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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Brace yourself, more made-up management mumbo-jumbo ahead.

When the individual contributor first becomes a manager, the priorities change a lot. The goal shifts from individual excellence to learning skills like personnel development, delegation, and empowerment. These are hard skills to master and even with constant reflection and practice managers fall short in at least one of these areas. Succeeding in these three areas is necessary to be a successful manager.

To achieve this success, the front-line manager’s focus is by design somewhat myopic. Their ultimate goal is to support, improve, and provide for their team. A direct manager, done right, is first and foremost a developer of people. If somebody is doing well, the question is how they can do even better, be more challenged, and grow through new opportunities. If somebody is doing poorly, the question turns in a supportive direction as well: What changes would better motivate the staff? Are they being challenged enough? In short, it’s again a question of what the direct manager can do in order to improve the individual’s performance.

A funny thing happens sometimes. Ask an individual or a direct manager to evaluate a population of peers in other groups. Some quantity, k, will emerge from this process that are not pulling their weight or are not that good. If we then ask a direct manager to list the people within their group that are not pulling their weight or are not that good, the answer will be a quantity far smaller than they identified for other groups.

There are two convenient explanations for the discrepancy:

  • Those outside of a population are unaware of the pressures, concerns, or mitigating circumstances within a population.
  • Everybody on the better-than-average team was actually born in Lake Wobegon.

Let’s assume that the first category is strictly valid and accurate. We’ll call this quantity u. k is then simply u + w, where w represents the second category.

For a large enough population, I argue that w is nonzero and u is nonzero. How do we justify a nonzero w with a positive narrative?

  • The manager is better at hiring than their peers. They don’t hire duds and only hire the best.
  • The manager is better about performance management, and has already managed under-performing staff out of the company or to a higher level of performance.
  • The manager or other individuals on the team are personally propping up the team and carrying the dead weight.

Statistically speaking, the first and second explanations are unlikely. The third explanation functions on the surface. It does mean that the reward for the individual doing the hard work is being spent on the people being propped up. Or it means that some of the capability that that star could be delivering by focusing in other areas is being less efficiently leveraged.

Here’s an alternative explanation for the quantity w. A manager is less critical of their own staff. There could be several reasons for this:

  • It’s uncomfortable.
  • Friendships are clouding professional judgment.
  • Energy invested in developing staff makes it hard to be objective about performance.

Again, statistically speaking, these explanations are far more likely than the aforementioned positive narratives. Learning to be critical and being willing to give up hope that a situation will improve to an acceptable level is difficult. If anything, it’s hardest for good managers to master, because their instinct is to kill themselves trying to turn things around.

Exceptions exist and I’m only speaking in statistical terms here. But, the default assumption should be consistency with the model, not inconsistency.