How to Solve the Problem of Rotten Managers - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How to Solve the Problem of Rotten Managers

How to Solve the Problem of Rotten Managers

By Sanjena Sathian

Bad Managers
SourceMartin Barraud/Getty


Because the Pointy-Haired Boss should be obsolete. 

By Sanjena Sathian

Tired of the 9-to-5? Had enough of your stuffy cubicle? Microsoft Office got you down? Then check out Our Dream Workplace, a series of immodest solutions to workplace problems, from the ever-productive minds at OZY.

Once upon a time, long before he became the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin, one Michael Scott was an excellent paper salesman. He was not an excellent boss. 

If you don’t remember The Office, what we’re getting at is: Plenty of bad bosses were good at their pre-management job. But they took a promotion and jumped a pay grade, as a reward for doing job No. 1 well. And no one thought to test them on job No. 2. This is the essential problem of the career path that operates on a substance-toward-management model. It’s everywhere you can think of: coder to product manager to CTO; reporter to editor to editor-in-chief; teacher to principal to superintendent. The old adage, those who can’t do, teach? This problem is more like, those who can do might not be able to teach.

People in the biz refer to the catch-22 as the Peter Principle, named for the deliciously subtitled 1969 best-seller, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. Its author, Laurence J. Peter, didn’t mince words. He argued that in an organization, everyone rises to his level of incompetence, which, in turn, has a host of perverse consequences: Standards get mutilated. Competent employees don’t get promoted. And the bad manager doesn’t have it so easy, either: Promotion has “a blessing and a curse element,” warns Derek Sidebottom, ‎owner and principal consultant at Farside HR Solutions and husband of OZY’s own Jenn Farris. You get thrown in to management, and then what: “Just go to Harvard Business Review and learn about it?”

Since it’s currently lose-lose, why not institute a Management Aptitude Test? It might look like a certification, à la passing the bar or taking medical boards, or individual offices might customize it to fit their needs. You might train on the job, shadowing like an assistant teacher or a waiter-in-waiting. Most professions worth their salt require certification, reasons NYU Stern Business School professor of management Anat Lechner. Yet people in management, who “control, very often, many resources — and can influence pretty much everybody in society, directly and indirectly — don’t.” She adds, as we all know too well, that “one bad manager can ruin the lives of pretty much everybody underneath them.”

There’s a reason this hasn’t changed in years. Management and the skills that accompany it have typically been seen as soft. (In the workplace, anyway; in contexts like athletics, those who manage are venerated.) Though employers have taken to testing their employees via everything from Myers-Briggs to the Big Five, many of these tests have “little empirical validity,” says Cade Massey, professor of operations and information management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. And none of them address the hard (in both senses) skills of running a team, which entail everything from analytically gathering data on individual team members’ performance to carrot-versus-stick wielding. 

There are obvious questions here. Who would determine what’s on the test? There’s no “single body of knowledge” related to management, says Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at Wharton. And Maureen Taylor, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based SNP Communications — where she coaches executives, founders and emerging young talent on navigating the workplace — says you can’t teach leadership. “There’s a difference between managers and leaders,” she cautions.

But for those who aren’t the latter in their bones, we figure an inch more training would … dare we say it … change the world? Yuck. But. It’s true that those holding the levers of power in corporate America captain their own sort of trickle-down economics. Imagine if Sheryl Sandberg did more than institute pregnancy parking at Google. Imagine if she went all the way down the food chain, to the thousands of service workers feeding Big Tech. Imagine how much fixing the work that touches people’s daily lives, inevitably, might do. 

Let us know your management tips and experiences, good and bad, in the comments.

Are YOU a good manager? Derek Sidebottom tells us what should be on the test. 

  • General Knowledge: Do you know yourself?
  • The LSAT All Over Again: Can you handle this legal fireball? Better ace these case studies.
  • The King’s Speech: How do you work the big room? The small room?
  • Shrinks & Coaching: Eep! You just became responsible for someone else. How you gonna teach them all you know?
  • Follow the Money: You should probably be able to handle, well, basic finances. Not exactly a CPA test but think a shrunken version of that.
  • Stand-Up: You’d better be funny. 

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