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Are you undermining your managers?

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An undermined managerAll organisations want managers who are in control, can effectively manage their team, and can take the initiative. But this isn’t always what you get, says John Pope, who suggests that perhaps it is because your managers are being undermined.


You want managers who are tough, who can make good decisions in your absence, handle difficult problems, take the initiative, and are in good control of their workforce or team.

So why aren’t they all like that? Why do they wait for you to energise them, why do some come to you asking for guidance? Why do their subordinates approach you directly? Why won’t they stand on their own two feet? Perhaps you have undermined them; it is so easy to do, but for those who want to make sure of it, here’s how you too can have unsure, unimaginative, undermined managers, whom the workforce does not respect:

Separate the manager from his team

You can deal directly with a member of a team instead of his manager. It saves time telling the member direct instead of telling the manager who will only ‘pass it on and get it wrong’. It’s quicker too. Pity if the manager had other plans for that member.

Disrupt the manager’s plans

Change the way a manager plans a job, because you used to do it differently, forgetting that much has changed since then. Or change the priority of a job one of the members is doing, without telling the manager first. You can reverse the decision of a manager because it needs doing ‘immediately’ (not often true) without informing the manager.

Mess the manager around

“Make sure you aren’t seen through the window – some of the team are good at lip-reading.”

You can agree to commitments which affect a manager without checking first whether they can be accepted. That includes changing delivery dates, or completely changing work plans or schedules, or making arbitrary changes to his project plans. You can also keep changing the priorities you agreed with him. No wonder he doesn’t react immediately to your plans – he’s waiting for you to change them.

Keep him unnecessarily in the dark or show you do not trust him

You can tell a team member some news or something important about the business before you have told the manager. You can talk to the union, customers or suppliers about your plans or concerns before you talk to your managers.

Erode discipline, fail to back him up

You can overrule (‘for the sake of peace’) a manager who has, following the correct procedures, taken some disciplinary action against a team member.

You can fail to back up a manager who is trying to enforce correct ways of working in his team.

You can ignore breaches of the safety rules when he tries to enforce them.

Meddle in the management of his staff

You can allow special requests from a team member, perhaps for leave at a particular time, without consulting the manager.

You can make special concessions to team members, which will not affect the way you work but which might make it difficult for the manager.

You can accidentally ‘promise’ someone promotion – or give that individual the impression you have.

Humiliate the manager

You can reprove a manager in the hearing of a team member. If you are considerate you do it in a closed office. Make sure you aren’t seen through the window – some of the team are good at lip-reading. And for good measure, you can promote people over his head without considering his own talents.

You didn’t mean to undermine your managers

I’m sure you can think of more, but what does this all add up to? The bond between manager and team should be very close – you are employing a manager to manage, and to do so he has to use his judgement and authority to get the best result. Every time a superior manager gets in the way of, or meddles with, his subordinate’s links with his team, you chip away at the authority of that manager. That is so obvious. However such obvious good practices are easy to forget in the heat of the moment.

Few managers deliberately undermine their subordinates – they do so by accident, or with the best of intentions, or without thinking. Perhaps occasionally because they are frustrated and lose their temper or their heads.

Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a bit, there are some very good managers around. However, most people who have run a management development programme and discussed what really good managers do will have sometimes been asked the question: “That’s fine telling us about it, but when are you going to tell my boss?”

Who is going to change this?

It should be those very managers, but they probably won’t. Development and training should have a good idea of the guilty managers from the feedback forms from any internal training, and the views of the trainers. HR should have a good idea of those who need some help from the results of the annual performance appraisals. Both HR and training, working together, should certainly be able to identify the key issues and ways of improving their position. But ultimately, any initiative must be backed by senior management and fostered by their example.

Your managers may not be perfect, but they’re what you’ve got, and if they aren’t good you have to do something about it. They are special, they have to feel special, they need to be good at their jobs, and to do that they need to know what you expect of them. They may need better skills, they may need more information on regulations, health & safety, employment rules, or where they stand.

“They are special, they have to feel special, they need to be good at their jobs, and to do that they need to know what you expect of them.”

Better check what training or development they need to be able to do their jobs. You can get the development & training function to do that, but while they are doing that, you can have a session in which a senior respected manager with real credibility (there are other sorts) makes them feel they are the most important members of the organisation, and reinforce what you have been telling them.

Better check that they understand the basics of treating their staff. HR can give them clear guidance, the information they need, and a hotline number so that they get guidance before they make rash decisions.

Better take those managers into your confidence about plans for change – they are the people who are going to be developing it. And if you say you can’t trust them with sensitive information, that’s a pretty good sign that you have not made them feel like managers.

Lastly, show that first-line managers can progress to higher and higher levels of management. Managers who have had solid experience at the first-line level may have learned the lessons of managing without meddling. They can often be better and progress further than those brought in with degrees.

I have used examples which are drawn from junior levels, but it can apply at any level in any organisation. The senior manager, with the best intentions, changes his mind about a part of a project which is already complex enough, and then tells the over-burdened project manager to make changes. He then changes his mind back again and drives some project managers to distraction and endangers success.

Some of the reversals are inevitable, but they are costly in resources and money. They are equally costly by undermining and de-motivating those who were most committed who, inevitably, were the people the organisation most needs to keep.


John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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