People say many things about management, but one thing you hardly ever hear is that it’s an easy job. Indeed, with employee engagement levels generally hovering around the 30% mark, and the negative implications for productivity that has, there’s ample room for improvement.
I was recently reading a 2012 Harvard Business Review article with the provocative title One Out of Every Two Managers is Terrible at Accountability, by Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser, and it made me think about basic management functions that cause managers chronic difficulties. Accordingly, here are three key functions that fit that description: three very common management problems – and how to avoid them.
Inspired by the recently read HBR article, we’ll start with accountability.
Holding your employees sufficiently accountable – The HBR article cited a study in which 46 percent of high-level managers were rated poorly on the measure, “Holds people accountable – firm when they don’t deliver.” Given that this is unquestionably a core element of management, why is it so difficult? The authors point to the challenges managers face in a permissive age. “Who wants to risk being the bad guy?” is how they put it, when being seen as “the bad guy” may be damaging to someone’s career prospects. Additionally, I believe another very fundamental dynamic is operating. Firm accountability often involves conflict, and for many people conflict is difficult and unpleasant. It’s much easier to be a “conflict-avoider” than to confront shortcomings, which may well lead to a dispute or at the very least an unpleasant interaction. So how does a manager avoid developing an “accountability problem”? It starts with full awareness and acceptance that accountability (and its managerial cousin, control) is in fact a central task of management, and if you’re going to work in management and expect to enjoy the financial rewards that accompany it, you have to understand and accept in your gut that accountability is an integral part of this game. You may not always like it, but you have to do it. If you’re uncomfortable exerting this kind of authority, you’re frankly better off looking for another line of work. However, you can also be aided in this endeavor by my second point:
Setting the bar at the right height – Aka, establishing meaningful employee objectives that are clear and measurable. Optimizing employee objectives is both a common problem and a partial answer to the first point about accountability. Why are employee objectives a common problem? Because they’re often (pick one or more) nonexistent, unclear, out of date, hard to measure, or subject to interpretation, etc. – all of which lead to significant management problems (for example in evaluations) as time goes on. But how can well-conceived employee objectives help managers with accountability issues? Easy – by removing expectations from the realm of the subjective and placing them in black and white for everyone to refer to… in the realm of the (quite literally) objective. It’s much easier to hold someone accountable when an anticipated outcome is well known for all to see. In short, accountability becomes less of an issue when the height of the bar is clear, and any discussion about results is rational and fact-based rather than emotional and vague. Well-conceived employee objectives are a manager’s best friend.
My third point involves an entirely different aspect of management:
Not spending enough time with your employees on career development – Employee development is a widely neglected function. Numerous studies point to the problems that ensue when development needs aren’t being met – frequently leading to employee disengagement and retention. From a manager’s standpoint, taking a genuine interest in an employee’s professional growth sends a powerful, positive message… and it’s interest that usually is greatly appreciated by those on the receiving end. So what’s the downside to providing such career support? Really very little. The most common reason managers don’t? Time – “there’s just no time for it.” Plus, it may be perceived as a “soft” activity – a long-term investment with little short-term operational payback. (Unless you consider having a more engaged, productive employee short-term payback, which I would.) Fortunately, this is an especially easy problem to rectify: Simply make it a priority and carve out the time with your employees to do it. If it’s done genuinely and thoughtfully, my strong guess is that both you and your employees will be pleased by the results.
Of course this modest list is by no means all-inclusive. As I noted at the outset, management is nothing if not a challenging, multi-faceted discipline. Pitfalls abound. Other thoughts from readers on very common management problems? I’d be glad to hear them…
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