As org-charts around the globe continue to flatten, the list of manager responsibilities is steadily growing. With fewer levels of supervision between staff-level employees and executives, middle-management is forced to make sense of and disseminate leadership messages while concurrently navigating more complex relationships, metrics, and processes.  

In my experience, to handle the stress from this influx of responsibility, many managers default to what they know best -- the work. They retreat to the safety of their technical skills and engage autopilot for the rest. 

In his white paper "The Undermanagement Epidemic 2019," Bruce Tulgan, author, speaker, and management consultant, discusses the telltale signs of "managing on autopilot," or what is commonly referred to as undermanagement. 

  1. Monitoring email instead of proactively communicating with employees.
  2. Attending team meetings, but never focusing on individual performance.
  3. Touching base with employees, but spending too much time on non-work-related conversation. 
  4. Skipping employee one-on-ones for the "Let me know if you need me," technique.  

We're all guilty. For the sake of time, managers skip over leadership responsibilities for the seemingly more pressing and familiar technical tasks. 

Rescheduling a meeting once or twice isn't that big of a deal. However, the accumulative effect of undermanaging results in missed opportunities for employee development and breakdowns in communication. 

Don't get me wrong; I love autonomy as much as anyone. But, we have managers and leaders for a reason. Switching your mindset from passive to active management will help you more easily delegate, engage high performers, and diagnose issues before they become major concerns. 

The concept of undermanagement is relatively new for many organizations. Admittedly, for me as well. For guidance and advice, I reached out to one of my seniors in the space, Stephanie Bertmer. Bertmer has spent over a decade in learning and talent development working for brands such as Virgin America, Hulu, and Snap Inc. 

She offered three thoughts to help talent management teams address the undermanagement epidemic. 

1. Help managers shift their mindset.

Often times employees are promoted because they are good at what they do, not for their management skills. To make a smooth transition into managing people, it requires a mindset shift. Managers need to understand that a key part of their role is to get better outcomes from their team -- which requires coaching, guidance, and mentorship.

To facilitate this mindset shift, managers need to be given clear expectations of their role and provided with tools and training to be successful. Without this, managers may deprioritize their management responsibilities and curtail their significance to the business.

2. Help them create space for management. 

The number one challenge managers often cite as a hindrance to active leadership is time. So many are in back-to-back meetings from 8 to 5 that they are not physically nor emotionally available to their employees.

To offload some of the responsibilities, managers must consider delegating projects and tasks to create bandwidth for leadership. It's also critical for their own development. 

To grow as a leader, managers need to scale their technical-selves through their people. The day-to-day tasks that they're holding onto are what's keeping them from more challenging and strategic work.

If meetings are necessary, encourage managers to chunk them and leave certain days free for employee conversations. 

3. Help them conduct better one-on-one meetings. 

Most one-on-one meetings fail to add value. As a result, they often get canceled or are removed altogether.

Managers should be using this time to understand what's top of mind for their employees and how they can help. One-on-ones are also a great time to provide timely feedback, check-in on goal progress and development plans, and provide coaching and guidance.  

I'm fortunate to say that this has not been my experience. As someone who has benefited from active leadership, I can attest to its significance. I always know where I stand with my manager, I have clear goals, and most importantly, I don't waste time on tasks that are not a priority for the business. 

Addressing undermanagement is much more ambiguous than addressing micromanagement. However, taking the time to ensure managers provide quality coaching to employees boosts morale and productivity, and keeps teams from spinning their wheels on preventable problems created by breakdowns in communication.

Published on: Dec 13, 2019
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