Management is like driving: Managers tend to rate their skills higher than average. But from surveys, we know that there is a disconnect between this perceived skill and actual skill. This disconnect is a problem, because when we believe we're already good at something we have little motivation to grow or change. After all, the return on the time invested isn't as great as it is in some other skill area -- or so our thinking goes.

With this mindset, we invest in other elements of our business -- marketing, technology, competition -- and it pays off. We see more rapid change where we focus our time and energy, and our management skills lag behind.

When it comes to managing people, most of us are winging it. We approach our most important job with the same confidence and nonchalance as if we were suddenly asked during lunch to get up and wait tables for the first time. After all, we've seen other people do it a million times. We know what we like and don't like. What could be so hard?

It turns out that management is harder than it looks.

Here is the scenario that plays out daily in workplaces everywhere. The day starts, issues arise, and the manager is engaged. Managers tackle each issue in turn while juggling other responsibilities. When you're new, you may refer to a manual or ask someone more senior for the right protocol. But most of the stuff we do -- such as how and when we converse, what we share and don't, our tone, language, body language, and a dozen other variables -- comes straight from the gut. Unless they're truly awful and doing something illegal or unethical, most managers bump along until retirement. And, unfortunately, with each passing year, their "gut instinct" approach is validated.

It doesn't help that few of us get any direct, supportive, actionable feedback.. Management feedback early and often is critical, but we don't get it because everyone around us struggles with confrontation and difficult conversations. So most managers make only small, incremental improvements over time. Practice doesn't make perfect when the practice itself is imperfect.

The truth is that there are regular opportunities to do better for our staff (and, in turn, the bottom line) and we miss them. Poor management is a contributor to...

  • Turnover
  • Low engagement and reduced productivity
  • Employee relations complaints
  • The sandpaper between Millennials and their Gen-X and baby boomer bosses.

The prevalence of bad managers has also contributed to the rise in freelancing and independent consulting. Depending on your perspective, you might view this as a positive outcome. People leaving organizations to work on their own are doing so, in part, because they're not getting any value out of the relationship with their manager.

What separates great managers from everyone else is not natural talent. It's their innate interest in people and learning. These managers improve their skills and commitment to the job over time.

Information access isn't the problem. There are oodles of management classes, and most organizations are willing to make the investment in them. So what can we do?

Organizations can get serious about training and coaching managers early in their careers. For those further along, radical candor is needed, as well as a willingness to set expectations high and hold people to them.

What can we as managers do to improve?

  1. Insist on feedback from your staff.
  2. Listen to your gut as just one source of input -- not the only source. Alas, you can't turn off your instinct to respond in a certain way. But stop and reflect on what it's telling you. Consider options before acting.
  3. Seek practical skills in having difficult conversations. Practicing active listening and empathy will get you 80 percent of the way there.

Self-assessing our management abilities is an ineffective way to identify issues and opportunities for growth. Everywhere, people managing by gut instinct aren't keeping pace with the change in the rest of the business. Few see their level of skill as an area worthy of an investment of time and energy. The lack of growth results in numerous problems. People leave, productivity goes down, and employees are unhappy and disengaged. This trend can be reversed by taking responsibility for yourself and your team to get the feedback and resources you need to improve.