Trifecta of Doom: How Expectations for/about Managers Stymie Learning

When I was promoted to a management role, I realized that the skills that made me standout as a programmer were not the skills I needed in my new role. I started reading. I found a mentor. I applied for a graduate program in leadership.

But I was something of an exception. Many managers feel too busy to read. Many don’t have good role models within their companies. I meet many people in management roles who have never picked up a serious management book. Some managers I meet express relief that they no longer have to keep up with evolving technical trends–they can relax and stop learning.

I find this puzzling. But I see it all the time.  Why might that be?

My hypothesis in another snippet from my interview with for Lean Magazine.

LM: Could you give examples of ways in which we can create a organisation where constantly managers get better at being lean/agile managers and where there is a “learning culture” even for managers?

E: In the US (and I suspect some other places) we face a trifecta of obstacles in creating a learning culture for managers.

FIrst, when someone is promoted to management it is a sign he’s “made it,” proved that he is “management material.” When you’ve made it, asking for help can signal that you weren’t “management material” after all. 

Second, in many organizations, it is more acceptable to be sure and dead wrong, than admit uncertainty and be approximately right. In such organizations it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help or show uncertainty.  That slows the learning curve for new managers.

Third, people have been taught that a manager’s job is to get other people to work hard.        Most people are motivated when they start a new job. But motivation drains away when people must work hard to overcome obstacles in the form of procedures, rules, and organizational hoops rather than value-adding work.  Managers need to focus on creating an environment where it’s easy to do the right thing and do valuable work. Then people will work hard on their own.

All these work against learning.  So we have some hard work to shift manager’s perception about their role.

I have seen organizations where managers hold their own retrospectives, to see how well their decisions and actions are working out. This is a critical feedback loop that’s missing in many organizations.

I know many managers who are learning to admit mistakes, and realizing that failing fast applies to management, too.

Finally, managers have to examine their own assumptions, and start figuring out “what they know that ain’t so”  (to paraphrase Will Rogers). This is difficult, no matter who you are, or where you sit in the organization. But it is a key to learning.

3 Replies to “Trifecta of Doom: How Expectations for/about Managers Stymie Learning”

  1. Hi Esther,

    Thank you for pointing out contextual reasons for why many managers don’t keep up with knowledge in their field. Your post has helped me move on from pure annoyance to an understanding that some of the factors are indeed often external and systemic.

    At the same time I can’t stop thinking that this is only part of the problem. Isn’t the other part that people seem to end up in fields they don’t love or have a particular interest in? I would think that a person who is enthusiastic about their new management (or any other kind of) role, just like you, would read every book they can get their hands on and actively pursue learning.

    While I agree that an environment that allows for learning is incredibly important I also think that we need to make sure people take responsibility to only accept a role if they have an actual interest in the field and find ways to avoid promoting people into roles they don’t have an interest or love for. Perhaps we could ask people to read, find mentors and look into graduate programmes before we offer them a new role?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts …

    Sandy 🙂

    • Hi, Sandy –

      They way people are selected for management jobs is probably part of the problem. In many technical fields the requirement for promotion is technical excellence.

      In some companies people take management jobs because they’ve maxed out the technical career path, and the only way to make more money is to go the management route.

      Both practices make it less likely that the people who end up in management roles actually have the potential to be good managers.

      On top of that, the training people for people new to management roles is often stunningly bad.

      My own company-sponsored training, for example, focused on such things as how to fill out a staff requisition from in quadruplicate, and where to send the pink copy, the blue copy, etc. I suspect they taught that kind of stuff because it was the only thing they knew how to teach. But it communicated that management was about administration, and training was useless.

      As one person (can’t remember who) quipped, “most managers receive less task specific training than a fast food burger joint employee moving from the grill station to the frier station.” Sad.

      OTOH, I have met people who went into management because they wanted to “tell other people what to do.” Ugh.

      It seems to me, that a different model for helping people understand what a management role is all about–and then supporting them to learn the skills and make the transition would be a move in the right direction.

  2. I don’t disagree with any of the three listed, but I also believe that everyone has an innate desire to learn and they feed it somehow – many don’t do it by reading and have had bad experiences in schoolroom contexts so avoid those too in favour of experiential learning (i.e. on the job).

    Recently someone asked me what my job as a middle manager was. “I’m a politician,” I said. “Politics is the art of the possible and my job is to get what’s possible done, not what’s right or correct.”

    Too my horror I realised what I’ve learnt over the years is the dark arts of Machiavelli, of spin and coercion and horse trading – and I’m good at it. Not because I want to be, because I had to be to survive and to be effective.

    Now, as a consultant, I keep coming back to the fact that tinkering with middle management problems is like feeding the poor. It’s valuable, charitable work but it won’t change the world.

    How do you get an entire organisation to learn?

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