Climbing the corporate ladder to the corner office is a journey fraught with pitfalls. Getting there depends as much on the mistakes one avoids as the accomplishments one achieves.
What determines who will succeed in this quest and who will not? Are there certain common characteristics among managers who fail?Management consultants who have studied these issues have developed various theories on the reasons why managers fail. Frequently it's a question of personality - the inability to get along with others. Sometimes communication plays a role - failing to let subordinates know what's expected of them. In some cases it's simply a matter of failing to learn from one's mistakes.
Some failures can be attributed to bad luck - managers who lost their jobs due to corporate takeovers, for example. But the ultimately successful manager is one who is able to bounce back from such an experience. Those who fall short of their goals usually have themselves to blame, consultants say.
Following are some of the reasons most frequently cited by consultants as to why managers fail.
- Personality conflicts.
"When I started in this business, I thought people were discharged because they were incompetent," says James Challenger, president of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas Inc.
"Competence isn't the factor," he says. "People leave because they don't get along with somebody. There is nothing else."
Challenger's firm works with 1,500 to 2,000 discharged clients a week. "I have yet to see someone who can't do the same job in a different environment," he says. Bosses want people working for them who think like they do, who follow orders faithfully and don't question their judgment.
The inability to get along explains firings at every level, he says, all the way up to chief executive officers who must get along with their board of directors.
The exception occurs in mass layoffs, although even then, "It's the people someone likes who are kept," Challenger says.
- Lack of interpersonal skills.
Conflicts often arise because managers frequently are chosen more for their technical skills than their interpersonal abilities, several consultants say.
"If he hasn't captured the hearts of his people, that will affect their performance. Over time he's not going to meet his objectives," says Robert Lefton, president of Psychological Associates Inc., a St. Louis consulting firm.
The most frequent symptoms of a manager's lack of interpersonal skills include difficulty in giving candid, periodic performance reviews of subordinates, failure to establish clear-cut goals and objectives, and failure to inspire underlings or involve them in decision-making and planning, Lefton says.
"All the training we get, very little of it is on how to deal with people. Mostly it's technical," says Lefton, who has worked with more than 4,500 managers.
- Language-environmental problems.
Managers tend to seize upon labels and put workers into categories, rather than examine the workplace environment to determine what motivates an employee to act a certain way, says Quinn Spitzer, vice president of Kepner Tregoe, a Princeton, N.J., consulting firm.
"It's very difficult to focus on the nature of behavior; we tend to focus on personality. We use a couple of handy phrases, like lazy or incompetent. People love labels," Spitzer says.
Spitzer recalls that when he was deputy director of the Arizona prison system, inmates frequently would assault someone and be put in solitary confinement. Prison officials initially assumed the offenders were just bad people, until they began to recognize the inmates were merely trying to escape overcrowded cells, deplorable working conditions in the prison shop and fear of being assaulted themselves.
Similarly, managers in business frequently give subordinates cross-signals and create an environment in which it is impossible for them to function, says Paul Brown, a behavioral psychologist who has worked with Spitzer. A typical example is people who are brought in to try to improve quality; "Nine times out of ten they get slapped on the hand and told they're slowing up production," Brown says.
"Managers see people as the problem," he says. "A good manager says, `Have I created an environment in which good performance can flourish?"'
- Communications problems-inability to express disagreement.
Strange as it sounds, managers and their subordinates often agree to take actions that are bad for their organizations, even when they privately believe that the opposite course would be better.
Jerry Harvey, professor of management at George Washington University, describes this phenomenon in his book, "The Abilene Paradox, and Other Meditations on Management."
The title comes from an experience Harvey had several years ago, sitting on the porch of his in-laws' house in Coleman, Texas, on a 104-degree July afternoon, enjoying the comfort of a fan and a cold glass of lemonade.
Suddenly, Harvey's father-in-law suggested the group drive to Abilene for dinner, a distance of 53 miles in an un-airconditioned car. Harvey privately thought it was a terrible idea, but he, his wife and his mother-in-law each agreed to the plan.
Four hours later, returning to Coleman hot and exhausted after a mediocre meal, Harvey's mother-in-law admitted she would rather have stayed home but only went because everyone else wanted to. Then Harvey and his wife said they felt the same, and his father-in-law said he hadn't wanted to go either but only suggested it because he was afraid the others were getting bored.
Embarking later on a consulting career, Harvey encountered such examples as a company dumping vast amounts of money into a research project that nobody believed in. The manager of the project knew it was doomed but thought his boss was committed to it. The boss in turn thought the project was a dud but refused to pull the plug because the project manager seemed so committed.
The paradox "occurs because each of us is afraid of being rejected," Harvey said in an interview. "It's a failure to communicate accurately. We communicate exactly the opposite of what we feel. It has an enormous amount to do with why managers fail."
Harvey believes the Abilene Paradox was central to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Engineers for NASA, Morton Thiokol and other contractors agreed privately the rocket should not be fired in such cold weather. Yet before the launch each was afraid to be the one to call off the mission.
"Clearly it's got all the elements of a trip to Abilene," he says.
- Failure to break up problems into manageable units.
By focusing planning objectives on the big picture, such as "increase overall profitability 15 percent," management often fails to impart to workers specific smaller objectives which they can see accomplished and by which they can gauge their contribution to the bigger goal.
"You've got to start with very specific short-term things that people can measure and see the beginning and the end," says Robert Schaffer, a consultant and author of the book, "The Breakthrough Strategy."
Fear of failure causes managers to leave objectives intentionally fuzzy, overly broad or impossible to achieve, so they have an excuse when the goals are not met, Schaffer says. The vagueness contributes to worker apathy; the vast majority of employees at companies Schaffer has worked with are unable to respond when asked what they accomplished in the prior week.