The Type of Manager No One Talks About

June 28, 2018 Sarah Mulcahy

SHHH Quiet

Have you heard of the Peter Principle?

It’s a theory (based on a book by the same title) that people “rise to the level of their incompetence.” People are typically promoted to a managerial position because of their success in their current jobs, not based on their people skills or potential as a manager. The result is often an incompetent leader.

Can you think of anyone like this in your organization? Perhaps you’ve worked for an incompetent manager?

Managerial incompetence is a bigger problem than you might imagine. In our survey of more than 2,700 full-time U.S. employees last year, we asked, “What makes you stay in your job?” Out of six options, just 7% of respondents chose “My manager – they provide me with the support and resources I need.” Managers ranked the least important reason people stay in their jobs.

As Scott Gregory points out in his recent “Harvard Business Review” piece, the media often focuses on overtly bad leaders – people who are immoral or abusive. And while it’s important that this behavior is recognized and treated seriously, this type of incompetence is not the most pervasive.

Gregory says we need to pay more attention to absentee leadership. He writes, “Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams.”

Why is this problem so pervasive? It’s difficult to see and it’s rarely a priority, especially from an HR perspective. “Because absentee leaders don’t actively make trouble, their negative impact on organizations can be difficult to detect, and when it is detected, it often is considered a low-priority problem,” writes Gregory. “Thus, absentee leaders are often silent organization killers.”

So what can be done? First, try to fight the Peter Principle. Alan Benson, Danielle Li, and Kelly Shue have collaborated on research testing the Peter Principle in a sales setting. In an article summarizing the research, they write, “sales performance is actually negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager: when a salesperson is promoted, each higher sales rank is correlated with a 7.5% decline in the performance of each of the manager’s subordinates following the promotion.”

They recommend rewarding top performers with incentives. “In our data, we found that firms with the strongest pay-for-performance also promoted the best managers … The best salespeople don’t feel they ‘have to’ become managers in order to earn more money.” Even beyond a sales setting, consider the impact a well-funded social recognition program with individualized rewards can have in motivating individual contributors outside of a management track. Or consider two different career tracks – technical and managerial – with comparable pay.

There’s still the issue of the absentee leaders already in place, zapping the enthusiasm out of their teams. How do you know where these people sit in the organization? Their direct reports may not always be forthcoming. But with human applications that track employee connections – who is recognized, who is asking for feedback, who is checking in with their team – you can start to get a clearer picture of who is infusing the organization with energy and who is bleeding it dry.

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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