Good Managers, Bad Managers... They’re All The Same

lukekyte
Written by
- 8 min read

To spin a Benjamin Franklin quote, three things are certain in life. Death, taxes... and managers. But things could (and should) be different.

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Have you ever thought “I can do a better job than my manager”? Be honest, you have. And you’re not alone. We’ve all treated our superiors with disdain in the past, cursed our boss in the safety of our own homes, and complained to our loved ones at unreasonable expectations.

It seems as natural as the weather.

There’s a damning financial case for change too, with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) revealing that poor management costs UK employers £84bn every year.

Well, what if I said that you don’t just have to think you’ll do a better job than your manager. You will.

Good management. Bad management. It’s all the same. For as long as there’s someone higher in the food chain – setting targets, conducting performance reviews, and telling you what to do – you’ll never take true ownership and accountability.

A psychological parachute will always be there to minimise the damage. Risk doesn’t exist.

And that doesn’t even take into account the disharmony and toxic culture poor management can stimulate.

Henry Stewart discusses this in The Happy Manifesto, identifying two roles a manager tries to play. Unfortunately, people are often promoted into management positions based on their skill or experience in a certain field (Role A) – with people skills neglected as part of the process (Role B).

Role A

  • Strategy
  • Decision-making

Role B

  • Supporting
  • Challenging
  • Coaching

There’s also the consideration that people only put themselves forward for management positions because it’s inherently tied to salary expectations. Progression is too often directly linked to line management.

There are some other benefits for reviewing the management structure of your organisation:

  • Strip away layers of bureaucracy.
  • Drive accountability and ownership in the team.
  • Build more collaborative teams.
  • Let people focus on what they’re good at.

So, how can we make this change?

Culling middle management doesn’t happen overnight. And you’ll want to have your existing managers on board – there are good people there, after all.

And what’s the alternative to a traditional management structure? Self-managed teams? Coaches, multipliers, or mentors (the terminology varies company-to-company)? These are questions you need to think about and answer. Organisations will differ in how they address this debate – and you may decide there are wider issues that need to be fixed as well.

If you’re interested in changing your company’s approach to management – whether that’s scrapping the traditional model entirely, or testing new ideas and approaches within the existing structure – here are some gentle options to get you started:

1. Separate performance reviews from salary discussions.

Annual appraisals are often a sore subject, loathed and feared in equal measure. A chance for your line manager to tell you what’s going wrong, what you need to improve, and what’s holding you back. Plus, with salaries on the table you take away a crucial part of feedback – honesty.

Think about it this way.

You walk into your annual review thinking about the pay rise you’ll ask for. Your manager walks in, trying to juggle a budget. Where does performance and personal development come into the picture?

The sooner you separate the two, the better.

And even better still – scrap annual reviews and introduce regular check-ins to talk about wins, successes and aspirations. Create a positive experience people enjoy.

2. Alternative salary models.

So, if you’re separating salary discussions from performance reviews, you need an alternative approach. This could be anything from the highly radical approach of setting your own salary, to using the advice process amongst your team.

For early adopters of progressive ideas, one concept is a salary panel – elected by the team (to create a democratic environment). At a time of your choosing (once a year, for example) your team can apply for a salary increase explaining their achievements and showcasing evidence – also stating how much they would like.

It’ll be even better if you have marketplace research that’s available to the team, and a career matrix to measure success and achievements against.

3. Setting targets & goals.

Who sets individual goals in your company? Do they cascade down from the top – leaving people underwhelmed and disengaged? Do people have any say in what their targets are, or what they need to achieve over the next quarter?

To create true engagement, ownership and accountability, the focus should be on stripping power away from a boss and giving your teams an opportunity to set their own goals. What is the one thing that will drive them, their department, or the business forward?

There are plenty of target-setting models to choose from, with OKRs being flavour of the month at the moment. But whichever you test, people will be much more invested if they’ve had a greater input in what they need to achieve – bringing about the concept of psychological business owners.

Next up, here are some large-scale changes you could make at a management level.

1. The Advice Process:

The Advice Process has been documented by Corporate Rebels before, offering an alternative approach to getting approval or sign-off. In traditional setups, line managers (and their managers) hold all the power. But we can take the shackles off our teams by trusting them to make decisions that are right for the business.

The Advice Process strikes a nice balance between decentralising power, and ensuring strong and consistent communication with stakeholders and those who would be interested in a particular subject.

