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The undermanagement epidemic: Hiding in plain sight

Since 1993, I have studied the experience of thousands of managers at all levels in a wide range of industries through workplace interviews, focus groups, polls, questionnaires, and intensive seminars. Our research confirms that---all across the workplace---there is a shocking and profound lack of daily guidance, direction, feedback, and support for staff from those who are their immediate supervisors.  Too many leaders, managers, and supervisors simply do not spend enough time attending to the basics of managing staff. This is what I call undermanagementthe opposite of micromanagement.

Show me just about any problem in any workplace and Ill show you a case of undermanagement. Follow the trail into the workplace, behind the scenes:  What went wrong with the financial crisis? Corporate stars gone wild? What about medical mishaps? Pension deficits? Most airline delays? Whose job was it to make things go right? Whoever it is, that person has a boss. The boss is in charge. The boss is to blame. For what? For failing to make sure in the first place that the employees did their jobs properly.

Undermanagement is costing organizations a fortune every day. It robs so many employees of the chance to have positive experiences in the workplace, reach greater success, and earn more of what they need and want. It causes managers to struggle and suffer and deliver suboptimal results. It sours dealings with vendors and customers. And it costs society in so many ways.

Undermanagement is not a household word like micro-management, but it should be because its impact makes micro-management look like a molehill. Undermanagement is an epidemic in todays workplace, hiding in plain sight.

Ive spent so much time behind the scenes in so many organizations that I can tell you this: most problems could be avoided altogether or solved quickly by a highly engaged hands-on manager, by a boss who accepts her authority and the responsibility that goes along with it. This is the boss who says, Great news, Im the boss! And Im going to try really hard to be a great one!

Unfortunately, highly-engaged managers are rare. Frankly, most bosses are not so great. Many struggle to be better. Some dont even bother to struggle. Most bosses are so hands-off they mostly dont manage unless they absolutely must.

Why is that?

Its always been hard to manage people. Nowadays, its a whole lot harder to manage people. The workplace is becoming more and more high-pressure and the workforce is becoming more and more high maintenance.  Employees look to their immediate supervisors to meet their basic needs and expectations and freely make demands of their managers.  Meanwhile, most managers, like everybody else, have more tasks and responsibilities of their own, along with more administrative duties.

Managers have to deal with the hard realities of managing people today:
--You cannot always hire superstars. You have to hire the best person available, and often that person is in the middle of the talent spectrum, not at the top.
--When you do hire superstars, they can be even harder to manage than the mediocre people.
--Employees do not have the power to do things their own way in the workplace and they are not free to ignore tasks they dont like.
--Even if you set expectations clearly, sometimes employees dont achieve those expectations.
--Not everybody is a winner. Dealing with failure is a big part of managing.
--Employees cant always work in the areas they enjoy most because there is lots of work to be done, and staff are hired to do what needs to be done.
--Employees dont always earn praise. And those who do earn praise usually want tangible rewards, not just praise.
--Somebody is in charge and staff will be held accountable.

Most managers still move into positions of supervisory responsibility because they are very good at something, but not usually for the reason that they are especially good at managing people. Once promoted, most new managers receive very little in the way of effective management training. What little management training managers do receive is usually dominated by the prevailing approach---what I call the myth of empowerment. Meanwhile, these managers are really busy with all of their other non-management responsibilities so its hard to make the time for management responsibilities.

In our training seminars, when I start talking about these hard realities, managers start nodding their heads and listening carefully. When I tell them that I dont have any easy answers because easy answers work only in fantasyland, more people start nodding. Then I promise them that I do have lots of very hard solutions that will take lots of guts, skill, time, and discipline to implement. Thats when they know that I really have something to offer them.

All I do in my seminars is teach frustrated managers to copy what the most effective managers are actually doing every day. And I teach managers what the best ones already know: If you are the boss, that means you have authority in relation to livelihoods of others. That is a sacred responsibility.  That means it is your responsibility to make sure everything goes well. You have to make sure all the work is getting done very well very fast all day long. If you are the boss, employees look to you first when they need something, or when they want something, or when something is going wrong. If theres a problem, you are the solution. If you are the boss, you are the one everyone else is counting on.




Bruce Tulgan (New Haven, CT) is the author or coauthor of numerous books including his most recent, NOT EVERYONE GETS A TROPHY (2009), the best-seller ITS OKAY TO BE THE BOSS (2007), and the classic MANAGING GENERATION X (1995).  Since founding the management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader.  Tulgans weekly v-log (video newsletter) is available for free at .

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The undermanagement epidemic: Hiding in plain sight