Weak performance management is a key element of under-management. (Photo: Getty)
By Victor Lipman
I recently did an article for Harvard Business Review titled “Under-Management Is the Flip Side of Micromanagement — and It’s a Problem Too.”
Under-management is a subject that has long interested me. As the HBR title suggests, it basically involves managers doing too little managing. I saw quite a bit of this during my decades in management, including some tendencies in myself (which I had to counter). The way I defined it in the recent article included “weak performance management, a tendency to avoid conflicts with employees, and generally lackluster accountability.” Additionally, some of its practitioners were well-liked and knowledgeable about their business, just unfortunately rather conflict-avoidant. As one of our HR VP’s once exclaimed to me in frustration, “The trouble with our managers is that too often they just don’t manage!”
I finally conceptualized this whole constellation in my own mind as “under-management,” and it kind of surprised me that it wasn’t a common, much-used management term, as I figured many people had encountered the issue. After all, management does require a certain rigor that isn’t for everyone, to be sure. So why didn’t more people use this term?
Failure to manage
There’s always risk (hubris?) in thinking that anything we’ve come up with is too original (certainly nothing I’ve come up with is), especially in a field like management that gets plenty of attention… and since Peter Drucker its bones have been pretty well picked over.
So just as I was congratulating myself on coining such an ingenious new management phrase, I got a nice note on LinkedIn from a management consultant named Bruce Tulgan, who was interested in my HBR piece since his firm had been studying under-management for about 15 years or so. He was defining it slightly differently than I was, focusing on failure to provide the “management basics” related to performance, support, measurement, etc. — but the spirit of our concerns was the same: Failure to adequately manage. This 2014 report provides a good overview of his thinking.
What do readers think?
So how big is this problem? The answer somewhat depends on how the issue is defined. One HR exec I spoke with on the topic estimated that some 10% to 25% of her managers were under-managing. Mr. Tulgan, who has quite a rigorous definition (“provides all of the management basics to all of their direct reports at least once a week”) estimates that 90% of managers are under-managing. It’s not easy to find data on this topic, and I feel it’s a rich one for additional research.
Just at an anecdotal level, I’m curious to know, as I mentioned in this article’s title: How much under-management does your company tolerate?
How widespread do readers feel the problem is? Different company cultures no doubt have differing tolerance levels. As do individual managers of managers.
At any rate, I believe it’s a fascinating and important subject. It costs companies plenty in terms of diminished results and productivity. That’s one fact I’m 100% sure of.
So if any readers want to weigh in on this topic, I’m always interested to hear your perspectives…