The undermanagement epidemic report

Bruce Tulgan

Today’s workplace is afflicted by an undermanagement epidemic with huge, often hidden, costs to employers, managers, and employees.

RainmakerThinking’s ongoing research shows that undermanagement has not improved significantly since our landmark study on the subject was released in 2004. While the primary causes of undermanagement have not changed substantially, our intensified research over the last ten years has yielded important new findings and has allowed us to deepen our understanding. The remarkably consistent data continue to show that nine in ten leaders/ managers/supervisors at all levels across all industries fail to regularly and consistently practise the basics of managing their direct-reports.

In today’s post–great recession workplace, the continuous downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering, especially since 2009, have created new pressures and limitations on supervisory relationships. However, the primary causes of undermanagement remain largely consistent. One important and fascinating new finding is that, while nine of ten managers are undermanaging, most of them don’t know it: Five in ten managers think they are doing an “excellent” or “very good” job managing their direct reports; a further two in ten believe they are doing a “reasonably good” job. Why is that? We believe we have figured out the answer.

On the bright side, we have often seen that when leaders, managers, and supervisors begin concentrating on back-to-basics management, they have tremendous positive results in a relatively short time.


BackgroundSince 1993, RainmakerThinking, Inc.® had been conducting ongoing research on the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace. Late in 2002, we began to focus our research on an alarming pattern: A great number of those in leadership positions at all levels were undermanaging their direct-reports. An undermanaging leader with supervisory authority fails to provide, regularly and consistently, any employee directly subject to that authority with these management basics:

  • clear statements of broad performance requirements and specific expectations;
  • support and guidance regarding resources necessary to meet requirements and expectations;
  • accurate monitoring, measuring, and documentation of the individual’s actual performance;
  • regular candid feedback about the individual’s actual performance;
  • rewards and detriments allocated and distributed in proportion to actual performance.

On June 28, 2004, we released a landmark study, The Under-management Epidemic. At the time, one of the most common questions asked of leaders in the workplace was “Are your employees engaged or not?” We knew very well that the key factor affecting employee engagement was, and remains, the relationship employees have with their immediate supervisors. That’s why we had been asking a different question of business leaders: “Are your managers engaged or not?”

Based on the data we collected over 18 months (December 2002 to June 2004), we reported that undermanagement was a problem with nine in ten managers throughout the workplace in organizations of all shapes and sizes in every industry. We found the costs were huge and often hidden. We identified four leading causes and recommended possible remedial actions. That study was the subject of hundreds of news stories and features.

Ten years later, we are releasing the findings from our ongoing research. Today’s workplace is still afflicted by an undermanagement epidemic with huge costs to employers, managers, and employees. Undermanagement is deep and widespread throughout all levels of the workplace in organizations of all sizes in every industry. The remarkably consistent data continue to show:

  • Only one in ten leaders/managers/supervisors provides all of the management basics to all of their direct-reports at least once a week.
  • Only two in ten provide all of the management basics at least once every two weeks.
  • Only three in ten provide all of the management basics at least once per month.
  • Almost five in ten fail to provide all of the management basics to every direct report even once a year.
  • Undermanagement is the overwhelming common denominator in most cases of suboptimal workplace performance of all types and at all levels. The costs and lost opportunities caused by undermanagement are incalculably high and remain consistent over the ten-year period.


The costs

Eight primary consequences result from undermanagement:

  1. Unnecessary problems occur.
  2. Small problems that should have been solved with relative ease instead get worse before they are identified and solved.
  3. Resources are squandered, and managers and employees spend time salvaging them and acquiring substitutes.
  4. Employees fail to do tasks according to established best practice for extended time before anybody realizes it.
  5. Low performers are not identified or held accountable.
  6. Mediocre performers often mistake themselves for high performers.
  7. High performers suffer diminished morale and are likely to leave their jobs voluntarily.
  8. Managers spend more time performing lower-level tasks that should have been delegated to a direct-report.

The data also show that undermanagers are almost always held in lower regard by their direct-reports, their colleagues, and their own managers than are more highly-engaged managers. At the same time, the direct-reports of undermanagers are more likely than those of highly-engaged managers to report feeling resource constrained, uninformed, and frustrated by working relationships with lateral colleagues in their own team or other teams and departments.


