One of the primary roles of a manager is to hold employees accountable for performance. That includes setting expectations, pointing out mistakes, taking note of infractions, and disciplining employees when necessary. It’s also one of the primary roles many managers avoid. It’s important to understand why a manager might do that, as well as why he cannot afford to do so.
Here’s a typical scenario to illustrate the point: Jeff was a member of a work crew who was promoted to first-level supervisor. He so valued being “one of the guys” that he would not challenge anyone for shabby performance or late arrival at work. Jeff’s boss Matt tried to get him to enforce company rules, but to no avail. Matt was forced to micromanage Jeff’s crew so that the work would get done. Jeff used Matt’s involvement to solidify his role as crew defender by refusing to carry out Matt’s directives — he even mocked Matt to the crew. Eventually, Jeff and Matt had a major falling-out, and Jeff lost his position.
How managers justify inaction
“I don’t like confrontation.” Many people, including managers, will do anything to avoid direct confrontation. It makes them hesitant to focus on work errors, lapses in judgment, or simple lack of effort on the job. When the manager has to point out a chronic problem and generalize about the subordinate, it’s even more uncomfortable. Some justify this avoidance by claiming an altruistic rationale such as “I can’t bear to crush a person’s self-esteem.”
Even though the manager knows that it’s in the company’s best interest, he refrains from challenging the employee. Even though it is even in the employee’s best interest, since lack of correction could jeopardize the subordinate’s job, the manager refrains from raising the issue. In truth, the manager is usually protecting his own feelings. Perhaps he rationalizes that there will be a confrontation when things get “really bad,” but the implied tolerance until then will only increase the awkwardness of raising the issue later.
“I don’t likebeing challenged.” They don’t want to be contradicted or counter-attacked. If this subordinate tends to pout or sulk, whines to other employees, or even acts physically or sexually intimidating, the manager may bend over backward to protect himself, even to the point of walking back his critique. In such cases, the manager may rationalize that he is better off just not saying anything. This makes the problem worse than before, rendering the manager powerless.
“I don’t want to be branded as a turncoat.” Some managers who have come up in the ranks are sensitive to accusations of pompous or power-hungry behavior, or even to accusations of switching sides in management-labor wars. When these managers critique their employees’ performance, they may be told that they are doing management’s bidding rather than ensuring that employees do what they get paid for. That has its own way of paralyzing the manager.
“I prefer a collegial approach.” In the research, technical and academic worlds, the idea of collegiality has a slightly different flavor. The manager may idolize a participative environment of vigorous give-and-take in which issues are seemingly resolved by whomever makes the best intellectual arguments.
Changing to a model in which the leader makes executive decisions and concludes debates makes some people uncomfortable. The manager may fear being branded as an authoritarian traitor by former colleagues. This may not be the case; the other employees may want the leader to lead and to end deadlocked situations. It is the manager who may be overly sensitive to the charge of caving to practical or financial considerations, and responds by abdicating his responsibility to lead.
Here’s an example of how this kind of situation might play out: Mitch, a senior scientist, leads a lab of other scientists, some of whom are only occasionally motivated in their jobs. They spend much of their work time reading novels or surfing on their devices, and they hand in sloppy work. Mitch spends his evenings checking and redoing their work. He complains about their performance, but cannot bring himself to give them ultimatums — that just wouldn’t fit his ideal of a collegial team.
The price of managerial inaction
If a manager doesn’t hold his lackluster employees accountable, the self-motivated employees on the team will be furious about having to compensate. They will either lose respect for the manager or they may even slack off on their own work as retribution. Some managers can get by for years avoiding confrontation, no matter how much it’s needed. Eventually, the manager will be blamed for employees’ non-performance, so it’s a losing strategy.
Assuming the position of manager or supervisor includes some possibly distasteful roles: exposing an employee’s failings, pulling rank in clarifying job responsibilities, demanding ethical completion of assigned tasks, and informing employees of possible or impending job loss. Perhaps the role of leader is not for everyone. Those who aspire to it must face their fears and presumptions, and lead.
Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.