When Individual Manager Competence Isn’t Enough

Nearly HALF of managers are at risk for failure. This from a recent HBR article with Gartner data from 9,000 managerial roles.

At the end of the article, the authors encourages organizations to start tracking this risk of failure like any other risk in their portfolio.

In the very next bullet, the authors recommend that companies look beyond the individual manager for the causes of that failure and ways to address it.

Managers are failing, but we shouldn’t point the finger at them for failing.

How can that be?

Earlier in my career, I worked for someone who – at the time – I believed to be incompetent.

I was brought in to work for the CEO, after many months of talks about the role and what it was meant to accomplish. At the last minute, this other guy was inserted as my manager instead.

Direction flip-flopped every day. I would walk into his office and find him wiping pools of sweat from his brow.

I assumed he wasn’t up for the job. Assumed he was crumbling under pressure.

Barely a month after I started – and not too many months after he began his own role – he was fired.

The word was something about him not being a team player, about being able to tell from looking at his face that he wasn’t really “in it.”  

It happened so suddenly that I wrestled with simultaneous shock and relief. Something didn’t add up, and yet I secretly relished the fact that this person would no longer stand between me and what I was trying to accomplish.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I was able to peek into his world, and quickly realized why direction was flip-flopping every day.

The role was not clearly defined. The direction from the top was different from day to day. Support – both structurally and from the team around him – was nonexistent.

Instead of the field clearing for my advancement, I now had a birds-eye view to why so many people in similar positions were not moving forward.

I wish I could say that was the first and last time in my career that happened. It wasn’t.

A couple years after that, I found myself in a very different role, again frustrated with someone else on the team getting in the way of my own progress. Only this time the person wasn’t my manager – they were a peer.

Because this person presented much more confidently, I didn’t recognize it as the same. But in hindsight, all the signs were there.

Direction flip-flopping. Catching him in moments that no one else was supposed to see, wiping sweat from his brow.  

This company wasn’t as keen on firing, and preferred the more slow, painful, and inhumane way of letting the person come to their own realization that things weren’t working out.

When that eventually happened, I found myself having the same realizations that I had in the previous company.

The role was not clearly defined. The direction from the top was different every day. Support – both structurally and from the team around him – was nonexistent.

In both situations, I saw these men as obstacles to my own progress and failed to see the ways in which they might not have what they needed to make progress.

I suffered from a lack of empathy described in the same HBR article I mentioned at the beginning. I so believed that people could advance on their own merit, because up until that point, I hadn’t identified any circumstance in which I had been unable to get by on mine. 

Now, years later, as I work with organizations on solving their strategic, systemic, and structural challenges, this challenge is something I encounter regularly when looking at the factors surrounding performance of people in mid-to-senior level roles.

Things aren’t moving as fast as someone wants – typically someone in a C-suite role, sometimes a VP. And the first instinct is to fix the person or find a way to keep the person from getting in the way of progress.

It is a very human instinct – particularly when people are different than us. Different gender, different neurotype, different style of speaking or presenting – you name it. It’s easier not to like them and to blame them for our inability to make progress.

A more productive route – one that helps us achieve the outcomes we really want – is to step back and get curious about what else might be going on. Within that, it’s even more difficult to look at our own contribution to the disfunction.

Of course, in any given situation, there are always actions the individual can take to influence their own career and own success.

In the two examples I shared, having stronger and more well-established relationships throughout the organization certainly would have helped both of these men. More self-awareness and willingness to approach conversations with their senior leaders as a two-way street would have helped as well.

And at the same time, as Edward Deming famously said, “a bad system will beat a good person every time.”

The system is often invisible until made visible. And systems are designed.

Research from Dave Ulrich found that the way an organization is designed has FOUR times the impact on business results compared to the individual.

That is to say: individual competence is NOT king.

A person does not operate independent of their environment, and the environment has a huge influence on whether a person – or any living thing – can bear fruit and continue to survive under stress. The environment is the system that surrounds a person.

The design of the organization is what I call the “systemic piece” or “systemic component.” It’s the underlying structures, systems, and processes that support the work getting done at the right level, with the right timing, and directed at the right goals.

Within these systems, there are technical pieces and there are social pieces. Both need to be addressed, as they impact one another.

It can be hard to see when these issues are systemic. Often, what we first notice appears to be performance issues or other symptoms. As a result, these individuals start to lose support.

