“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.”
– David Foster Wallace
Most companies have some key characteristics that make them believe they’re different: a combination of their business model, mission, product, and other factors. But when you look inside these companies, quite a bit about them is the same, too: structure, job titles, common challenges, etc.
Despite the many differences in execution and strategy, most organizational problems in particular are the same across companies.
Research from Chris Zook and James Allen of Bain, (authors of The Founder’s Mentality) has shown that 94% of business challenges are internal. When founders and CEOs are asked what their biggest challenge is, they typically fall among this set:
- Process management
- Shipping times/revenue cycles
- Job role design
- People and leadership pipelines
- Relationships with customers
- The need to be more innovative
Notice, almost all of them are completely under a company’s control. However, taken as individual items, this list is pretty daunting. Where do you even begin?
Fortunately, there’s actually a relatively simple place to begin to help you alleviate many of these major organizational problems at once: begin with a focus on improving your managers.
How Bad Management Causes Most of Your Organizational Problems
You can run down the list of all the organizational problems on the mind of senior leaders and see that the fingerprints of managers are all over them.
Over and over, it’s the actions (or inaction) of managers that combine to be the hidden, root cause of these major, valid concerns.
Let’s take a closer look at them.
It starts with one of the biggest, most painful organizational problems that can plague a company: turnover.
When turnover strikes, unfortunately the problem is usually mis-diagnosed. Multiple studies show that managers falsely attribute employee turnover to either the quality of the job offer, or claim the employee wasn’t a fit anyways.
The truth shows something quite different.
Most research done directly with employees who recently left their job shows an overwhelming majority leave because of their manager. This can be because of a direct problem with their manager (50% of Americans have left a job for this reason), or a variety of secondary reasons that are also caused by managers.
Losing good people will cause any leader to lose sleep at night, and bad managers are the biggest reason it happens.
No one has a bigger impact on team effectiveness than the manager of that team.
According to Gallup’s research, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. This is huge when you consider the relationship between engagement and a variety of benefits:
Meanwhile, research from Evolv and Wharton (UPenn) has shown the absolute largest variance in predicting employee performance is how effective their manager is.
Despite these facts, most employees do not have an effective manager helping them perform at a high level.
It’s hard to be productive if your manager doesn’t take advantage of your strengths, nor do the things that make you engaged at work.
3) Process Management
Managers determine the best process for their teams. Whether by building consensus or dictating, the decisions they make determine what and how things get done.
Good managers do this by enabling and empowering the strengths of their team. In First, Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham shows through a variety of workplace research that focusing on the strengths of your team is hugely beneficial:
“People who focus on their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, more productive and more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life.”
Unfortunately, your bad managers do the opposite. They use politics and play favorites to assign work. They add heavy process and bottleneck decision making through them.
This slows down decision-making, product releases, customer issue resolutions, addressing PR/social media postings in times of crisis, and other issues teams tackle every day. Because of this, these bad managers frustrate their teams and hurt the company’s reputation one slow to resolve issue at a time.
4) Making their Numbers
The philosophy, “What’s measured is what matters” has many benefits when running an organization; it brings focus, creates clarity for evaluating performance, and can get large organizations moving in one general direction. However, it’s far from perfect.
It can reward terrible behaviors that happen to lead to short term gains. Look no further than recent scandals in Silicon Valley, where great numbers led to overlooking increasingly bad behavior.
Another drawback is that it misses tracking and rewarding things like soft skills that are often the root cause of missed targets or success.
For example, a manager that communicates terribly will often have a team that misses targets. The tracking method most companies use will reveal the missed targets, but not the poor communication.
As a result, the poor communication is likely to continue. Only once the missed targets lead to more dramatic changes to the team or manager will things improve.
While a focus on numbers brings many benefits, numbers alone do not tell the whole story. If not investigated, the root causes can be missed and never fixed.
5) Job Role Design
They’re called, “hiring managers” for a reason. The best managers understand what headcount they need, have detailed conversations with their top-of-funnel recruiters (HR) about what they’re looking for, and then bring in finalists to interact with the pre-existing team.
The worst managers define the need for headcount around how busy they are (as opposed to which role would add the most value), barely speak to HR, and then complain when the process doesn’t unfold as they’d hope.
