Why the wrong people are promoted to management— and how to change it

It’s common practice to reward high performers a higher spot in the org chart, but being good at your job doesn’t mean you’ll be good at managing people. Here’s what companies should be doing instead.

Written by PUNEET SANDHU for Fast Company

When I look back at the managers I’ve had since the beginning of my career, it’s clear to me—now, having done years of people management experience myself—that some of them should never have been given that responsibility. In talking to friends and coworkers, I realize just how shockingly common this sentiment is: Data shows that half of American workers have left jobs to escape a bad boss whose behaviors may range from micromanagement to acting on their unconscious biases.

Business culture has equated seniority of title with the ability to manage people, which is common a mistake. “You know that cliché, ‘people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers’? It’s pretty accurate,” says Adam Karpiak, a recruiter. “The overall culture of an organization matters, but the direct supervisor is where it can be the most challenging.”

Bad management is a business feature, not a bug

Karpiak says he gets hundreds of messages each year from job seekers, describing their experience with bad managers: They were treated as cogs in a machine and not as individuals who need to be developed. This “one-way street” approach leaves them feeling like they are merely tolerated, and not engaged or supported at work.

The problem is that very few organizations approach people management intentionally. Leadership often assumes that if an employee excels at their job, they’ll also excel at nurturing talent—but those are two entirely different skill sets.

“If you are an awesome cost accountant, you’re great with numbers. If you become a supervisor in the accounting department, all of a sudden, you have to figure out how to motivate people to work. You have to review work. You have to represent your department and manage stakeholder relationships. It’s a whole other ballgame,” Karpiak says. 

So, why do so many good workers automatically get promoted to people-management roles? 

Shonna Waters, vice president of strategic alliances and partnerships at coaching platform BetterUp, attributes this to the Peter principle, which she describes as the idea that “people are promoted to their level of incompetence.” 

“When making promotion decisions, leaders may place weight on current performance rather than the skills required to be a great leader at the next level,” she says. This automatically pushes great individual contributors to managerial roles, and then impacts those being managed by the newly promoted leaders. “They might have to suffer through the new manager’s learning curve: Individual contributors have been rewarded for a host of behaviors that they’ll eventually have to let go of to be a great manager. That transition can be difficult (hello, micromanagement!) and means that their teams have to be patient.”

Karpiak suggests that it also boils down to a misguided retention and growth strategy: If you give a high performer a higher spot in the organizational chart, it makes them feel good about their place in the company, prolonging tenure. But as the data shows, this causes a retention problem elsewhere in the organization, with employees leaving to flee bad managers. 

How to create a culture of good people management

One solution to this problem came up over and over again: Coach and train people on what good management looks like. This has been an ongoing ask from American workers, 57% of whom think their managers could do with more training on people management. 

“People want to feel seen, heard, and appreciated. This requires that managers develop mindsets and behaviors such as self-awareness, self-efficacy, authenticity, empathy, and encouraging participation,” Waters says. In their research, BetterUp noticed a 160% increase in self-awareness and a 60% increase in authenticity through personalized coaching for managers, tailored based on factors like skill needs or upcoming career transitions.

Waters offers that development and “show and tell” of good management can take various forms: training programs for those interested in management; mentoring from experienced people leaders; or volunteer assignments that help employees learn while doing. “Managers can also help create opportunities for employees to learn on the job with special projects. For example, managing a project team is a good way to start building the alignment, delegation, and collaborative skills that will be important as a people manager,” she says.

Not everyone wants to manage people. That’s a good thing

An under-examined facet of this conversation is that not everyone wants to manage people, even in cultures where models for good leadership exist. “The problem is, in the past, companies didn’t always have established growth tracks for individual contributors and just pushed them into management. But often, people like their job and just want to have greater reach, greater budgets to play with, and greater pay,” Karpiak says. 

Waters suggests people be allowed to opt-out of management if it’s not what they want to do. “Some organizations have found great success with realistic job previews, interim assignments, or shadowing opportunities,” she says. “Giving ICs a realistic sense of what people management entails lets them decide it’s not for them before learning the hard way.”

Bad people managers can be a cultural and operational liability, but good managers can be a nurturing and stabilizing influence on teams—especially during uncertain times. The stakes in this role are high: People managers impact the company’s bottomline but, just as crucially, if not more, they influence employee happiness and development, all of which may affect other parts of employees’ lives. Only employees with the intent, desire, and potential for people management should be offered these positions, but equally, they should be equipped with the tools required to succeed at this work.

Written by PUNEET SANDHU for Fast Company

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