The causes

  • After decades of profound change in the workplace, organizations of all shapes and sizes are seeking to be more lean and flexible, adopt increasingly aggressive human capital management practices, and get more and more work out of fewer and fewer employees. Organization charts are flatter, and layers of management have been removed. Reporting relationships are more temporary. Yet employees still rely on their immediate supervisors more than any other individuals for meeting their basic needs and expectations and dealing with a whole range of day-to-day issues that arise at work. We find that these and other post—great recession pressures on supervisory relationships underlie the top causes of undermanagement:

  • The vast majority of managers still cite lack of time, due mostly to other nonmanagement responsibilities and increased spans of control, as the number one reason why they don’t more consistently practise the basics of management.
  • The second most cited reason is lack of sufficient training in the best practices, tools, and techniques of effective supervision, management, and leadership.
  • Third is lack of sufficient resources and support, a function of increased productivity requirements and tight budgets
  • Fourth is constantly changing priorities.
  • Fifth is logistical constraints, such as remote locations, different schedules, and language or cultural barriers.

Another less straightforward set of causes of undermanagement are more psychological or philosophical in nature. This is a combination of “false empowerment thinking”, the belief that managers should refrain from asserting authority by being strictly directive or punitive, and “false nice guy syndrome”, the belief that being strong is tantamount to being unfriendly or will lead to negative interactions or conflict, plus fear of other various potential negative repercussions, such as complaints, bad-mouthing, foot-dragging, sabotage, and lawsuits. A surprising number of managers say they could be stronger and more highly engaged but they choose not to for reasons that fall into one or more of these categories.


Most managers don’t realize they are caught in a vicious cycle

An important and fascinating new finding is that, while nine in ten managers are undermanaging, most of them don’t know it: Five in ten think they are doing an “excellent” or “very good” job managing their direct reports, and two in ten believe they are doing a “reasonably good” job. We believe we have figured out why.

The vast majority of managers—even most undermanagers—spend a lot of time on people management and so think they are doing reasonably well or better. The real problem is how most managers spend their precious management time.

Most managers spend an inordinate amount of their management time in “firefighting mode”, solving one urgent problem after another, usually problems that could have been avoided with better planning or identified and solved more easily at an earlier point. When not in firefighting mode, these managers prioritize catching up on their other work, and their management practices take a back seat, defaulting to “managing on autopilot”, in which they communicate with their direct reports mostly in low-structure, low-substance conversations punctuated by many mediocre meetings and emails. As a result of managing on autopilot, unnecessary urgent problems occur, or small problems go unnoticed and grow more serious or urgent. Then the manager gets pulled back into firefighting mode. Most managers don’t realize they are stuck in a vicious cycle:

Yeen: Hopefully you can replicate the graph in some manner so that it is also easier to read.

Managing on autopilot: How most managers spend most of their time when not firefightingThe vast majority of managers spend most of their non-firefighting management time on five types of communication with direct-reports:

  • attending too many mediocre group meetings, team meetings, cross-functional teams, special projects, and committees;
  • wading through a never-ending tidal wave of email; too much of which is unnecessary, duplicative, and/or sloppy;
  • touching base/checking in/having informal non-work related conversations in a seemingly well-intended effort to engage in quick informal interactions, which are actually unstructured and lacking substance;
  • interrupting and being interrupted, often a result of the seemingly well-intended effort at creating open-door communication, but actually resulting in suboptimal communication;
  • reviewing dashboard metrics with employees and conducting formal reviews, which are often more structured and more substantive forms of communication, but often focus on outcomes not within the direct control of the employee, while most periodic performance reviews are notoriously lacking in effectiveness.


Suggested remedial actions: Back to fundamentals

On the bright side, we have often seen leaders, managers, and supervisors begin concentrating on back-to-basics management, with tremendous positive results. Productivity and quality improve almost immediately when these people begin spending time daily in one-on-one dialogues with their direct-reports to provide management basics. The results of one-on-one dialogues include:

  • fewer unnecessary problems
  • problems more likely to be solved quickly while they are still small and containable
  • better planned resource use so less waste
  • personnel issues usually dealt with more quickly and efficiently
  • employees more likely to perform their regular responsibilities according to established best practices and standard operating procedures
  • managers better able to delegate tasks, responsibilities, and projects to direct-reports with successful outcomes.

This is good news. When managers do realize they are undermanaging and make concerted efforts to concentrate on back-to-basics management, they achieve significant measurable improvements in performance almost immediately.

Reprinted with the permission of Bruce Tulgan, a speaker and author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss, Managing Generation X, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss, and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. Learn more at www.RainmakerThinking.com and follow Bruce on Twitter at @BruceTulgan.


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