Here are seven of the most frequent causes of this epidemic of bad management:
1. Managers were promoted into management roles because they were good at something else. People often become managers because they were great at something else – communications or engineering or accounting or whatever else they were doing before the management role came along. Management is often just the next rung on the ladder, but the skills needed to succeed at management are very different from the ones that got them this far. As a result, you often see people who are brilliant and talented independent contributors flounder when it comes time to manage others.
2. They get little or no training in how to manage well. New managers are frequently thrown into the job with nearly no guidance in how to take on their crucial new role and are left to just figure it out as they go along. The luckier among them might get a one or two-day training class, which is hardly enough instruction in something so nuanced and which has such an impact on their teams and their employer's results.
3. Managing well is hard. Managing well requires understanding some pretty difficult responsibilities: how to set goals that are the right mix of realistic and ambitious, how to give feedback that's clear, specific and actionable, how to stay involved without being overly hands-on, how to hold people to high standards without being a tyrant, how to adjust your management style for different types of employees and much more. It's not easy, and it's no surprise that people without training or mentoring in managing well tend to struggle at it.
4. Managers' incompetence is more visible. One could argue that managers are no more likely to be incompetent than people in other roles are, but incompetence is more visible when it occurs in a manager. When an individual contributor is bad at her job, her co-workers might or might not be aware of it; often her struggles are only visible to her manager, who is in charge of assessing her work. But when a manager is flailing, it impacts the quality of life and success of a whole team of people. So you're a lot more likely to notice a terrible manager than a bad co-worker.
5. The people above bad managers often don't know how to judge good management, or spot bad management. The workplace is full of confusion about what good management looks like and how to measure it. Organizations with clarity on this know that it's about building a great team that gets results over the long-term, but it's common to find employers that just aren't sure how to tell if they have effective managers in place or not. And when they do figure it out…
6. Many companies are slow to fire managers. Companies that realize that they have a bad manager on staff are often slow to do anything about it. They're usually inclined to give a manager the benefit of the doubt, even if they're hearing employee complaints, and it's common to figure that having a less-than-perfect manager at the helm is better than going through the work of having a senior-level vacancy while finding a new manager, training the replacement and so forth.
7. Managers are often good at something other than managing, and the company focuses on those skills. A manager might be awful at managing a staff of employees but fantastic at strategy or raising money or even just schmoozing with higher-ups. If a company cares more about those other skills than the deficit in management skills, bad managers can end up staying in their roles and making their teams miserable.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.