Most Managers are Caught in a Vicious Cycle


This is the second in a continuing series investigating the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace by best-selling author Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc.

One important and fascinating new finding from our recently released "Undermanagement Epidemic Report," shows that, while nine out of 10 managers are in fact under-managing, most of them don’t know it. Five out of 10 managers think they are doing an “excellent” or “very good” job managing their direct reports; and two out of 10 believe they are doing a “reasonably good” job--even while nine out of 10 are under-managing. Why is that? We believe we have figured out the answer. 

We find that the vast majority of managers--even most under-managers--spend a lot of time on people management. That’s why they think they are doing, at least, “reasonably well” or better.  The real problem is how most managers spend their precious management time.

We find that the vast majority of managers spend an inordinate percentage of their “management time” in what we call “firefighting mode,” solving one urgent problem after another--usually problems that could have been avoided with better planning or identified and solved more easily at an earlier point. When not in “firefighting mode,” these managers prioritize “catching up” on their other work and their management practices take a back seat, defaulting to a mode we call “managing on autopilot,” in which they communicate with their direct reports mostly in low-structure, low-substance conversations punctuated by too many mediocre meetings and emails.  As a result of “managing on autopilot,” unnecessary urgent problems occur or small problems go unnoticed and thus grow more serious or urgent. Then the manager gets pulled back into “firefighting mode.” Most managers don’t realize they are stuck in a vicious cycle:

Managing on autopilot → False sense of security → Small problems have space to fester and grow → Problems inevitably blow up → Manager (and others) pulled into firefighting mode → Things get “back to normal,” managing on autopilot.

Managing on Autopilot: How Most Managers Spend Most of Their Managment Time (When Not 'Firefighting')

We find that the vast majority of managers spend the vast majority of their non-“firefighting” management time on five types of communication with direct-reports:

  • Attending too many mediocre group meetings, team meetings, cross-functional teams, special projects and committees.
  • Wading through a never-ending tidal wave of email. Too much of this email is unnecessary, duplicative and/or sloppy.
  • Touching base/checking in/having informal non-work related conversations. This is the seemingly well-intended effort to engage in quick informal interactions but they are unstructured and lacking substance.
  • Interrupting and being Interrupted. This often results from the seemingly well-intended effort at creating “open door” communication, but results in suboptimal communication.
  • Reviewing dashboard metrics with employees and conducting formal reviews.  While these are often more structured and more substantive forms of communication, dashboard metrics often focus on outcomes not within the direct control of the employee, while most periodic performance reviews are notoriously lacking in effectiveness.

This is how the vast majority of managers spend their management time, lulled into a false sense of security because problems hide below the radar until they blow up again and the manager gets pulled back into “firefighting mode.” When the fire is put out, the wreckage salvaged and things are put back on course, they slip back into autopilot again.

Suggested Remedial Actions: Back to Fundamentals 

On the bright side, we have seen time and again, leaders, managers and supervisors begin concentrating on back-to-basics management with tremendous positive results. Like clockwork, productivity and quality improve almost immediately when they begin spending time daily in one-on-one dialogues with their direct reports to provide management basics:

  • Fewer unnecessary problems occur.
  • When problems do occur, they are more likely to be solved quickly while they are still small and containable.
  • Resource use is better planned and therefore resources are less often wasted.
  • Personnel issues are usually dealt with more quickly and efficiently. 
  • Employees are more likely to perform their regular responsibilities according to established best practices and standard operating procedures.
  • Managers are better able to delegate tasks, responsibilities and projects to direct reports and have successful outcomes. 

Bruce Tulgan can be reached via Follow Tulgan on Twitter at His latest book, "The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-step solutions to (nearly) all of your management problems," is available for preorder now. 


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