The Undermanagement Epidemic

Since 1993, my firm, RainmakerThinking, has been conducting in-depth workplace research in organizations of all shapes and sizes. One of the critical issues we’ve been tracking for decades now is what we call “the undermanagement epidemic.”

In short, too many leaders, managers, and supervisors are failing to lead, manage and supervise. They do not engage with their direct-reports in regular structured dialogue to provide guidance, direction, support and feedback. They fail to spell out expectations every step of the way, track performance constantly, correct failure and reward success. They are afraid to, or they don’t want to, or they just don’t know how to. This is what I call “undermanagement”-the opposite of micromanagement.

Undermanagement is costing organizations a fortune every day. It robs so many employees of the chance to have positive experiences in the workplace, reach greater success, and earn more of what they need and want. It causes managers to struggle and suffer and deliver suboptimal results. It sours dealings with vendors and customers. And it costs society in so many ways.

Undermanagement is not a household word like micro-management, but it should be because its impact makes micro-management look like a molehill. In the real world, most managers touch base with employees, monitor email, go to meetings, and troubleshoot, but otherwise, most managers don’t really engage with their employees except when things are going wrong. These are the managers who say, “I’m not going to tell my people how to do their jobs. They know, if something goes wrong, then they will hear from me.” Most managers simply don’t really “manage” unless they absolutely must.

Why is that?

No Room for Error

It’s always been hard to manage people. Managers have always been stuck in the middle between the employer and the employee, trying to negotiate their competing needs and expectations. Most managers, like most human beings, have probably always gone out of their way to avoid those conflicts.

One of the legacies of the old-fashioned workplace (that of the post-war myth about dues paying and ladder climbing for job security) is hands-off leadership based on sink-or-swim followership. In the old long-term hierarchical model (the pyramid organization chart), followers took for granted their managers’ authority and the authority of the employer. As a result, followers were more likely to figure out what to do and do it, making lots of mistakes along the way, no doubt. But there was more room back then for waste and inefficiency. Not anymore.

Nowadays, it’s a whole lot harder to manage people. Today, the world is highly interconnected, fiercely competitive, knowledge driven, and global. Markets are chaotic, resource needs are unpredictable, and employers are geared for constant change. As a result, employers must be lean and flexible in order to survive, and individuals must be increasingly aggressive in order to take care of themselves and their families.

Employees are less likely to trust the “system” or the organization to take care of them over time and thus less likely to make immediate sacrifices in exchange for promises of long-term rewards. They are more likely to disagree openly with employers’ missions, policies, and decisions and challenge employment conditions and established reward systems. As a result of all of these changes, most employees are much less obedient to employers’ rules and supervisors’ instructions.

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Organization charts are flatter; layers of management have been removed. Reporting relationships are more temporary; more employees are being managed by short-term project leaders, instead of “organization-chart” managers. Employees don’t trust long-term rewards so they look to their immediate supervisors to meet their basic needs and expectations and freely make demands of their managers. Managers who cannot meet these needs have less and less authority in the eyes of employees.

Meanwhile, most managers, like everybody else, have more tasks and responsibilities of their own, along with more administrative duties. Even so, managerial spans of control-the number of employees officially reporting to each supervisor- have increased. More managers are managing employees working in locations remote from the manager. Plus, the breadth and complexity of the work being done by the employees reporting to each manager has also expanded in most cases.

Taken together, the changes in the workplace have brought about a fundamental shift in norms and values that go to the core of the employer-employee relationship. Here’s the problem: Most managers still avoid conflict. Most still lack any special aptitude for leadership and receive little training in the basic tactics of effective supervision. And the legacy of leadership in most organizations great and small is still hands-off: “Here’s the mission. Figure it out. Wait for us to notice you. We’ll let you know if you do something wrong and the system will reward you the same as everyone else.”

False Empowerment

Meanwhile, for too long now, the pendulum of management thinking, books, and training has swung so far in exactly the wrong direction, toward hands-off management. Most in what I call the “false empowerment” genre, insist that employees do their best work when they are free to manage themselves. The best way to get employees “engaged” at work, these false nice guys argue, is to put employees on assignments they enjoy and give them lots of praise. In the “false empowerment” approach, managers should not keep close track of employees and they definitely should not zero in on employee failures.

Employees should be made to feel they “own” their work and should be set free to make their own decisions. Managers are merely facilitators, there to align the natural talents and desires of employees with fitting roles in the workplace. Managers should not tell people how to do their jobs, but rather let employees come up with their own methods. The idea is, make employees feel good inside and results will take care of themselves.

This false empowerment approach dovetails with broader social/cultural/workplace trends away from hierarchy. We “question authority” at work, in the family, and everywhere else. The wishful thinking that “nobody needs to be in charge” is underwritten by this larger discourse.

The only problem is, who is going to do all the work no one enjoys? Let’s face it. Somebody is in charge and employees will “be held accountable.” Employees do not have the “power” to do things their own way in the workplace. They are not free to ignore tasks they don’t like. They are not free to do as they please. Rather, employees are free to only make their own decisions within defined guidelines and parameters that are determined by others according to the strict logic of the enterprise at hand. Responsibility without sufficient direction and support is not empowerment. It is downright negligent.

The fact that false empowerment just doesn’t work is evidenced by the fact that nearly every organization I know of has tried one strategy after another either to force managers to lead with a stronger hand or to somehow end-run the management part of leadership: It’s no accident that the three leading trends in management are the newest version of management by objective (metrics for everything), forced ranking of employees, and pay for performance. The irony is that each of these strategies is intended to make up for the fact that managers don’t take a stronger hand. Yet each of these strategies depends for its success on managers taking a stronger hand, and they fail miserably when managers are weak. That’s why these strategies have such mixed reputations. Yet another popular tactic to try to end-run management is to hire your way out of managing. The problem is that you cannot hire an unlimited number of superstars. Besides, even superstars need to be managed.

Here’s the punchline: there is no end run around the management part of leadership. I’ve spent so much time behind the scenes in so many organizations that I can tell you this: most problems could be avoided altogether or solved quickly by a highly engaged hands-on manager, by a boss who accepts her authority and the responsibility that goes along with it. This is the boss who says, “Great news, I’m the boss! And I’m going to try really hard to be a great one!” Those in leadership positions simply must take charge of their people: engage in regular structured dialogue, make expectations clear, track performance, correct failure, and reward success — every step of the way. These are just the basics of managing people. Anything less is undermanagement.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016); Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015); The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014); and It’s Okay to be the Boss ( Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website:

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