Gender note: I have never met a female unwilling manager. After asking around, among my fellow partners and some clients, no one could give me a female example. That is why this article is written in the use of the masculine gender.
Airport bookstores, Linkedin articles and other business journals tell us every day about the seemingly glaring difference between the „leaders“ we should be and the „followers“ we should be directing towards their professional happiness. But for many employees, neither label is applicable. They know their job and know how to work independently, but they would never want to take over and lead others.
And yet, they are the ones that many companies appoint to management positions. They become an perfect “unwilling manager”. So, what to do?
You certainly know him! He was not very efficient in the management of his department, but this was not so obvious as he did everything himself, delegated very little and his unique unit was always successful. However, as soon as he was appointed head of the division, his hesitancy or even immobility in management became evident and his reluctance to commit, delegate or become more involved in more complex organisational and operational structures became a problem for the smooth running of the company.
Employees of unwilling managers complain that they
Employees are often confused by changes in their manager’s direction and sometimes feel paralysed and unsure of where to go next. Although unwilling managers can be very intelligent, their personality hinders their effectiveness and the ultimate success of their team.
„But what is HR doing?“, ask most peers.
The root of the problem lies not only in the work done by HR (competency matrix, ranking, etc.), nor in the work of the hierarchy (superficial annual interviews, little contact with subordinates, etc.), nor in the unwilling manager, who perhaps should not have accepted a job he was not qualified for. It is rather a combination of all these clues that creates the problem.
It would not be ethical to remove an unwilling manager from a position he should not have been given (unless he is the director of the company, in which case the separation should be done as soon as possible). If the selection and appointment processes of managers are not reliable, the work must be done to optimise them and under the responsibility of HR and management.
The unwilling manager must, however, be able to do an effective job and stay on track, so if you are unlucky enough to have such a manager, how do you help him and, more importantly, the division he leads to succeed? Keep in mind that what they need is support and encouragement, not criticism. Here are some tips for working with unwilling managers in individual situations:
Vision: Ask them how they see the future of their division. Make sure you listen actively and do not pass judgement. They probably have some idea of what success looks like. Once they have formulated a clear and focused vision, help them communicate this vision to people throughout the division and the organisation and publicly support their vision for the future.
Decision-making: Help them identify decisions they do not like to make. These are usually the day-to-day operational decisions. Team up with them and express your willingness to lead the implementation of difficult decisions. This will probably require you to partner with other team members.
Management: Because of his aversion to conflict, he needs to be reassured and helped to be realistic about the real consequences of difficult conversations. It is not that he is unaware of the need to have these conversations, he just doesn’t know how to deal with the difficult issues.
All of these would require the employee to take a risk and start acting more like a colleague of the manager than a subordinate. However, you may find that these managers appreciate your help and begin to rely on you to help lead and focus the organisation. By combining their intelligence and understanding of the business with your ability to execute, you could make a very good team.
Last but not least, if the profile of unwilling managers is growing in your company, we advise you to have a structured conversation with your HR about improving the selection and evaluation processes of the employees…. or call Copper Oak so we can discuss it together.