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When Good Managers Go Bad: Why and how to fix it

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Leaders at nearly every company we’ve served believe that managers matter, but few believe that their managers are highly effective. According to Wigert and Harter (2017), bad management costs roughly $7 trillion globally every year. And only 20% of employees strongly agree that their manager motivates them. 

What’s more, managers themselves are feeling the weight of their growing tactical and emotional responsibilities. Since 2020, our clients have cited burnout as one of the biggest threats for managers and the companies that rely on them. What is causing this widespread crisis in management? We believe that the root of the problem lies in the fact that companies don’t know how to equip their managers to succeed. 

This deficiency creates two main gaps - the first is lack of key organizational support for managers and the latter is an absence of vital individual skill sets among managers.  

Gap #1 - The most common critical gaps in organizational support for managers include:

    • Alignment: Lack of clarity on the manager role, expectations, and success measures. 
    • Capacity: Lack of time built into the role to do the job well.
    • Selection: Lack of effective practices to hire well for the role.
    • Assessment: Lack of clear and timely input to course-correct poor management.
    • Development: Lack of awareness of essential manager skills and how to gain them.
    • Systems & Resources: Lack of organizational systems and support that enable managers to be effective in their roles — with many common people processes and policies actually causing more harm than good.

So what can you do about it? We’ve learned from working with 2,000+ organizations that there are two simple things you can do to bridge these organizational support gaps.

Bridge #1: Deblur what a manager is: 

Over the years, we’ve been surprised to discover that the companies we serve can rarely articulate what a manager actually is. Imagine if the same were true for other high-impact professions such as pilots, surgeons, salespeople, or engineers. 

A simple and powerful fix is to deblur - make the implicit, explicit. Start by defining the meaning of ‘manager’ for all employees, including your managers.

Here is a sample definition you can use as your starting point:

The purpose of managers at [Company] is to be our multipliers. It’s a role that exists to help people achieve more than they could do on their own. The manager role is designed to accelerate results and do so in a way that each person finds rewarding. 

Pro tip: If your goal is to build a culture of high performance, engagement, and contribution, we strongly encourage clarifying that it is a manager’s job to manage resources and not to manage people. Not only is it universally demotivating to feel “managed,” but it’s also impossible to truly control people’s actions and outcomes. 

Bridge #2: Behaviorize great management:

In addition to providing a clear role description, we’ve found that companies with the strongest managers went one step further. They broke accountabilities down into behavioral units - specific, observable behaviors - that all managers, including executives, commit to upholding. 

So something like “providing support and development” becomes “hold weekly one-on-ones with each person on the team, have a development conversation once a month, etc…” 

Questions to guide you and your team in setting helpful standards:

  • What specifically do our best managers do on a regular basis?
  • What manager actions do we see as non negotiable?
  • What concrete behaviors bring our company values to life?
  • What manager routines or habits can nudge important conversations?

Pro tips:

Make your manager standards work for you

  • Pick observable behaviors & train people on how to do them. Managers and teams shouldn’t have to guess whether they are sticking to the standard. A binary behavior like “have a career planning conversation on a quarterly basis” works best. Avoid blur words like “inspire” and “empower.”
  • Limit your standards to 10 max. Any more is hard to remember and track.
  • Create a self-reinforcing system. Create accountability and consistency by linking these standards to training, onboarding, engagement surveys, feedback, promotions, hiring, self-assessments, and manager 180s.

Even with a clear job role and behavioral unit accountabilities, most managers will still run right off a leadership cliff, which is…

Gap #2 - Managers lack vital management skills:

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many companies still operate under the assumption that people can develop manager skills “on the job.” But just as you wouldn’t throw an engineer into a job without requiring that they know your programming stack, it’s irresponsible to throw a manager into their role without equipping them with the right manager skill stack. 

Experience is simply not enough. In fact, our research has found no correlation between years of experience and manager skill level. And even when it is possible to learn through experience, experience is an extraordinarily costly teacher when the risks are underperformance and attrition. Therefore, companies with the most consistently effective managers take the time to understand and train their people on the skills that matter most.

The good news is that LifeLabs Learning has done the research to identify the manager skills that make the biggest difference in the shortest time. Best of all, we’ve found that there is a small set of ‘tipping point skills’ that tip over into a wide range of situations. Think of these skills as primary colors. While there is a small set of them, they mix together to create an infinite array of other skills — helping managers tackle any challenges they face.

Bridge #3: Train managers in the tipping point skills that matter most:
  • Coaching: Ask questions, help people think clearly, encourage independent problem-solving.
  • Feedback: Give praise, articulate and help close skill and performance gaps.
  • Productivity: Help set and track goals, set priorities, improve effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Effective one-on-ones: Develop relationships, eliminate obstacles, catch engagement issues early, address individual needs, help people feel heard and valued, build belonging.
  • Strategic thinking: Create strategic alignment, anticipate and mitigate risks, involve the right people at the right times, show people how their tasks link up to organizational goals.
  • Meetings: Ensure all voices are heard, catalyze creative thinking, facilitate high quality decision-making, run engaging and productive meetings, eliminate time wasters.
  • Leading change: Earn buy-in, ensure adoption, help people stay nimble and resilient. 
  • People development: Anticipate skill gaps on the team, support individual development plans, encourage job crafting, build a team of complementary strengths.  

Pro tip: Amplify your managers’ skills by giving them concrete examples of how to use these skills through the lenses of adaptivity, deliberate inclusion, and remote or distributed work.


The revolutionary opportunity

Despite the fact that managers all around the world are in trouble, we have seen first-hand that small changes like the ones we named above make a big impact, fast. The return on investment in managers is significant. 

Put simply, it should not be the norm that managers are exhausted by their work and that employees dread working with their manager. Companies that take a strategic approach to ensuring their managers succeed see the payoff in performance and engagement and also play a vital role in creating the future of work. Managers can be the obstacle to this workplace revolution – or the catalysts. 

If you’re ready to equip your managers to revolutionize your workplace, talk to one of our program consultants.