My manager doesn’t do anything. Is it an issue ?

The other day I was talking to a friend who had changed jobs at the beginning of the year and he came to tell me about his disappointment with his job and his manager in particular.

At first it didn’t surprise me too much and I blamed it more on COVID and imposed lockdown. Except for a few companies that had a remote work culture and were able to board employees remotely without too much trouble, I think it was a situation that was predictable without being attributable to the manager.

But while digging I actually learned that he found his manager a little bit lazy.

I asked him if he left him alone to face his difficulties and he said “a little”. In fact, in case of a problem, the manager doesn’t play the superman by going back down to the field to fix everything, but gives the keys to his teams, gives them advice, asks them questions so that they can find solutions themselves. In short, he helps to do but does not do it himself and does not get his hands dirty.

Manager who does nothing or manager who does too much?

In fact, it emerged from the discussion that he was used to managers who were very involved in operations and that he did not really feel alone but was troubled by the fact that his new manager was leaving him to face his responsibilities in difficulty. He advises but does not do.

I told myself that with 5/6 years of professional experience this shouldn’t be a problem, quite the contrary. This is the moment when you are asking for autonomy and you want to prove that you can succeed, if not alone in any case with limited recourse to those with more experience, prove that you can make decisions alone and if possible make good decisions.

So my opinion was that indeed his manager was guilty. Not the new manager but the old one. The old one, who happened to be too present, too operational, too active, didn’t make his teams grow, didn’t give them the opportunity to take initiatives without validating everything in the smallest details. Result: my friend waited for people to chew on his work or even more and didn’t mobilize much to propose, knowing that whatever he proposed, he was used to having everything rectified and replaced in the end by the ideas of the manager who had more experience.

Let everyone do their job

Not everything is black or white and you have to know how to dose it, but my opinion is that everyone should do their job. I mean just do their job.

The employee executes, the manager manages, the executive directs. Problems are solved at the level at which they occur and only if the task is insurmountable, one escalates. This is called subsidiarity.

One day I noticed a problem with labelling in a store. The cashier called his manager. That’s normal. His manager called the supervisor. The supervisor called someone else. And the someone else called the store manager.

I was very flattered to meet with the store manager and to see that such an important person was concerned about my receipt problem. At least that could have been the case. In fact I was desperate to see that the director had to deal with such problems.

A friend of mine who founded a startup had this flaw in wanting to take care of everything. He finally understood that it was a bad thing when he had 200 employees and was overwhelmed by his worries of growth and internationalization and was asked for the authorization to engage an expense to change a light bulb in the toilet. True. That’s when he realized there was a problem. He understood later that he was the problem because he had built the system that one day came to this point through his behavior.

I am not saying that the status of a manager or leader should prevent him from getting his hands dirty again and devoting himself to vile operational tasks. It’s to say that when they do it they don’t do anything else and not what they were put there for by paying them the money they are paid for, the price of their experience, the price of their ability to make others succeed and make people in their team progress and that the collective produces more and better than the sum of the individualities.

This does not preclude returning to the field from time to time when necessary, and it is the question of “when necessary” that is the real problem and is often misinterpreted.

In short, in a company, it is important for everyone to do what is within their power and to do it fully. The escalation of a problem or the return of a manager to full operations should only be the exception.

A problem of role, posture, trust

When talking about the subject it is easy to blame the “superman” manager who wants to do too much or, often, does not trust. But why?

It is easy to name the lack of trust. But if one is not able to trust it is either that one has a problem to solve with oneself or that one has a problem with the quality of recruitment.

But there is also a problem of self-confidence on the manager’s part. There is a management problem in businesses today and this is not new. Very often experts have been appointed as managers, excellent operational people who didn’t want the job but accepted it because it was the only way to progress in terms of salaries. But they don’t want to manage and they don’t know-how. So they do too much.

Add to this the fact that they can also be victims of the role assigned to them by the company. The company needs managers, not reporters or message carriers. And this was seen during the containment, which highlighted all the limitations of the current modes of operation. I quote Claude Monnier, the HR Director of Sony France.

“The crisis has reversed the balance of power between exposure in terms of image and social utility. Managers who send novels as emails or plan video conferences all over the place have understood this. They are desperately trying to justify their role. This is useless and even counterproductive!”

But the terrain also has its share of responsibility by escalating too easily. I have already cited this example of Alcatel Lucent many times: the company is recruiting an administrative assistant in Poland. At the time of validating the recruitment, the manager decides to cover himself and asks the opinion of his own manager. The latter obviously does not want to take such a risk and forwards the request to another. After 16 managers and executives refuse to take the responsability and pass the monkey up the ladder, the email finally landed at Ben Verwaayen, the CEO. He replied by copying everyone “I don’t want to see this anymore”.

But here again it is the story of the chicken and the egg. The more the manager gets involved, the more the field becomes uninvolved. The more the field requires validation and control, the more the managers say that they are not autonomous enough and that they must act.

When the manager contributes too much

And businesses as an organization have a responsibility in this phenomenon that they complain about. They have asked the manager to be more and more of a contributor, by which they mean producing instead of managing. “Tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave“: no surprise if they give up their managerial role due to lack of time, especially since they did not necessarily want to do so and taking refuge in their operational excellence reassures them and avoids questioning their role.

I even saw a company that forced managers to spend 20% of their time on management and to prove it. The idea was not to justify why they were managing but on the contrary to force them to do it! The world upside down.

The idea is above all not to kill the contributing manager but to find the right balance which will depend on the company, the profession…

The cost of an omniscient manager

As has been said, when the manager is everywhere, he is no longer where he should have an impact, where he is expected. This comes at a price in relation to his ability to make good decisions on medium and long-term issues.

This also has a price in terms of talent management. You will often hear managers complain that their teams are not good enough, autonomous enough. But they take away any opportunity for them to learn by confronting reality, to make decisions and take the consequences. I’m not saying that you should leave people alone, but that you should be there for things of a certain importance and for the rest assume that they can make mistakes.

A sales manager was telling me an anecdote. He had gotten the job because he was the best salesman but luckily he also had the managerial fibre. At the beginning he was on every file, at every stage. The numbers were good but were not progressing and he felt that his teams were not progressing either. Logical because he was not scalable. The limit was his time. But he understood that very quickly.

He then devoted his time to teaching his teams to sell better, guiding them and teaching them to think rather than giving them a ready-made answer to save time. He only took care of the very big cases, for the rest he was there if we needed him. After a while the numbers exploded. He had managed to bring others up to his level or even above. But there was a price to pay: lost files that would have been won if he had been there more. But an investment in the future. His pride? He ended up taking the place of his superior and was replaced by a member of his team. Not the best salesman, but someone who has proven his ability to lead others. According to him “he is even better than me”.

Coming back to my friend’s story I don’t think he has a lazy manager or a bad manager but on the contrary someone who will make him grow up. He just had bad examples in his previous experience. There are lazy managers and that’s a problem but the real problem is the ones who do too much‚Ķand the reason why they do too much.

Photo : Team at work de G-Stock Studio via shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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