“Total Motivation” creator Lindsay McGregor has noted that a clear job role can be almost 2x more important than compensation in determining productive motivation among employees once you hire and onboard them.
Teaching your managers to define job roles well scales a solution to this problem. If every team finds good people for the right roles, it’s one less organizational problem to worry about.
6) Leadership Pipelines
Across the last three years, Josh Bersin has repeatedly found leadership pipelines to be a top concern of executives. For those companies that invest in addressing this issue, he’s found they experience significantly higher long-term revenue per employee and gross profit margin.
Despite these benefits, leadership pipelines continue to be an unresolved problem for many companies.
Employee development begins at the managerial level. Yet, many managers aren’t doing it. There are plenty of excuses: other tasks piling up, demands to hit numbers, and many other responsibilities. Meanwhile, it continues to be the #1 perk people want at work, and look for in future jobs in study after study.
When you don’t develop your talent pipeline, you will lack the leaders who can drive great performance of their teams. This then manifests itself in a variety of organizational problems (see the Peter Principle) where people are not ready for their new responsibilities.
A lack of investment in developing people for their next role comes back to bite companies when they look to promote from within and fill roles as they grow.
7) Relationships with Customers
Managers set the tone for how their teams treat customers. There is nothing more powerful than leadership by example.
If they’re careful and diligent, their team will be, too.
If they’re curt and brief, unfortunately, so will their team.
This can be extremely costly. However, many of these costs are hidden from senior leaders. A few stats from HelpScout paint a stark picture:
- How many bad experiences are happening you don’t know about? A typical business hears from 4% of it’s dissatisfied customers.
- How much are unhappy customers not spending with you? On average, loyal customers are worth up to 10 times as much as their first purchase.
- Are poor customer experiences tolerated? News of bad customer service reaches more than twice as many ears as praise for a good service experience.
Managers show what’s acceptable based on what they fix and what they don’t. If they’re not taking care of customers well, neither will their teams. This can cause huge problems for senior leaders, when bad customer experiences compound to cost you major clients.
8) Being more Innovative
Every company claims to be innovative, and wants to be thought of as an industry leader. Yet, many fail to get beyond buzzwords and marketing claims.
The best ideas are often surfaced from front-line staff; they are closest to the pain points and needs of your customer. Unfortunately, many companies fail to tap into this great source.
One company that has succeeded in this area is Toyota. Listening to front line employees is a key part of their “Total Production System.” Managers are trained to listen to and help develop employee ideas, not come up with their own.
Unfortunately, Justin Berg’s research out of Stanford shows that managers are typically poor judges of new ideas. Not every idea will be innovative, and managers need to learn to say no, but the wrong managerial gatekeepers prevent the creation of new revenue streams when a good idea isn’t given the light of day.
Even worse, if managers take credit for their team’s ideas, they are discouraging them from coming to them with future ideas. Yet, that’s too often what’s happening. Bamboo HR’s study found it’s the #1 complaint of employees about their boss.
Good managers listen to their team’s ideas and give them credit when due. If a lack of innovation is one of your organizational problems, look no further than your managers who are stifling innovation on their teams.
Managers are the part of the iceberg you don’t see.
Most areas of business (and life) have an iceberg analogy; what you see is often a small part of a bigger problem. What the crew of the Titanic didn’t see was the part of the iceberg that ripped the fatal hole in the ship.
Bad management is the hidden part of the iceberg for organizational problems. It’s hard to directly track someone being a bad manager on a balance sheet, unless they miss numbers. Yet, there are many ways we’ve discussed today they can still cause costly problems despite hitting numbers in the short term.
Fixing organizational problems are never easy, but starting by improving your managers can have a major impact on most of them. This is the difference between treating problems at the surface and getting to the root cause.
Not sure where to start? Get a benchmark of how your managers are doing using Manager Score here. It provides both a summary of key areas for you to identify weaknesses across your organization to fix, and an individual report with tips for each of your managers to help them improve. You can learn more about Manager Score by clicking here.
It starts with one.
You can have an impact even as a single manager. Start by improving your own team or the leaders reporting to you by starting a free trial of Lighthouse. It’s built to help you more easily build and keep the habits to create high performing teams. Get your 21-day free trial and start helping your team now by clicking here.