As a boss, it’s hard not to be frustrated. When this frustration shows visibility to others in the org (and it typically does more than the boss realizes), people see the boss’s frustration with the person, and they withdraw their support.

They distance. They silence. They keep their head down and do their own work because they don’t want to be affiliated with it and fall out of favor.

The lack of support and camaraderie further stresses the manager, and their own stress signals and attempts to remedy the situation intensify.

Seeing that the individual isn’t supported by others, it can serve as confirmation bias to the boss’s own suspicions. With support withdrawn, they don’t appear to be working well with others. Their erratic behavior becomes more pronounced.

But it is a leader’s job to know better and to keep leaning in with care and curiosity. Our human tendencies will get in the way every time if we let them, but mature leadership knows better.

Mature leadership doesn’t kid themselves into thinking it’s me versus them, something I must control, or something I must solve. Mature leadership acknowledges the human tendences and doesn’t fool themselves into thinking that they are above those basic instincts.

Mature leadership recognizes there is a systemic component at play – always – and seeks to learn about it and uncover it. If necessary, mature leadership seeks assistance from someone who will help make the system visible and help them manage their own role and actions within it.

While individuals can and should work to improve their own skills and recognize opportunities for improvement, those who find themselves in roles caught in systemic effects can often be blind to the realities of the system.

In his famous red bead experiment, Edward Deming shows how powerful the emotional attachment to “doing a good job” is. Even if it’s logically or systemically impossible, people will keep pouring effort into it – particularly if someone in authority tells them they can do it.

The power dynamics and attachment to doing a good job can make it difficult to separate out the individual and systemic components, without the support of their leadership. This is why it’s so important for leaders to recognize and acknowledge the realities of the system design, and the effects it has on those in it.

In the rare case that the employee can see the systemic changes that need to be made, it’s rarer that they are seen by those around them or above them as pointing out a real issue.

Instead, when they point to systemic factors within the organization that need addressed alongside their role responsibilities, they are often seen as trying to get out of work, making a pitch for more resources, vying for a promotion, or too emotional or incapable of managing.

From here, one of two patterns typically emerges:

When relationships are not solid and long-established, a “prove it” finger is pointed at the manager. Those in authority may consider whatever situation the person is in a stretch assignment or a great opportunity for the manager to rise up and stand out. Instead of offering the very support (strategic, systemic, structural and emotional) that the overburdened manager needs most, their competence and ability is called into question.

On the other hand, when relationships are solid and long-established, the approach is often “we trust you, this is your job, you have everything you need.” This leaves the manager feeling like they are endlessly swimming upstream and gasping for air, abandoned by the very people who are supposed to support them.

In both instances, leaders effectively abandon their duties of staying in relationship with those on their team, standing on the sidelines to watch. They also ignore their duties of designing an organization that can be in healthy relationship with its employees.

Clearly, this is not good for the organization. Before the systemic mismatch took over, the people in these roles are nearly always thought of as superstars, high growth, high potential, or high performer – whatever label the organization likes to use. And then they leave.

One way or another, it results in lost talent and resources.

On top of that, every single person that leaves organizations under these circumstances – whether let go or quit voluntarily – leaves with a dampened sense of hope about their ability to make an impact in the world without losing their physical and mental health along the way.

They take a hit to their sense of competence and confidence that can take years to recover. Depending on which system the person was part of, the person’s sense of identity and self-worth prior to going in, and the support available to them when they leave, they may struggle to ever recover.

Typically, this is not the impact that those who are managing them want to make – in their organization or on people’s lives. And it’s something found at even the senior-most levels.

To retain valuable talent and fully unleash all of the talent pool, those responsible for structuring or designing the system – in a large organization, typically VP and above, and in a small organization, often C-suite – need to grow in their own ability to identify when a systemic issue is contributing more to the situation than any one person’s skills (or lack thereof).   

If you have managers who don’t seem to be stepping up to the challenge, please consider the design.

Not the org chart.

The way in which everything in your organization is engineered to match your strategy – and whether your strategy is clear enough to enable this design.

When the structure, decision making processes, procedures, level of authority, role clarity, and other systems that make your whole organization work together as a system are configured for success, individuals within it are enabled to put their competence to good use. The organization gets the results it needs. And leaders get to have the impact they want to have.

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