A precursor to this is defining clear roles and responsibilities for each team member – what does their job entail and what are they able to make a decision on? But once that’s in place you’re in a position to roll out the process and instantly promote accountability and ownership.

2. Distribute management responsibilities.

I’ve already mentioned how managers are often shoehorned into filling two types of role – but there’s also a tonne of responsibilities that fall their way. And on many occasions there are better people in the team these could be distributed to (and shared with).

Trial an exercise with one of your departments – take a list of responsibilities and have an open discussion on who the best person to manage each one would be. Here’s a starter for 10:

  • Interviewing candidates
  • Onboarding
  • Strategy
  • Mediation
  • Facilitating meetings
  • Sharing minutes or meeting notes
  • Dealing with non-performance issues
  • Managing budgets
  • Being the cheerleader
  • Updating training plans & career progression

Can other people step up, take more responsibility, and give you an opportunity to distribute power to the people who’d be best at managing a process?

3. Introduce coaches.

If you take the approach of distributing roles in your department (see above), you may find a gap when it comes to motivating, coaching, supporting, and challenging others.

This is a huge skill and essential to promote in any organisation.

What’s more, the person I find most motivating and comfortable to talk to could be very different to you. Everyone’s different, and choice is crucial here.

We’ve taken two approaches to this:

  1. Introduced Sanctus coaching: An independent and confidential service specialising in mental health and wellbeing, with sessions created to give people a chance to think out loud, reflect and have space.
  2. Created an in-house coaching structure: Outside of Sanctus, we set up our own coaching structure. People within the team volunteer to be a coach and everyone in the team chooses their own preference. There are only two rules:
  • You can’t pick someone from your own department – to promote a ‘coach, not tell’ environment.
  • There’s a quarterly check-in, where success, aspirations, values and impact come together. This replaced our annual performance reviews.

Outside of this, the team are able to use coaches however they want, whether it’s creating personal development plans, having ad hoc sessions, or simply checking in on a quarterly basis. It introduces a new dynamic of development conversation.

In summary

Let me be clear. I don’t hate management (although it may sound otherwise). I’ve recognised that I was a flawed manager in the past, and there are thousands of others out there not getting the most from their team, stemming creativity, and creating disengagement.

There are good managers out there. Managers that don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. But on that note, there are brilliant people working beneath them that (in some way) are still being held back, not taking on responsibility, and not fulfilling their potential.

Addressing the management conundrum is a tricky business and something that’s difficult to get right. However, if you adopt a mindset of continued progression, and identify opportunities to distribute power and authority, your team will thank you for it with a new-found drive and ambition to succeed.

This is a guest post from Luke Kyte, Head of Culture at Reddico a company that puts trust and freedom at the heart of everything they do. For more information on Luke and the company, check out his rebel page.

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Replies (10)

Sue Hanley

Sue Hanley

This is a bit hard of managers, and the idea that good managers and bad managers are the same might make a good headline, but it’s not fair and not particularly ethical. Different organisational structures require different approaches. If it was not a complex issue it would have been solved long ago. Flat structures are good in principle, particularly for small organisations, as Reddico seems to be. A lot of the time, people just don’t want more responsibility, don’t want to learn how to read a balance sheet, are disinterested in strategy and so on. It is probably more useful to argue against large organisations in principle, and that would be a real revolution.

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lukekyte

lukekyte

I wouldn't say it's unethical to suggest typical management structures prevent people taking full responsibility. And I would disagree that people don't want more responsibility – that's likely the minority.

Although a flat structure is easier to implement in smaller organisations, there are enough case studies of large companies (on here) that are run without levels of hierarchy.

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Brett Sadler

Brett Sadler

Haha! Another nice one Luke :-)

However, when you say "There are good managers out there," I would make a distinction: the best 'managers' don't actually manage. Even if they have 'Manager' in their job title they are more likely to be coaches or facilitators in their approach.

