one of the keys to know how to delegate and be satisfied with the results obtained is to define properly the “what”, the “why” and “when” needs to be finished, but just let the people decide “how” are they going to accomplish the task and follow up with them on the progress.
You won’t know if you are delegating properly in your daily work, you will know it when you are under high pressure. It is under pressure when we want to resolve the things ourselves.
Inability to get along. Poor interpersonal skills prevent the manager from effectively leading people or teams.
Another common reason of failure is the lack of poor interpersonal skills, soft skills or people skills. These are the ability we have to communicate with people.
I don’t want to make it too long, we could talk during hours about inspiring teams, win their loyalty, non-verbal communication, active/passive listening and more…there is lot of literature about this.
In this point, I just want to stand up that it is extremely important to be a great listener, but also to be self-conscious of what you communicate and the words you select to communicate. Let me explain you one of my biggest mistakes around that. Once I read (sorry I don’t remember where) that the higher you are in the hierarchy the more your suggestions become commands. I was having a conversation with one of my project managers about the issues we were having with a vendor, we talked long and deep about how to face and solve the issues. After three hours meeting when the project manager was leaving my office I said something like “these guys are driving us crazy, if they annoy you we should just cancel the contract”. I swear I was joking, I was smiling when I said that … and do you know what? My project manager cancelled the contract, one week later I had on top of my desk an attorney letter requesting to pay the reparations fee for cancelling the contract without respecting the terms. I won’t explain how much money that stupid joke did cost us.
Key learning: Be very cautious on what and how you say things.
I have also good examples of really nasty results because of not listening properly, by listening I don’t mean hear words and understand them. I mean also receive and process all the messages people transmits with their behavior.
Failure to adapt. Flexibility is crucial.
Lot of managers have success at the beginning of their careers, in a specific company or using a concrete method and they insist ad nauseam applying the same formula over and over again, when what you have to do is adapt to the environment, to the team, to the market conditions…inability to adapt and lack of flexibility are great ingredients in the recipe for failure.
The entire world has been based on natural selection, discarding those members of a population who where not able to adapt on time. I link you here an article related to the failure to adapt quickly and effectively to a changing business environment. “Three change management lessons from the dodo bird!”
The “Me Only” syndrome.
This point makes reference to the people who just considers a management career for their own recognition, something that will have obvious negative consequences.
These kind of managers are more worried about the kind of recognition or visibility they will get, how many money they will earn or how fast they will climb the hierarchy…they are damned to death from a career point of view.
A manager position is not all about yourself, you must be a team player and work towards the recognition of the team, not only your own recognition.
If you take all the credit for what you achieve together with your team, your team will leave you alone.
I honestly haven’t seen this behavior too often in the companies I’ve worked, the only time I had to work with a ladder climber he was catch pretty soon and his career was interrupt quite fast.
Fear of action.
Managers can fall into the “analysis paralysis” and want to examine all the details before taking any decision.
I have seen this problem and variants of it quite often, they are normally motivated by different things:
- Many people has so much fear to fail that they invest excessive time analyzing every single point of failure, studying the possibilities from every angle…
- Forget perfection. I had a manager who always said “perfection is the enemy of good”. We all want to be great, to be perfect, but unfortunately it is just not possible to have all we want at the first shoot. At a certain point you need to set a limit you should not overpass.
- Not having a deadline. Deadlines are not defined to stress us, but to achieve something at the right time. If you don’t have a deadline, you will not feel the pressure to finish anything.
- Not taking hard decisions. This is something I really dislike about certain managers, there are situations were hard decisions need to be taken. Remember that, whether you like or not the manager position doesn’t come only with higher salary, it comes also with higher responsibility.
Fear of action and any of their variants have always the same consequence, not being able to accomplish your goals and tasks at the right time.
Inability to rebound.
As a manager you have to take decisions, taking decisions means take certain risks and with any risks you have an amount of success and failure.
As I said at the beginning of the post, all managers have something in common: We all fail or do mistakes.
Now you are lucky because you already know you will do mistakes, so be prepared to rebound appropriately. Managers who don’t rebound tend to blame everything and everyone before trying to understand what they did wrong.
On each mistake or failure, don’t think the entire universe is against you. Reflect on what steps drove you to failure, be self-critic, do retrospectives with your team, accept criticism and feedback.
Good managers take ownership of their mistakes and learn from them, big part of your experience and seniority will depend on what you learn from failure.
Fear of Building a great Team.
The last point I wanted to talk about is the fear of building a great team.
I have seen a couple managers during my career that were not hiring the best talent for their teams, this insane behavior is normally given in managers with low self-esteem and highly insecure.
This kind of manager thinks he has to know everything and better than their direct reports to be always over them.
It’s obvious that you can’t know everything, so try to find the most talented people you can, don’t be afraid of hiring people who is better than you and work always to have someone in your succession plan to facilitate your own development and progression.
I want to finish this point with a great quote of one the best managers I’ve ever had. “You are as good or bad as it is your team”. Therefore, get the best people you can to work with you.
There are much more reasons to fail, so at least do your best to avoid the common ones.