It’s generally agreed upon that skilled jobs require some amount of formal training—you probably wouldn’t hire an electrician with no training or a doctor who hadn’t been to medical school. But for one of the jobs that’s mostly closely tied to a company’s success—managing—we routinely throw people in without any training whatsoever.
It’s incredibly common for people to be promoted into management positions not because they’re skilled managers, but because they were good at something else. They were a great admin or a successful engineer, and so they get put in charge of managing admins or engineers. These new managers might get sent to a several-day training class or are or told to bring any questions to a higher-up … but then they’re set loose to manage people and teams without much real training or evidence that they can do it well. It’s so bad that one 2016 study revealed that 98 percent of managers feel that managers need more training.
This is bizarre! The skills it takes to manage people effectively are often completely different from whatever work the person did previously. Being good at a different sort of job doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be good at managing, especially if you’re thrown in without intensive training and support, as the many unhappy employees of untrained managers can attest. Here’s one account:
“My last job was for a first-time manager and it irrevocably ruined my chances to move up within the company. I was left in the dark on so much for so long that there was no way their perception of me was ever going to change. He had no idea how to train me, so I got drips and drabs over the course of months. For over two years, all I got were empty promises of taking on new projects and responsibilities. It got to the point where he would mention things he planned to do later in the week and I would try to teach myself how to do them before he got there because that was the only way to learn. He was an excellent employee—truly fantastic at the non-managing part of his job. But he had no aptitude or training for being a manager.”
“My manager wasn’t a bad guy, but he got hired as a tech-consultant-ish kind of job and then my boss decided to leave and they promoted him because he was the next highest up on the project. I don’t think he’d ever been a manager before and was still trying to figure things out. He didn’t really get my job either—I’d tell him what we needed to fix or work on and he would: A) OK it at first, then B) renege on that, C) have me explain it to him all over again, and then D) tell me not to do it because “we can automate it in a year.” Which never happened. He also clearly thought I was a slacker because I didn’t have enough work I was allowed to do (because he was taking away my potential workload by saying it could be automated in a year).”
Being a good manager requires skills many people don’t have much or any training in: hiring well, setting clear goals, delegating responsibilities, staying engaged with work without micromanaging, giving useful feedback, having tough conversations about problems, holding people accountable without being a jerk, resolving conflict, doing all that without breaking any laws, and much more. It’s difficult, nuanced work that takes practice and coaching, which is why many managers are the first to admit they’ve struggled to succeed in the role. Here are two accounts from former managers:
“I was not a good manager. It was a temp role, and my interests/career path laid in the technical stuff, but still I was hired as the manager, simply because I had more experience in the technical work. I had absolutely zero relevant experience in management or training, and that was something the person who hired me should have considered but didn’t. I did the best I could, but I honestly don’t think I was a good manager.”
“I was a terrible manager. I had nothing but terrible managers with very rare exceptions, but that’s not really an excuse. The two-week management training had a lot of info about policies but nothing about actually managing … I was petty, I played favorites, I actively worked to undermine at least one of my reports, and just was an all-around terrible person. I am a different person now and I wish I knew then what I do now.”
Consider the impact of bad management: Having a bad manager at the helm of a team can mean employees don’t have clear goals, or they have the wrong goals, or there are no checks in place to monitor progress against those goals. It can mean people don’t hear what they’re doing well or where they need to improve. It can mean problems fester, initiative is snuffed out, strong workers aren’t retained, and poor performers stick around for years while the good ones are driven off.
So given how important good management can be, why are so few managers trained well? The answer, in part, is that training managers requires a serious investment; you can’t just send someone to a weeklong training class and expect them to get it (although many companies don’t even do that much). To truly train managers well, companies would need something akin to an apprenticeship for the first few years someone is managing, with skilled senior mentors to help them put the right systems in place to support their teams, guide them through real-life situations as they arise, and workshop difficult decisions and conversations—almost getting into the trenches with them. That’s a significant investment of time and money that most organizations simply don’t want to make.
Moreover, many people end up in management roles that they never really wanted and might not be particularly suited for, simply because it’s the only way to advance in their careers:
“I wish there was a technical-track ladder to climb where I work, but there isn’t. I’m a great technical person and I know that managing people is not my skill set. My manager asked me if I was interested in management, and I initially said I wasn’t, but I didn’t like the feeling that I was purposefully halting my career by doing that. So my manager is grooming me and another dude for management. I weirdly both feel like I’d be a terrible manager, but also that I don’t want the other dude to “beat” me and get promoted without or before me.”
Companies also compound the problem by not holding managers accountable for how successfully they manage. It’s common to see managers who are clearly failing at the job—team goals not being met, unclear expectations, low morale, high turnover as employees flee—but who are kept in their jobs year after year as if nothing is wrong.
It’s no surprise, then, that there are so many terrible managers out there. I’ve written here before about some truly horrific ones, like the boss who taped people’s mouths shut at meetings or the one who showed up with work questions while an employee was having chemotherapy—but there are many more garden-variety bad managers, like the ones who micromanage, or try to be everyone’s best friend (or on the other end of the spectrum, their adversary), or never give feedback, or refuse to address problems, and on and on.
But considering the impact managers have on a company’s bottom line and their ability to attract and retain talented people, employers should take management as a skill more seriously. They should invest in real training and support, including pairing inexperienced managers with more senior mentors; formally assess management as a skill when they evaluate performance; and create tracks for people to move up that don’t involve managing, since not everyone will be good at it. Until that happens, bad managers will continue to be commonplace.