The end of accidental managers?

Group of disappointed young multiethnic people give thumbs down, hands in closeup.

Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms focus on the impact on people and organisation of someone who hasn’t been given the opportunity to learn to be a great manager, and a key skill they need

Imagine you’re a Formula 1 driver. You’re the best driver in your team, experienced, constantly in pole position and winning races. Suddenly, you turn up for a race one day and find that you’re now the team manager – the Christian Horner to Max Verstappen. Now, you don’t race cars, but you must plan a race strategy, motivate your drivers and engineers, and make decisions. You don’t know how to navigate the conflict that inevitably comes from this leadership position and find yourself floundering.

At worst the accidental manager is occupational negligence

This kind of scenario wouldn’t happen in real life, but this is exactly what’s happening in workplaces across the globe. Accidental managers promoted not for the strength of their people management skills but because of their high performance in another area, can suddenly find they’re tasked with the challenge of managing a team with no formal training to help them do that. This is no small issue – according to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), 82% of all managers can be classified as accidental.

These high-performing people are removed from the talent pool for the very thing they are best at, and transplanted into a role for which they may not be suited, or at least are not formally equipped to carry out. At best it’s unfair, at worst it’s occupational negligence given that 28% of workers reported quitting their role because of a poor manager, and of managers themselves, a staggering 50% suffer from burnout.

Why does it matter if someone has had management training?

Not all accidental managers are bad managers – some thrive in a managerial role, often from a blend of intuition, emulation, and proactive self-development. But these individuals have succeeded despite the process that got them there, not because of it.

Poor management contributes to the UK’s appalling productivity performance

The quality of our managers matters. A recent report by the CIPD showed how line manager quality affects employee outcomes: 50% of employees with bottom-quartile managers thought work had a negative or very negative impact on their mental health. Compare this to just 14% of employees with top-quartile managers. Becoming an accidental manager can also have a drastic effect on the morale and engagement of managers themselves, as they struggle to grasp the requirements of their new role.

This is an organisational problem as much as a personal one. Studies show that poor employee-manager relations impact team engagement by as much as 70% and one report even calculated that an improvement of just 7% in the quality of management would unlock an additional £110 billion to the UK economy. Poor management contributes to the UK’s appalling productivity performance compared to our G7 competitors.

It’s inevitable that anyone spending most of their time doing a job they’ve not been trained to do, versus doing the thing they were best at, will yield poor results.

It’s imperative that change happens

Ending the trend of accidental management should be a priority for organisations across all sectors. Those who do invest in improving the quality of management will be ahead of the curve and will reap the rewards in areas including productivity, retention and engagement, with all of the financial/operational improvements that follow.

We need to equip managers to handle the people side of their responsibilities without adding more to their workload. In a changing world of work, where the demands of managing multi-generational and flexible workers have never been greater, the answer could be a question…

When we think of managers, there is an assumption that they are there to provide answers, micromanage and solve all problems. As such, this is the prevailing management style in most workplaces and is based on a command-and-control model where leaders direct and define strategy while employees carry this out. Accidental managers rarely know anything different.

Become a manager that enables

For managers to thrive in this new world of work, they must become alert to ‘coachable moments’, those opportunities where asking a powerful question might drive better outcomes from team members’ queries than simply solving their problem outright. This type of behaviour can also benefit workplace culture by underpinning an environment that’s more collaborative, creative and inclusive.

Managers will find themselves doing less fixing, firefighting and directing employees and can focus on the higher-value aspects of their role. Simultaneously, these coachable moments provide team members with learning opportunities to do the thinking themselves, improving learning and development and problem-solving skills.

Instead of consistently responding to situations with immediate solutions, managers should cultivate the skill of purposeful enquiry. This involves integrating more impactful questions into daily conversations with team members, which more effectively taps into their talents.

Integrating coaching seamlessly into the daily flow of work and has demonstrated its effectiveness in extensive government-sponsored research conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE). The impact is often swift and remarkably profound: better, more collaborative solutions emerge, team members become committed to implementing their actions and, by refraining from intervening in every presented problem, managers not only save valuable time but can also allocate more time to coach team members.

Managers need to engage in the right way

In its 2023 State of the Global Workforce report, Gallup concluded the following: “…low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion. That’s 9% of global GDP — enough to make the difference between success and failure for humanity. Poor management leads to lost customers and lost profits, but it also leads to miserable lives.”

Choosing to train all managers in line with this approach not only tackles the immediate issue of management burnout and employee performance but also builds the foundations for a future workforce that is more engaged, motivated and productive, within a workplace that enables employees to actively contribute their best talents. Organisations who ignore the benefit of investing in the development of their managers might just find that it truly is the difference between success and failure.

Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms are the CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion and are co-authors of the management book The Answer is a Question

Laura Ashley-Timms

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