So, let’s start with the obvious.

Whether you’re a manager or not, your boss probably sucks.

Or at least that’s what the Gallup Organization has found. According to their research, 82% of all managers have been “miscast” in the role. And only 1 in 10 people have “the natural, God-given talent to manage a team of people.”[1]

So if it’s not your immediate supervisor that’s the problem, then what upper management does (or does not do) is probably enough to drive you crazy. If it’s not a lot of micromanaging, it’s petty office politics. If it’s not too much red tape, it’s too little leadership. If it’s not poor decision-making, then it’s no decision-making.

And why doesn’t everyone just get out of your way, and let you do your job?

 

Plenty of resources…

By all rights, things shouldn’t be that bad. After all, managing is easily one of the most thoroughly researched, discussed, studied, and otherwise obsessed-about topics on the planet.

How hard is it to pick up a book on the subject?

To be sure, there’s certainly no shortage of those books. A keyword search for “management and leadership” at most any online bookstore typically produces thousands of titles. Both Amazon’s and Barnes and Nobles’ websites, for instance, yield approximately 80,000 hits.[2] And more are published all the time.[3]

Of course, if your boss can’t be bothered to plow through one of these texts, there are any number of other ways to be brought up to speed. The American Management Association alone lists 240 management-related seminars on its website, as well as 324 web events, for example.[4] And for those willing to invest a bit more time (and money), there is of course the option of getting an MBA. Nearly 1000 institutions in the US now offer this degree, producing an estimated 100,000 graduates every year.[5]

Then there are all of those bloggers out there.

While it is hard to pin down exactly how many blogs on managing and/or leadership currently clog the internet, that number appears to be as few as 150,[6] or as high as 800[7] – possibly more. This includes blogs by such well-known management “experts” as Tom Peters (co-author of In Search of Excellence, one of the best selling management advice books of all time) and Jack Welch (formerly of GE, and considered by some to be the greatest CEO of the modern age), as well as Seth Godin (founder of Squidoo). Others are hosted by business-oriented periodicals and financial publications—including Bloomberg BusinessWeek, INC Magazine, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The Gallup Organization, to name just a few.

And again (cough), more pop up all the time.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t anyone reading this stuff? Is everybody skipping class..?

 

…but more questions than answers

Then there is this: When it comes to managing and management theory, some of the oldest, and most basic questions imaginable remain unanswered. So go ahead, put any one of the following to your manager the next time you get the chance, and see if you get something besides a blank look:

  • So [insert manager’s name here], I understand that when you say that your “door is always open,” it’s to encourage me to come to you for help if/when I need it. But I also understand that one of your other jobs is to assess my performance…and aren’t the roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” incompatible?[8] I mean, I wouldn’t seek legal counsel from the police or prosecuting attorney if I were charged with a crime, would I? So how come managers are expected to act as both counselor and judge, despite the obvious conflict of interest..?
  • And if you are in fact responsible for assessing my performance, doesn’t that create a sort of “catch-22” for you? After all, one of the factors that most influences my performance seems to be how well I’m being managed…[9]
  • I also understand that management’s attempt to “flatten” our company’s org chart—that is, reduce the number of levels in the hierarchy—is motivated by a desire to reduce red tape and needless bureaucracy. And that’s a good thing. But I also understand that limiting the number of subordinates that report to any given manager is a good idea as well, since it prevents supervisors from spreading themselves too thin. And yet to flatten the hierarchy, don’t you have to increase the number of people reporting to each manager..?[10]
  • You keep talking about the importance of “teamwork” – the idea that we can only achieve our company’s goals by cooperating, and working together.[11] And I get that. But being a “team player” also seems to require subordinating one’s own interests to those of the collective on occasion[12] – or “taking one for the team,” so to speak. Except that hardly sounds like something a capitalist would say, does it? After all, isn’t it the pursuit of self-interest that’s supposedly responsible for any and all of the efficiencies that the free market has to offer?[13] So what’s this “subordinating one’s own interest to those of the collective”..?
  • I think we both agree that decisions made based on merit are better than those based on political considerations, right?[14] So why, when I look around, does it still seem like it’s who you know, and not what you know, that’s important around here..?
  • And finally, if the person closest to a problem is typically best equipped to solve it,[15] why am I not granted the authority to solve those problems that most affect me, or that prevent me from doing my best work?

