Other Side Consulting - Saving the world one manager at a time

Your manager is unaware that they're incompetent

Organisations and individuals make a large mistake when they believe management requires few additional skills to those that have made them successful.

The ‘Peter Principle’ is a concept in management in which the selection of a candidate is based on their performance in their current role rather than on their abilities relevant to the intended role. Need a line supervisor, pick the best performer on the line. Need a clinical manager, pick the most experienced clinician.

What’s wrong with this? It doesn’t work and it’s dumb.

At the heart of this situation is the belief that management can be done by anybody, skills and experience are a bonus. It is true anyone can be a manager, evidence for that abounds, but it is also true that anyone can be a surgeon or a pilot. You just don’t get the outcomes you want as dead bodies and broken planes are quite visible. The results of inexperienced management is mainly invisible – low motivation, high turnover, low productivity etc.

In Peter Principle tradition, individuals are promoted (organisational error), and accept promotions (individual error) into management positions that they have inadequate skills with which to perform competently. To be blunt, they are incompetent. In health, there are clinicians acting as managers, in education it’s academics and teachers, in the IT profession developers and technicians and in business in general, accountants dominate. These are all very skilled, talented, clever, insightful individuals in their own fields, but management requires a different set of competencies which they need to learn.

The typical action to address the knowledge gap for our newly appointed managers is to send them on a management course, maybe for five days, to arm them with the required skills. This approach is repeated in governance where a short course, often one day, on how to be a director is often provided. The problem is that this imparts knowledge, limited knowledge t best, but does not increase an individual’s practice competency which is increased through experience and reflection over time. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey won’t make you a more competent lover, you do have to put the ideas into practice. There is no short cut.

Worse, we send our new managers on so-called transformational leadership courses. Why is this worse? It is because now our incompetent managers believe they are not only competent, but transformational leaders. A line from Fight Club reflects this situation –

“Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.” 

This approach demonstrates the lack of understanding that exists of the unique skills required for management. If we turn the situation around and ask - how many days training would be required to turn a clever, talented manager into a surgeon? The question is of course ludicrous, but no less ludicrous than the approach employed with management.

This is not to say that management training and development are a waste of time. They are a small part of development but they cannot replace or replicate experiential based learning. Our argument is that management and management development has been captured by leadershit. This is the idea that the expertise and experience can be learnt from “experts”. The more impressive the expert, the more secrets they have to share and the more money you need to pay. As Peter Drucker said –

“We are using the word 'guru' only because 'charlatan' is too long to fit into a headline.”

The first step in remedying this situation is awareness. Organisations need to be aware that new managers are new managers and no amount of training will alter that. In addition to training new managers will develop if they are carefully mentored and exposed to your best managers. Individuals need to be aware that no matter how clever, respected and experienced they are in another field, they start back at zero as a manager.

In many regards individuals need to ask themselves – do I really want to be a manager? Our current paradigm has becoming a manager as a logical promotion and career step. The Peter Principle explains that this stops some of our best and most effective people from doing what they are good at and makes them incompetent, dangerous managers. It seems we must either be far more effective at developing managers or change our paradigm. Or both.  

Roger McEwan