By Carlin Gerbich
Author Mitch Vandell offers up tips for avoiding or dealing with managers that are making your work life a misery
We all have, at one time or another, experienced managers we feel have been promoted beyond their capabilities. Whether our reticence is based on experience, gut feeling or plain fact, dealing with managers who aren't up to the job is something that we need to learn to deal with on occasions.
Author Mitch Vandell's new book 'Bargepole Management' is due out in shops across the region in March, and deals with a phenomenon he feels is growing across the region.
“The way these individuals advance in corporate hierarchy beyond where their competence or skills should take them is rarely a coincidence,” Mitch Vandell says.
According to Vandell, achieving success in any large organisation has got little to do with one’s competence and a lot to do with one’s ability to package and sell themselves.
Vandell uses the metaphor of the bargepole — a long pole with a hook that is used to propel or guide boats in and out of a harbour — to signify the relationship between employees and their bosses.
He defines Bargepole Management as the art of motivating others to accept accountability and the consequences of failure while forfeiting the credit and rewards of their work to you.
“In short,” Mr Vandell says, “the theory of Bargepole Management is the recipe for the new American Dream: Minimal effort and skill for maximum reward and adoration.”
It's a controversial view, and an interesting theory. So we asked him to compile a list of tips he feels would help employees to get to know this kind of manager. We can't endorse the theories or advice: we can only throw it out there for discussion in the hope that it may help some of you who may recognise the scenarios he describes.
So, stand back: we're about to light the blue touchpaper and fire off this lively debate:
1. ‘First do no harm’
The most frustrating type of incompetent manager is the delusional type that lacks awareness of their own knowledge gaps and is therefore ignorant about what skills and resources are even needed to get a job done. This can be counter-productive unless someone is able to steer them in the direction to only get involved in insignificant areas where they can have a small but positive impact, such as payment terms or the price and quality of inconsequential services or products being delivered to the office.
2. Defusing master suppression techniques
A common trait among managers that have secured positions despite lacking in meaningful professional skills is the proficiency of master suppression techniques. Used to sideline colleagues, they can often be carried out with such finesse that you don’t realise that it is being done. For instance, a manager may appear helpful by putting his hand on your shoulder by explaining very basic steps of a procedure or congratulating you on an insignificant task you completed. This is not out of kindness but to limit your perceived standing in the organisation. Main techniques include ridicule, withholding information, belittling and shaming. These tactics can be difficult to confront or defend against and risks triggering a power struggle. Yet, being aware of them is a first step to diminish their effect. Ways to defuse them include intellectualising behaviours to and breaking down what is being communicated to make their tactics and motivations embarrassingly plain to see.
3. Stroke their egos
Bad managers tend to have a warped sense of self and don’t see the world in the same way that the rest of us do. This can also be an advantage if you know how to stroke their egos by agreeing and encouraging them, at least the parts of their views that are the least consequential to operations. The ability to hold up anything as proof that their insight and leadership is valuable can do wonders in giving you enough of a free rein to work around them and actually get work done.
4. Identify underlying motivations
Managers who have awareness of their limitations understand that there is no risk premium for supporting one view or action over another when their information and interpretation of it is likely no better than anyone else’s. Instead, they encourage others to stake their names and reputations to risky decisions. Recognise how this game is played so to not accept accountability without having proper incentive to do so.
5. Deal with unreasonable targets and KPIs
The most common tactic used by superfluous managers to hide their lack of meaningful input is using targets and KPIs that are outlined in misleadingly complex reports that include graphs and numbers taken out of thin air. The motive is to appear to be having control and to preemptively create a convenient alibi for coming failures. They will show how the plans and procedures were in place but individuals in the organisation failed to ‘live up’ to targets they agreed to. Skewed power balances make it difficult to avoid the short end of the stick in this. What is important to remember is that in organisations rife with bad managers, job performance is at best secondary compared to how well connected a person is with the superiors determining position and compensation.
6. Favour the side of favouritism
The most common trait among managers that have widely overshot where their potential would otherwise have taken them is having had the good fortune of being early to enter a fast growing company. Careers are often built on creating and defending a fiefdom by not allowing anyone to outshine or expose you by getting too close. A common example how meritocracies get sidestepped is how a start-up company’s first IT guy finds himself at the top of a multinational corporation despite not knowing anything about computers outside of gaming. It is unlikely that you will be able to glean much as to the bonds and loyalties that protect such individuals in an organisation. Any battle where your opponent has the advantage of personal favoritism is unlikely to be victorious! The best course of action is building alliances by presenting yourself as valuable to them.
7. Respect the ‘real’ qualifications of incompetent managers
We often come across managers that clearly offer no value to the performance of an organisation. However, to be where they are, they are serving or have served some form of value to the person or people that have placed them in their positions. It may be as a favour to someone else entirely, for the purpose of steering uncomfortable questions away from superiors or simply as a scapegoat in waiting. Getting along with such managers is a little bit like patting a wild animal at the zoo, you don’t want to make any sudden sounds or moves that can make them think you are a threat to them.
8. Know when to see through ‘Peter’s principle’
In contrast to the popular theory that suggests that managers get promoted to their position of incompetence, reality is that many get promoted despite their incompetence with their primary qualification being to not ask difficult questions or make demands. They know they have reached the limits of their potential, don’t expect promotion or have better job prospects elsewhere. They may appear to have overcome personal odds such as lacking formal credentials or even having a criminal record. However, these handicaps can be assets when they function as a safety valve for those higher up that may have reason to feel threatened and want to have the upper hand on them to feel safe. Understanding this power dynamic to interpret situations and anticipate (non) actions of people is helpful for not behaving ‘inappropriately’ and involuntarily offending someone by pointing out obvious failures in an organisation.
9. Agree and encourage their bad ideas
There is rarely any benefit associated with disagreeing with bad managers compared with the many advantages to be had from backing up their delusions. This is usually in the form of agreeing with completely unrealistic deadlines and sales targets. While it is obvious that they won’t be met, the counter-intuitive reality is that it is the person that disagrees that gets the blame and those that play along that get promoted.
10. Don’t let bad managers change you!
The last and final advice is bad managers have a way of creating some of the most life force extracting environments and it is easy to begin seeing them as normal. Be aware of the following symptoms that can slowly creep up on you and ruin your life:
• Normal tone of communication is in a contrived voice that expresses authority, sucking up, feigned interest, or false enthusiasm
• Excessive focus on actively avoiding blame
• Job titles and perks showing position in hierarchy take on disproportionate importance
• Colleagues all think and act as if they are smarter than everyone yet refrains from offering any meaningful input and surrender to the status quo.