The farce of management and 4 ways to bring humanity back to leadership

In the U.S., most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work. Our experience of the workplace is largely shaped by how we are treated by our leaders, managers, and coworkers.

Leaders determine the culture — their style and the way they treat people who report to them trickle down to shape the way your manager treats you. The kinds of behaviors that are punished or praised, the humor they use, even the words they say all trickle down.

For instance, I had a leader who used the word “noodle” to mean “think” and “color” to mean “detail” and before I knew it, much of the company had incorporated these words into their working vocabulary.

What this phenomenon shows is that the way managers and leaders behave defines a large chunk of people’s waking lives (an average person spends one third of their life at work). Managers can make a great experience, or they can create a culture that makes 10s or 100s of people completely miserable. Manager decisions at one point in time can set the course for an entire career.

How many managers ever stop to think about the very real impact they have on the lives and careers of their employees? Have you?

What I’ve observed in my approximately 10 years in Corporate America is that employees are often treated like unreasonable, complaining children rather than the reasonable and concerned adults they actually are. Employees are treated as if they do not deserve explanations or acknowledgement. Management often tries to twist, dodge, and tick boxes rather than communicate in a way that holds them accountable.

This demoralizing treatment has been going on for so long that it is what many workers resign themselves to—they believe work isn’t a place for being treated like a human or an individual. It is a place to fall in line and do what you’re told while tiptoeing around egos, because that’s the only way you’ll get ahead.

According to historians, the power structures that traditional management is derived from are rooted in slavery ownership. This posits one side as superior and one side as inferior, and assumes that the “inferior” side remains subservient. Looking at it from this lens, we can absolutely see remnants of that dynamic in management today. New management research is overturning the authoritarian structure of the past, but it’s still alive and well in many organizations.

A part of the enduring problem is that many individuals are promoted into management without having the skill or talent to lead. They get promoted because they are good at their individual contributor roles, because they display stereotypical “leadership” traits, like assertiveness, dominance, and confidence, or because their seniority means it’s “their turn.”

These may seem like common sense reasons to promote people, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, research shows that being a skilled individual contributor or seniority at a company doesn’t equate to being skilled at managing a team. The ability to lead and the ability to do a non-management role typically require completely different skill sets. Be careful with “common sense.” It’s often based on stereotypes and biases and it’s often wrong.

Additionally, research has shown that the traits mentioned above which lead to “leadership emergence” (or appearing like you’d make a good leader) don’t actually correlate to BEING an effective leader. In fact, many of those stereotypical leadership traits hinder leadership effectiveness.

So the reality is that many in management roles aren’t actually qualified or prepared to lead. The reason they’re placed into leadership roles likely has nothing to do with actually having the skills to be a leader, because organizations are woefully misinformed (or ignorant) about what to even look for.

Don’t believe me? A Gallup study found that organizations choose the wrong person for management 82% of the time, and that only 1 in 10 employees have the skills to lead, and it likely isn’t the existing manager.

Promoting people into leadership roles who don’t have the knowledge or skill to be effective reinforces a power structure that is based on upholding the ineffective status quo. This continues the vicious cycle of those who don’t know how to manage leading others who don’t know how to manage ad infinitum.

The result is this: Instead of being a group of competent leaders focused on using their knowledge of effective people management to empower their teams, leadership becomes a group of powerful but incoherent lackeys who resort to avoidance because they are ill-prepared to deal with the realities of managing people. Productivity is wasted playing politics instead of getting things done.

Many self-help books tout this strategy as a way for leaders to display humility. Many employees perceive it as a way for them to shirk responsibility. As a manager, you should be able to help when an employee asks for it — not make them solve their own problems. If the employee doesn’t have a solution, help them find one.

Sure, there are some great organizations and great managers out there — I have certainly experienced a few. But, the reality of work life in many organizations is that there is likely no good, logical, or sound reason that your manager is your manager. They aren’t any smarter, more competent, or maybe even more experienced than you are, and you very well may make a much better leader than they — especially if you are a woman reporting to a man.

So what should change?

There are so many things that should change, but I’ve selected just 4 points to focus on in this article.

Understand that stereotypical “leadership” traits do not indicate someone will be a good leader, and can often indicate the opposite. Too much assertiveness and confidence can be a bad thing when it comes to supporting employees, and those who are often the best at playing politics are the ones who would make the worst leaders.

The corrupting effect of power is very real, so selecting someone with a sense of “moral identity,” or a strong set of ethical values that they tend not to compromise, is essential. Other research indicates that people with anxiety are less corruptible because they do not believe they will actually benefit from it.

If your organization has the money, invest in a valid and reliable personnel selection assessment tool to help with these decisions (but be wary of all the pseudoscience out there like the MBTI.) These tools can measure “dark triad” traits like narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, along with general mental ability (the psychometric term for intelligence) and other personality traits that indicate leadership ability.

