Why Your Managers Will Fail (And How to Failure-Proof Your Company)

Updated: Jun 13

Written by CultureCon 2022 Sponsor and Presenter, LifeLabs Learning

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The harsh reality: failure is more likely than success

The majority of your managers will fail. Even though they want to do a really good job, most of them will not. Even though your organization will rely on managers more than ever this year, they will often let you down.


On a micro-level, the impact of failed management is painful: high attrition, low performance, disengagement, conflict, and lost time. On a macro-level, poor management is a crisis, costing roughly $7 trillion globally every year (Wigert and Harter, 2017). Here’s the bright side: manager failure is preventable.


The massive opportunity: a workplace revolution

At LifeLabs Learning, we’ve studied and taught over 200,000 managers at more than 1,700 companies across the globe. We’ve had an unusual front row seat to the most common manager ‘fail points’ and learned the fastest ways to avoid them. So what has led to this crisis and how can we solve it?


The great news is that preventing management failure doesn’t simply reduce harm. It creates a rapid company-wide transformation. Companies that have great managers see the payoff in performance, retention, and engagement and participate in shaping the future of work. It should not be the norm that managers are exhausted by their work and that employees dread working with their managers. A growing number of people today have the unprecedented opportunity to unlock the full potential of their talents and passions through their work. Managers can be the obstacle to this workplace revolution or they can be the catalyst.


The four manager fail points and how to prevent them

While there are many imperfections in management, we’ve identified four predictable manager fail points across all company sizes, geographies, and industries. We’ll briefly summarize each one to help you diagnose whether they exist at your company. Then we’ll share practical steps you can take right away to failure-proof your organization and unleash the positive powers that effective managers can have.


1. Role Blur

The most foundational problem causing manager failure is ‘role blur.’ Companies, managers, and employees have different implicit definitions and expectations of what a manager is.


Imagine if the same were true for other high-impact roles like surgeons or pilots. It is nearly impossible for managers to be effective when they don’t know what success means.


The fix:

  1. Define what ‘manager’ means at your company. For example: “The purpose of our managers is to be our multipliers. It’s a role that exists to help people achieve more than they could have done on their own. The manager role is designed to accelerate results and do so in a way that each person finds personally rewarding.”

  2. Create and circulate job descriptions. Outline expected responsibilities. For example: holding weekly 1-1s, sharing developmental feedback, articulating team priorities. Be sure this description is visible to all employees for mutual accountability, and circulate it before people take on the manager role.

  3. Establish success metrics. Include measurable performance indicators in the role description. For example: percent of team members meeting their success metrics, completion rate of manager responsibilities, team member role and goal clarity, team member perception of inclusion.


2. Capacity Debt

The next nearly ubiquitous but preventable management fail point is ‘capacity debt.’ Not only do most managers lack the physical time to accomplish the responsibilities of their role, this lack of time forces them to make tradeoffs that result in even greater time scarcity in the future. For example, managers who lack time to develop their team pay for it with “interest” when their team members become disengaged or quit because they don’t feel they are growing.


The fix:

  1. Conduct a time audit. Ask your managers to track where their time goes for at least one week. Analyze their answers to see the most common patterns.

  2. Share a time allocation. Based on your findings, adjust people’s roles (e.g., assigning fewer projects or direct reports) so there is sufficient capacity to complete all role responsibilities, plus a 20-30% buffer. Share a visual of the approximate time allocation. For example: 2-3 hours per week per direct report, 1 hour per week on team meetings.

  3. Clarify tradeoffs. Help managers make good decisions when time is limited by sharing a small number of priorities. For example: help your team develop new skills even over meeting project deadlines; keep one-on-one time sacred even over responding to email within 24 hours.


3. Next Rung Fallacy

A great engineer is no more likely to be a great manager than they are to be a great ballet dancer. The skills required of managers are distinct. Companies that position management as the ‘next rung’ on the career ladder set up themselves and their employees for failure.


The fix:

  1. Make your interview process skills-based. Always interview prospective internal and external management candidates. Assess their qualifications based on observable skills rather than domain expertise or years of experience.

  2. Provide alternative career paths. Design, promote, and celebrate other ways to progress at your company besides management. For example, roles can grow in complexity, scope, and required know-how.

  3. Don’t mandate management. Don’t assume that management is a requirement for leadership roles. Explore alternative arrangements for leaders who lack management aptitude. For example: leaders might set vision and strategy while managers provide coaching, feedback, assessment, emotional encouragement, and development support.


4. Experience Fallacy

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many companies still operate under the assumption that people can develop core manager skills “on the job.” Unfortunately, we’ve found no correlation between years of experience and manager skill level. And learning through experience is extraordinarily costly when the likely risks are employee performance and attrition.


The fix:

  1. Articulate core manager skills. Create company-wide alignment and set clear performance expectations by naming the skills required for the manager role, just as you would for any other role. Based on our research at LifeLabs Learning, the most critical skills of managers across all companies are: coaching, feedback, productivity, leading one-on-ones, strategic thinking, meeting facilitation, leading change, and people development. Managers also need support applying the lenses of adaptivity, inclusion, and remote or distributed work to all of their interactions.

  2. Help managers develop core skills. Accelerate your managers’ effectiveness by providing skill-building support. For example, the LifeLabs Learning Manager CORE program consists of short, live workshops as well as self-paced digital nudges. Whatever program you choose, be sure it includes practice and real-time feedback (rather than simply gaining knowledge) and that you carve out time for managers to participate.

  3. Assess manager effectiveness. Help managers learn and improve faster by creating feedback loops. For example, do biannual manager effectiveness surveys, monthly pulse surveys, and quarterly skip-level interviews. Best of all, train and encourage managers to pull for feedback from their team on a weekly basis and build it into your one-on-one agenda templates.

Bad managers have the power to create a vicious cycle of disengagement, underperformance, and attrition. And the more bad managers there are, the more their actions shape what’s “normal” for this critical role and what employees anticipate from their managers. But it is just as true that great managers can create a virtuous cycle -- catalyzing a culture that draws people in and brings out their very best. Just one great manager can be company-changing and life-changing. Imagine a world where great managers are the norm.


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About LifeLabs Learning:

LifeLabs Learning is the source for instantly useful, delightfully unusual, science-backed programs. We teach tipping point skills — the small changes that lead to big impact.


Our programs are designed to deliver real value for your teams fast, not weeks or months from now. We enable rapid skill-building and we make these skills stick by helping organizations shape their culture and systems for the long haul.


We rely on the latest in behavioral science research – including our own in-house data and real-world outcomes from hundreds of leading organizations – to inform what we teach and how we teach it.


As a result, our programs are memorable and actionable. We drive organization-wide results that stick. 99% of those who take our workshops say that they’re still putting new skills to use 3 months later.


Some of our clients include Venmo, BlackRock, Kaiser Permanente, Andreessen Horowitz, Yale, Glossier, and Lyft.


To learn more, find us at https://lifelabslearning.com/.


LifeLabs Learning. A better way to work.