Good Managers, Bad Managers... They’re All The Same

Luke Kyte
Written by Luke Kyte February 10, 2021

To spin a Benjamin Franklin quote, three things are certain in life. Death, taxes... and managers. But things could (and should) be different.

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Have you ever thought “I can do a better job than my manager”? Be honest, you have. And you’re not alone. We’ve all treated our superiors with disdain in the past, cursed our boss in the safety of our own homes, and complained to our loved ones at unreasonable expectations.

It seems as natural as the weather.

There’s a damning financial case for change too, with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) revealing that poor management costs UK employers £84bn every year.

Well, what if I said that you don’t just have to think you’ll do a better job than your manager. You will.

Good management. Bad management. It’s all the same. For as long as there’s someone higher in the food chain – setting targets, conducting performance reviews, and telling you what to do – you’ll never take true ownership and accountability.

A psychological parachute will always be there to minimise the damage. Risk doesn’t exist.

And that doesn’t even take into account the disharmony and toxic culture poor management can stimulate.

Henry Stewart discusses this in The Happy Manifesto, identifying two roles a manager tries to play. Unfortunately, people are often promoted into management positions based on their skill or experience in a certain field (Role A) – with people skills neglected as part of the process (Role B).

Role A

  • Strategy
  • Decision-making

Role B

  • Supporting
  • Challenging
  • Coaching

There’s also the consideration that people only put themselves forward for management positions because it’s inherently tied to salary expectations. Progression is too often directly linked to line management.

There are some other benefits for reviewing the management structure of your organisation:

  • Strip away layers of bureaucracy.
  • Drive accountability and ownership in the team.
  • Build more collaborative teams.
  • Let people focus on what they’re good at.
Good or bad management. It’s all the same. As long as there’s someone higher in the food chain, setting targets, conducting performance reviews, telling you what to do, you’ll never take true ownership and accountability.
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So, how can we make this change?

Culling middle management doesn’t happen overnight. And you’ll want to have your existing managers on board – there are good people there, after all.

And what’s the alternative to a traditional management structure? Self-managed teams? Coaches, multipliers, or mentors (the terminology varies company-to-company)? These are questions you need to think about and answer. Organisations will differ in how they address this debate – and you may decide there are wider issues that need to be fixed as well.

If you’re interested in changing your company’s approach to management – whether that’s scrapping the traditional model entirely, or testing new ideas and approaches within the existing structure – here are some gentle options to get you started:

1. Separate performance reviews from salary discussions.

Annual appraisals are often a sore subject, loathed and feared in equal measure. A chance for your line manager to tell you what’s going wrong, what you need to improve, and what’s holding you back. Plus, with salaries on the table you take away a crucial part of feedback – honesty.

Think about it this way.

You walk into your annual review thinking about the pay rise you’ll ask for. Your manager walks in, trying to juggle a budget. Where does performance and personal development come into the picture?

The sooner you separate the two, the better.

And even better still – scrap annual reviews and introduce regular check-ins to talk about wins, successes and aspirations. Create a positive experience people enjoy.

2. Alternative salary models.

So, if you’re separating salary discussions from performance reviews, you need an alternative approach. This could be anything from the highly radical approach of setting your own salary, to using the advice process amongst your team.

For early adopters of progressive ideas, one concept is a salary panel – elected by the team (to create a democratic environment). At a time of your choosing (once a year, for example) your team can apply for a salary increase explaining their achievements and showcasing evidence – also stating how much they would like.

It’ll be even better if you have marketplace research that’s available to the team, and a career matrix to measure success and achievements against.

3. Setting targets & goals.

Who sets individual goals in your company? Do they cascade down from the top – leaving people underwhelmed and disengaged? Do people have any say in what their targets are, or what they need to achieve over the next quarter?

To create true engagement, ownership and accountability, the focus should be on stripping power away from a boss and giving your teams an opportunity to set their own goals. What is the one thing that will drive them, their department, or the business forward?

There are plenty of target-setting models to choose from, with OKRs being flavour of the month at the moment. But whichever you test, people will be much more invested if they’ve had a greater input in what they need to achieve – bringing about the concept of psychological business owners.

Next up, here are some large-scale changes you could make at a management level.

1. The Advice Process:

The Advice Process has been documented by Corporate Rebels before, offering an alternative approach to getting approval or sign-off. In traditional setups, line managers (and their managers) hold all the power. But we can take the shackles off our teams by trusting them to make decisions that are right for the business.

The Advice Process strikes a nice balance between decentralising power, and ensuring strong and consistent communication with stakeholders and those who would be interested in a particular subject.

A precursor to this is defining clear roles and responsibilities for each team member – what does their job entail and what are they able to make a decision on? But once that’s in place you’re in a position to roll out the process and instantly promote accountability and ownership.

2. Distribute management responsibilities.

I’ve already mentioned how managers are often shoehorned into filling two types of role – but there’s also a tonne of responsibilities that fall their way. And on many occasions there are better people in the team these could be distributed to (and shared with).

Trial an exercise with one of your departments – take a list of responsibilities and have an open discussion on who the best person to manage each one would be. Here’s a starter for 10:

  • Interviewing candidates
  • Onboarding
  • Strategy
  • Mediation
  • Facilitating meetings
  • Sharing minutes or meeting notes
  • Dealing with non-performance issues
  • Managing budgets
  • Being the cheerleader
  • Updating training plans & career progression

Can other people step up, take more responsibility, and give you an opportunity to distribute power to the people who’d be best at managing a process?

3. Introduce coaches.

If you take the approach of distributing roles in your department (see above), you may find a gap when it comes to motivating, coaching, supporting, and challenging others.

This is a huge skill and essential to promote in any organisation.

What’s more, the person I find most motivating and comfortable to talk to could be very different to you. Everyone’s different, and choice is crucial here.

We’ve taken two approaches to this:

  1. Introduced Sanctus coaching: An independent and confidential service specialising in mental health and wellbeing, with sessions created to give people a chance to think out loud, reflect and have space.
  2. Created an in-house coaching structure: Outside of Sanctus, we set up our own coaching structure. People within the team volunteer to be a coach and everyone in the team chooses their own preference. There are only two rules:
  • You can’t pick someone from your own department – to promote a ‘coach, not tell’ environment.
  • There’s a quarterly check-in, where success, aspirations, values and impact come together. This replaced our annual performance reviews.

Outside of this, the team are able to use coaches however they want, whether it’s creating personal development plans, having ad hoc sessions, or simply checking in on a quarterly basis. It introduces a new dynamic of development conversation.

There're good managers that don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. But on that note, there're brilliant people working beneath them still being held back, not taking on responsibility, not fulfilling their potential.
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In summary

Let me be clear. I don’t hate management (although it may sound otherwise). I’ve recognised that I was a flawed manager in the past, and there are thousands of others out there not getting the most from their team, stemming creativity, and creating disengagement.

There are good managers out there. Managers that don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. But on that note, there are brilliant people working beneath them that (in some way) are still being held back, not taking on responsibility, and not fulfilling their potential.

Addressing the management conundrum is a tricky business and something that’s difficult to get right. However, if you adopt a mindset of continued progression, and identify opportunities to distribute power and authority, your team will thank you for it with a new-found drive and ambition to succeed.

This is a guest post from Luke Kyte, Head of Culture at Reddico a company that puts trust and freedom at the heart of everything they do. For more information on Luke and the company, check out his rebel page.

Written by Luke Kyte
Luke Kyte
I am Head of Culture at Reddico, a company that puts trust and freedom at the heart of everything we do. In 2020 we were named as the 4th best place to work in the UK – following our cultural revolution.
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