Additionally, managers must view their reports with respect and do away with the notion that those in management & leadership are superior to others. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, yes, but these are not cut along the lines of the organizational hierarchy. There is a way to meet business goals and job responsibilities while recognizing people as people.

For example, my mother-in-law recently told me a story about her floor supervisor at USPS addressing the mail carrier team about the importance of getting express packages delivered on time. This supervisor was “just trying to do her job,” and was told by her superiors that she needed to have this conversation — so she gathered all the carriers on the floor and made a serious, almost accusatory announcement just like she was told.

However, she didn’t bother to acknowledge that this team of carriers had only missed 1 express package all year. She didn’t bother to recognize that every employee she was addressing had been there longer than she had, and were already well-aware of the need to deliver these packages on time. The message this sends to employees is a loud and clear dismissal of their efforts and performance. It’s tactless and disrespectful.

This supervisor should have acknowledged that she knows her team is great and has only missed one package, but that she is required to remind them all of the importance of delivering express packages on time because it has XYZ consequences on the business — this respects them as people, acknowledges their efforts, and ticks the box all in one.

My close friends know that Socrates is my favorite philosopher. His face is the icon for this blog. Part of Socrates’ mission in life was to show that just because you’re an expert in one area, that does not mean you’re an expert in every area.

This is an essential lesson for leaders and managers:

Know that you do not know everything, and that you may have employees with knowledge and skills that could make you a better manager, leader, and decision-maker if only you were listening.

For example, I once had a manager who, when I offered to help implement a performance management tool at my organization, told me that the leader in charge of it (with no background in HR or anything relevant) was a leader and therefore knew more than I did (an I/O psychology graduate and someone with experience implementing these programs at multiple organizations) so my help was not needed. This is a prime example of assuming that because a leader is a leader, they must know everything and couldn’t possibly benefit from the perspective of a newly hired non-manager. Needless to say, the implementation was totally bungled and they truly should have let me help!

Another humbling fact for managers to remember:

You are a manager not because you are smarter, better, or potentially even more qualified than the people you manage. It is more than likely that your organization’s method for promoting you didn’t truly assess your leadership ability, but you got the role because of various other biased or circumstantial reasons (as discussed above), or simply because none of your employees wanted to try for your role when it was available.

Simply being awarded a position doesn’t actually mean you were the best fit for it, due to the bias and irrelevance of many personnel selection and promotion systems.

Lastly, managers should think of themselves as enablers of the people they manage. Individual contributors execute on the work, and managers enable their success (and the success of the business) by helping to solve problems they encounter and supporting their ability to be successful. This is often referred to as servant leadership and it works wonders when done right.

Don’t say things that aren’t true, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and don’t intentionally mislead employees.

Employees are not stupid. They know when they are being given the runaround on a promotion, when they are being boxed out of a conversation, or when they aren’t being told the whole story of what is changing and why.

Consistently communicating in vague business-speak fosters mistrust in leadership, and “just doing your job” without taking context into consideration, as the USPS floor supervisor was doing, makes you seem robotic and out of touch.

Further, research has shown that authentic, transformational leadership is the most effective method for myriad positive employee outcomes including engagement and satisfaction. But the key word here is authentic.

Employees know, and even often assume, that leaders aren’t being genuine when they say things. This is a problem.

This last point should be the natural conclusion of having the previous three. If managers respect employees, they’re genuine and direct, and they have some humility, they will be able to have transparent conversations with employees because their focus turns to what is best for all instead of “what is best for me.”

Two-way communication means you allow someone else to respond — you don’t just tell them what’s what and not listen to their input. This kind of communication is key to building trust. But, if you ask for feedback, you must address it directly. Many leaders ask for feedback or conduct surveys but never act on the feedback received, and this is a sure way to demotivate and disengage a team.

Asking for feedback or input and not doing anything with it fosters a perception of inauthenticity and erodes trust over time. Eventually employees will stop wasting their effort providing feedback because the effort is not worth the return.

Managers will always be needed. People need and want direction and support and decisions need to be made. It is the dynamic and assumptions about managers vs non-managers that need to change, along with the process whereby new managers are selected. While the above points can generally help create a better working atmosphere, there is one more thing to remember:

There is no single prescription for dealing with people.

Every person is different, and every situation is different. No one management or leadership theory, model, or strategy can be applied and see success in every situation, though some are better than others.

Managers and leaders need to have an arsenal of evidence-based management strategies and decide which methods are most effective based on the employee and the situation. Any book, article, or otherwise that claims to have a one-size-fits all magical cure to be a great leader should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Effective management and leadership is hard work. There is no one strategy that leads to success, and because it is so hard to get right, organizations should make every effort to make sure they are putting the right individuals into those roles.

The success of the business, and more importantly, the experience of tens or hundreds of human beings depends on it.

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.