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Invisible epidemic

Are organizations suffering because they are undermanaged?

By Bruce Tulgan . 01 September 2007

Are organizations suffering because they are undermanaged? Bruce Tulgan says they are and believes each manager needs to learn once more that it's ok to be a boss as long as the job's done right
Invisible epidemicThe organizational world is plagued by an epidemic. It’s called “management”. Let me be more precise. Since 1993, I have interacted with thousands of managers at all levels in a wide range of industries through workplace interviews, focus groups, polls, questionnaires, and intensive seminars. From all those encounters, I have reached a most unsettling conclusion: there is a shocking and profound lack of daily guidance, direction, feedback and support for employees from those who are their immediate supervisors. Too many leaders, managers and supervisors simply do not spend enough time attending to the basics of managing the people assigned to them. This is what I call undermanagement, the opposite of micromanagement.

Undermanagement is costing organizations a fortune every day. It robs employees of the chance to have positive experiences in the workplace, reach greater success and earn more of what they need and want. And no one is the better for it. It causes managers to struggle, suffer and deliver suboptimal results. It sours dealings with vendors and customers. And it costs society in countless other ways as each nation’s workforce, frustrated and stretched, delivers far less productivity than it could.

I realize that undermanagement is not a common organizational word like micromanagement, but it should be because its impact is staggering. Undermanagement is an invisible epidemic, since most people assume that managers are, first and foremost, spending most of their time managing people. But they’re not. Why is that?


Hard – and getting harder


It has always been hard to manage people. Nowadays, it’s a whole lot harder to manage people. The workplace is becoming more high-pressure and the workforce is becoming more and more high- maintenance. Most workers look to their immediate supervisors to meet their basic organizational needs and expectations; thus, they freely make demands of their managers. Meanwhile, most managers, like everybody else, have a growing list of assigned tasks and responsibilities, along with expanded administrative duties.

Say what you will about a growing population of knowledge workers who self-manage their way to higher and higher productivity, but that’s not the composition of most companies I visit. Managers I know have to deal with the “hard” realities of managing people today:


  • You cannot always hire superstars. You have to hire the best person available, and often that person is in the middle of the talent spectrum, not at the top. Thus, not every new hire can or will be a winner. Dealing with predictable failure is, thus, a big part of managing.
  • When you can hire superstars, watch out. They are often more demanding and thus harder to manage than the mediocre people. And they’re often the people who are most ready to bolt at the next job opportunity.
  • By and large, a work team does not have the power to do things their own way in the workplace, and they are not free to ignore tasks they don’t like. Too often, teams work the way they “think” their supervisors want things done. When team members can’t agree on this, they argue instead of work.
  • Even if a manager sets expectations clearly, sometimes employees don’t (or can’t) achieve those expectations. Perhaps they lack the skills. Perhaps they lack fundamental guidance on how to start the job. Perhaps they are just not motivated. No matter why the work is not done (or is done poorly), it’s important for managers to hold people accountable for any shortcomings.
  • Workers can’t always pick the areas they enjoy most (and for which they have the most talent) because there is usually too much work to be done, and people have to be assigned where the work need is greatest. This means that workers are often mismatched for the job they have been assigned, which is all the more tragic if one thinks that such work could have been completed with proper supervision to begin with.
  • When workers do excel, managers are expected to offer praise – immediately and routinely. Yet, those who earn praise usually want tangible rewards, not just praise. Managers often do not understand this, and this gap can create unintentional friction and ill will.


Moreover, compounding the challenges listed above is an even greater conundrum: call it the “promotion problem”.

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