212 – How do you know if you work for (or if you are) a pretend manager?

Posted by Whistler                                                                                                          1200 words

pretend manager

Have you ever wondered if your manager is for real? Have you ever wondered what they do all day? Has their contribution to work been difficult to see? Maybe you have a pretend manager.

No, this is not a manager bashing exercise. As a long-term local government manager, I respect the effort put in by many of my colleagues. But there are some managers who are just not up to it. And they are not always managers.

Lancing Farrell discussed an interesting book in the last post. I also took a trip down memory lane and re-read parts of The Third Principle. Neville Lake is a practical, perceptive and prescient person. I just love alliteration. His chapter on optimising managers, highlighted by Lancing Farrell, reads as though he looked into the future to see the local government of today. In particular, the sections on eliminating pretend managers and pretend managing resonated with me.

To optimise managers, Lake says you need to eliminate pretend managing and pretend managers.

To start with, Lake says to look for the managers who think their job is to go through the motions of managing and just tick off boxes. He describes it as the belief that ‘if something – anything – has been introduced’ then they have done what they are supposed to do. How will you know this is happening to you? Some of the telltale signs are managers having meetings that they think they should have but nothing of value happens at them. Managers who forward on emails with information that they know you don’t need or won’t use. These managers will rest content that they have ‘done the job of managing’.

“Lots of seemingly useful activities that take time, create work for others and present the illusion that something is being done. This is pretend managing at work.”

Lake says that this lack of real achievement in spite of constant activity often becomes crystal clear when there is a change process and that these routinised management activities are ‘empty when scrutinised’.

He says that pretend managers also often speak in slogans. ‘We will put customers first’. ‘We will cut expenditure by 10%’. ‘We support work life balance’. They say these things without modelling the supporting behaviours or putting processes in place to enable them. The assertions are frequently made without researching whether or not they are feasible.

“It is not heroic for a CEO or divisional leader to make sweeping promises and commit to ever-improving levels of performance. It is pretend managing.”

Lake says that it remains pretend managing until such time as an analysis of what is possible is undertaken and until the steps required to achieve the objective are verified as achievable. He believes that when managers ask for a change in performance that is not substantiated by research, they should be held accountable because of the ‘level of people and process dysfunction that it produces’.

Lake provides three suggestions to eliminate pretend managing.

  1. Select an approach to management that suits the organisation and get to know it really well and stick to it.
  2. Focus on the real value of management activities. Be truthful about the real outcomes.
  3. Be realistic about what is demanded of others.

I found this advice to be heart warming. As someone who abhors pretension, I have low tolerance of my people pretending to manage. The lack of discipline when managers fail to adhere to agreed management approaches is wasteful and extraordinary. Lake says that pretend managers fear that if they are consistent they will ‘quickly go out of date’. They are attracted to fads. They are looking for quick fixes.

In local government, people watch what the organisation does. They notice changes in behaviour and differences between services. If local government, if you don’t stick to the basics and get them right, people think that you are wasting their money. When that happens, they struggle to see either private or public value outcomes. They don’t see what is in it for them or anyone else.

Focussing on value-adding management activities requires personal discipline. Lake suggests keeping a diary to monitor activities and eliminate those that don’t add value. I do this periodically and have found it to be extremely effective but I have not met another manager in 30 years who does the same thing. My diary records what I do, how long it takes, whether or not it was useful to me or others (my own rating out of 10), and an estimate of the cost of the activity.

This is really useful for meetings when the number of participants multiplied by the time and then by $50 (to keep the maths easy) soon adds up. A typical management meeting involving 8 people for an hour costs $400 and hardly ever scores above 5/10 for usefulness. It only takes 3 or 4 such meetings to consume the annual rates paid by one property owner. Some of these meetings are held monthly.

“All this takes a willingness to be different. More different than most politically attuned, ambitious managers can tolerate – sp it means having courage. It means not playing the management game by the old rules.”

Lake says making this change can free up about 2 hours per day.

Now that we have done with pretend managing, let’s eliminate the pretend managers. This is not a straightforward as it sounds. It is not about targeting individuals, as much as it is looking for layers of management that don’t provide value. It is about looking for people with manager in their title who are not (and cannot be) managers. Usually this is because they lack genuine freedom to act, have no real ability to direct the performance of others, and they don’t have the authority to take performance management or disciplinary processes to the final stage.

Lake describes these pretend managers as ‘organisational porridge’. They make the organisation slow and unresponsive.

“They get in the way of good decisions and they sap the energy and confidence of the true managers by trivialising big issues into lists of petty details and by only attending to slices of larger processes.”

Organisations would be better off without them.

Lakes description of ‘organisational porridge’ reflects that of Elliott Jacques who identified a ‘strata of work complexity’ that is useful for finding and eliminating pretend managers.

Jacques levels of work authority

In this model, Jacques describes the work complexity associated with different management roles. If there are more levels than those described by Jacques, they are ‘pseudo-levels’ and the pseudo-role incumbents will be ineffective because they will be bypassed by subordinates going directly to true managers.

In some cases, organisations will have removed one or more of Jacques’ seven layers of hierarchy, in which case, there could be pretend managers in ‘pseudo-levels’ and disconnection between essential levels in the hierarchy. Either way they are pretending and their impact on the organisation reduces its effectiveness.

Jacques, Elliott 1989. A General Theory of Bureaucracy.

Lake, Neville 1999. Third Principle – how to get 20% more your of your business.