Workplace Wisdom

How to Avoid the Damage a “Working Manager” Can Do to Your Team

Does your company rely on “working managers” who simultaneously do the job they supervise? Many companies do, without being aware of the downsides.

Working managers are most often found in small companies, where even those in leadership have to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to get the work done, whether it’s packing and shipping merchandise that must go out immediately, answering phone calls whenever it gets busy, or designing web pages —while being responsible for the work of others.

But larger companies rely on these types of managers too, and often the leadership prides itself on having them. Leaders may believe that it’s not cost-effective to designate someone as management only or that there aren’t enough people to supervise full time. In some work cultures, pure management is too fancy — there’s a norm that no one is too good or too special to share the work. Other companies may just be trying someone out as a manager, and the worker/manager role creates the appearance that it’s easier to move someone back to the line if they didn’t work out as management.

Spread Too Thin

But whether your managers are also performing as graphic designers, sales reps, or engineers, you could be asking for trouble if you hold them responsible for delivering on a quota of work output, yet simultaneously expect them to lead a team, and also coordinate and interact with other managers in the normal course of business.

When working managers take the managerial role as their highest priority, they may be slow to respond to customers, miss deadlines, or raise the error rate or per-unit cost of implementation because their focus is elsewhere. But many worker/managers feel forced to fit caring for their team around deadlines or performance requirements. And if they’re compensated for successful implementation rather than for developing and supporting their team, it hurts them in the wallet whenever they put the team ahead of their own output.

Missing in Action

Subordinates frequently feel neglected and unsupported by working managers, who may be too overwhelmed with their own accounts or projects to help team members, or simply aren’t interested. Also, these managers may be less open to new ideas about how to do the job because they’re constantly reinforcing in their own minds what works and doesn’t work in the way they do it now.

Even more troubling, many employees don’t trust their working managers. They don’t perceive them as having the necessary credibility or status to help them out and back them up. To employees, these managers may be highly experienced and knowledgeable workers, but they’re not really in charge. From the employee perspective, sometimes these managers are helpful, sometimes they’re not, but in any case, they’re not reliable either as authorities or as advocates.

The Impact on the Business

Lots of small things can go wrong and turn into bigger problems when worker/managers can’t get to them, or if they patch and bandage problems instead of doing the cross-functional collaboration or upward proposals necessary because they lack the time, perspective, or clout. This can cause a variety of real-world consequences for the business.

Because leadership considers these managers primarily as skilled workers and only secondarily as true leaders, they’re typically not given much training or development, and usually have less standing when they raise a problem, ask for resources, or propose new approaches. And because these managers are occupied by their daily tasks rather than their group’s direction, they often can’t muster the big-picture thinking necessary to help their teams.

Perhaps most risky, reliance on working managers may paper over what’s really an understaffing problem. The business may actually need additional line workers, but since the working manager fills the gap, true staffing levels aren’t addressed.

Considering Alternatives

If your organization relies on worker/managers, try a thought experiment: If you didn’t have the dual-function folks you have now, what kind of a manager would you have to hire from the outside? What skills and capabilities would you want in that new manager? Are there any recurring headaches that might be eased? What could change, and how might results improve, if you were to develop your working managers to have the full complement of skills you would expect from an outsider?

Also, review your staffing needs against both current demands and the growth you would like to have. If you were to address the future level of demand, how many people would you need to hire and train, and would that substantiate the need for a full-time manager?

Once you’ve assessed these factors, start thinking about whether you have candidates — either among today’s worker/managers or even among the rank-and-file — who could grow into full-time management roles in a year or two. Envision an organizational structure that permits the growth you want for the business, and then make plans for the progressive development and experience that your best candidates will need to get ready.

Onward and upward —

LK

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