Managers who take their role seriously and try to manage are actually meddling and should get out of the way of their teams! ;-)

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sue hanley

sue hanley

Luke - it is unethical to say all managers are bad. It is a sweeping statement and it is just not true. Many managers do an excellent job of representing the people they manage, advocate for them and coach them. Many managers are ‘ good’. They are good at their jobs and they are good human beings. That is fundamental to good ethics. I have read many case studies and accounts of flat management structures and the jury is still out. There are certainly arguments for hybrid models and time will tell. The major issues lie in large organisations and from an eco system perspective that is the model that has to be questioned. On the other hand, some of the most tyrannical businesses have been family run and owned, where except for the family, the structure is flat. The key issues lie in sustainability and ethics, and organisational structures need to reflect those principles, bearing in mind that ethics reflect valuing of human dignity and the integrity of the planet’s natural systems.

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Brett Sadler

Brett Sadler

This is a bit hard of managers, and the idea that good managers and bad managers are the same might make a good headline, but it’s not fair and not particularly ethical. Different organisational structures require different approaches. If it was not a complex issue it would have been solved long ago. Flat structures are good in principle, particularly for small organisations, as Reddico seems to be. A lot of the time, people just don’t want more responsibility, don’t want to learn how to read a balance sheet, are disinterested in strategy and so on. It is probably more useful to argue against large organisations in principle, and that would be a real revolution.

Sue Hanley

Hi Sue,

I take your point that not everyone want to step up and be part of a 'team of all leaders' and I think this is crucial to understand. In many organisations that transition to self-management there is a dominant feeling that people should 'step up or step out.' This can lead to a loss of talented individuals and also reduce neuro-diversity.

However, I don't believe the solution is 'management', rather there should be attention to creating an inclusive culture where everyone is valued and can contribute according to their motivated talents. There is a real need to team coaching to help embed this thinking.

So, in a self-managing team there should be room for people who want to be told by others within the team how they can contribute.

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lukekyte

lukekyte

[quote]Luke - it is unethical to say all managers are bad. It is a sweeping statement and it is just not true. [/quote]

Sue, I think it's important to clarify that's not my point here. See this section:

"Good management. Bad management. It’s all the same. For as long as there’s someone higher in the food chain – setting targets, conducting performance reviews, and telling you what to do – you’ll never take true ownership and accountability."

It's not that good managers are 'bad', but rather good managers are still (like it or not) a barrier to someone's full potential.

This quote summarises my main point, which I've tried to address and provide solutions / options for.

"There are good managers out there. Managers that don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. But on that note, there are brilliant people working beneath them that (in some way) are still being held back, not taking on responsibility, and not fulfilling their potential."

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Ronald

Ronald

Is it managers (the persons), or management (the organization form)?
Indeed, many 'good' managers exist (define what 'good' is).
The practice of management as we know it in hierarchical organizations is outdated (except e.g. for legal requirements).
A bank-employee who applies for a 300.000 euro mortgage (and gets it granted), is no other person when they arrive in the same bank-office, only to be allowed to order printing-toner for max. 30 euro.
I have yet to meet the first manager who then tells that employee it's good to order such toner without managerial sign-off.
All managers abide to the 'system' of management with big managers appointing little managers in order to keep the system alive without much change. Anyone not fitting into the system is demoted and will eventually have to leave.
Does this give us an example of a 'good' manager: the ones that set employees free and override the existing system? (note that managers are employees as well).

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Sue Hanley

Sue Hanley

It is possible for some organizations, and not others, to adopt flat management structures and team based decision making. One of the points I have made has not been picked up, and it is much more radical. Organisations should not become so large that layer upon layer levels of leadership/management are necessary. The potential for dehumanize people, employees and customers alike is too great. My suggestion challenges the whole notion of growth and suggests a model of organisation structure within the capitalist system, but one where the importance of people and natural systems is paramount, not the unlimited accumulation of wealth in the hands of an elite few. That is real corporate rebellion.

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Gerardo

Gerardo

Sounds like a fanatic-chauvinist stuff with arguments base on the assumption that all the people around the world wants this kind of freedom and accountability for they daily basis. To me, with all respects, this kind of theories ignore hundreds of year of experiences and deny all the evidence through the years about what management is an how to use it. It is a negationist theory with a lot of mumbo jombo and with emotional techniques borrowed from populism

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Sue Hanley

Sue Hanley

Gerardo - I don't know what you think populism is, but it is very much a conservative ideology based on keeping things as they are, not what they could be. And of course there are billions of people in the world who desperately want to feed their kids and have somewhere to sleep, and every day that is what they are focussed on, not on whether or not we have managers in our organisations. Organisations systems in 'the West' are dependent on the maintenance of inequality and exploitation of people and planet.

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