 

(Dis)Qualifications

I am not a manager by training. Nor am I a CEO – successful or otherwise.

And I do not have an MBA.

My background is in the sciences; I majored in chemistry and chemical engineering college, and later earned a doctorate in organic chemistry. I do have some management experience (overseeing other scientists, mostly), but the bulk of my career has been spent engaged in research and development, my day-to-day efforts directed towards the discovery of novel therapeutic agents with which to treat some of today’s most challenging infectious diseases.

That’s right, I use to make drugs.

All of this would seem to thoroughly disqualify me from writing a blog about how to manage, right? After all, if you want to learn something about mountain-climbing, you’re probably better off listening to someone who’s reached a summit or two.

Well, maybe.

But for the record, the least insightful book I’ve ever read on mountain-climbing was written by a guy named Sir Edmund Hillary.[16] On the other hand, some of the best accounts I’ve come across on what it might take to climb Everest were written by non-mountain-climbers – and one in particular was penned by a doctor who not only never made it to the top, but nearly died trying.[17]

In other words, my point is this: I think it’s about time we heard from someone slugging it out at or near the bottom of the organizational pyramid for a change, as opposed to those perched comfortably at its top. Someone who’s been on the receiving end of management’s misguided policies and protocols, as opposed to those who come up with them.

But back to that question: why does your boss suck?

Well, I’m guessing that you already know the answer. If your boss sucks, it’s because he or she doesn’t listen to you. Simple as that.

You see, good managers listen to, and then back those they manage, while bad managers spend most of their time trying to tell you what to do – as you well know. Good managers are quick to make a decision when you want them to, while bad managers only make the decisions they want to make. And while a bad manager is one that constantly micromanages you, a good manager knows when his or her help is needed, and when to back off and just let you do your job.

So why don’t more managers get it?

Well, part of the problem might be those management advice books everyone seems to be reading…

 

Next in the series: Why you can throw out that management advice book

 

Endnotes

[1] The Gallup Organization. “The State of the American Manager.” (03/27/2015) Downloaded from http://www.gallup.com/services/182138/state-american-manager.aspx.

[2] Searches performed April 16, 2015: keyword “management and leadership” in “Books.” Amazon.com: 85,925; Barnes and Noble: 79,064.

[3] Of the titles produced in that keyword search of Amazon.com, 551 had become available only in the last 30 days.

[4] http://www.amanet.org/individualsolutions/parameters-solution1.aspx. Retrieved Dec. 1, 2015.

[5] Murray, Marina. “MBA share in the US graduate management education market.” Business Education & Administration, 3.1 (2012): 29-40.

[6] “The Top 150 Management and Leadership Blogs.” http://noop.nl/2010/04/top-150-management-leadership-blogs.html. Retrieved April 1, 2015.

[7] “The Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts”, INC Magazine (online version), http://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/the-top-50-leadership-and-management-experts-mon.html. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2015.

[8] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 209.

[9] Wagner, Rodd, and James K. Harter. 2006. 12: The Elements of Great Managing. New York: Gallup Press; Shaer, Steven J. 2013. Fix Them or Fire Them. Challenger Books.

[10] Simon, Herbert. “The Proverbs of Administration.” As reprinted in Jay M. Shafritz & J. Steven Ott. 2001. Classics of Organization Theory (5th edition). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., pp. 112-124.

[11] Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss.

[12] Fayol, Henri. 1949. General and Industrial Management. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.

[13] Please see any economics textbook published in the last century.

[14] Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization (Executive Edition). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc. and SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 149-181.

[15] Peters, Tom, and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

[16] In High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest, this mountain-climbing legend sums up his successful first ascent of Everest as follows: “A few more whacks of the ice-axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit…” Now don’t get me wrong – it’s a riveting moment, in an equally riveting tale. But it really doesn’t say much about how to become a world-class mountain-climber yourself, in my opinion.

[17] Weathers, Beck, with Stephen Michaud. 2000. Left for Dead: My Journey Home From Everest. New York: Villard Books.