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Holding the Harvard Business Review accountable

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“Oh, you hate your job? There’s a support group for that. It’s called Everybody, and they meet at the bar.”

It’s a Drew Carey line. Think he was exaggerating? He was. By 35 percent. That, according to the “Bad Boss Study” led by Michelle McQuaid, is the fraction of U.S. employees who are happy at their job. The remainder would, if given the choice, prefer a better boss to a raise.

How reliable are the numbers? Beats me. While the results of this study have been widely reported, the study itself is well hidden. I know nothing about the methodology, whether survey questions were without bias, the sample and error bar sizes, whether the study was subjected to peer review, or, for that matter, anything else that would affirm its validity.

It is, that is, pretty much par for the course for this sort of thing. Caveat emptor.

But even if we imagine the study was poorly done, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the leadership provided by U.S. managers is pretty bad.

Why is that? And what, as a leader yourself, can you do about it in your organization?

Here’s one place to start: Stop reading the Harvard Business Review. This will save you time and money, and will have the same effect with respect to bad ideas that frequent hand-washing has on infectious diseases: It will help you avoid exposure.

There is, for example, “One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability,” (Darren Overfield and Rob Kaiser, 11/8/2012, and thanks to Mike Bowler for bringing it to my attention). According to the authors, “… far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.”

How do we know? Their “database of 5,400 upper-level managers from the US, Europe, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific gathered since 2010” tells us so. But speaking of missing methodologies, theirs is conspicuously absent.

Want evidence of the authors’ contempt for evidence? They ascribe much of the problem to “The youngest members of the workforce, especially in the U.S.,” who have a poor work ethic, an entitlement mentality, and “have grown up in a sheltered environment; they expect praise and recognition and can be indignant when it is not forthcoming.”

The evidence? “… blogs at US News, Daily Finance, Forbes.” That’s right. Several other bloggers say so too.

The authors don’t even bother to explain why they think holding people accountable is a good idea. They simply assert it as a management axiom.

But it’s a practice whose drawbacks exceed its virtues. Holding people accountable – “holding their feet to the fire” in the authors’ terms – assumes the root cause rather than discovering it. It simply presumes that if something goes wrong, someone must be at fault, and that the manager knows who that person is.

But if there’s fault, it’s almost always the manager’s, because when something goes wrong the most likely causes are such barriers to success as bad processes, frequent interruptions, inept delegation, politics, a failure to provide proper training, or otherwise leaving systemic problems in place that exemplify Peter Drucker’s principle that “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

And if the root cause really is a bad employee, who made the hiring decision?

Now, imagine the manager dodges all of these pitfalls. Something goes wrong and it is one person’s fault – not malfeasance or sabotage, but an employee simply botching a responsibility. Does anyone seriously think that, given a choice between negative reinforcement and positive coaching, the negative reinforcement leads to a superior result?

The answer: Yes, some people do think so. They’re called “bad managers” because negative reinforcement turns teams into a giant game of Whack A Mole, where employees keep their heads down so they aren’t the ones to get whacked when something goes wrong. Let the manager know there’s a problem? That’s an invitation to be the scapemole.

So as holding people accountable leads to employees doing everything they can to keep their manager in the dark, it also leads to managerial ignorance. Perfection!

My recommendation: If you want to fight the scourge of bad management, start by helping the managers who report to you choose their sources of information wisely.

Like, for example, avoiding The Harvard Business Review.

The superior alternative is right in front of you.

Comments (9)

  • Bob:
    That’s why boss is a four letter word. I touched on this same subject in my blog of 10/23/2012: Wanted: Great Leaders (www.pmadvisors.co)

    After 33 years of corporate life, I left it all behind in January of this year…started my own company (Property Management Advisors, LLC) to coach and educate Property and Facility Managers. Most of the folks I interviewed over the past years were numbers people…they had little knowledge of how to put a roof on a building, pave a road, or construct in sidewalk. But, they could spit out spreadsheets showing you all the budget data and how they have ‘reduced’ or ‘held down’ costs (they could not do the work, so they ‘saved’ money).

    Bob Lutz, former executive at Ford Motor Company said it best in his book “Car Guys vs the Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business. You don’t have to read the book; just read page four of the Preface. I won’t bore you with a few important sentences that Lutz writes, but it goes hand-in-hand with the observations about which we have written.

    I veered slightly off the path of your article, but the theme remains the same: although we have highly educated people in their chosen field, leadership training and people management is hit or miss. Companies need to train and coach their managers on a continuing basis. Not just a yearly trip to the local Dale Carnegie Training Center…

    All the best…keep up the great work…Jim

  • Hi Bob,

    I do read the Harvard Business Review, and I’m not prepared to discount the worth of its entire catalog on the basis of one dodgy article.

    Based on my admittedly personal perspective, I place the proportion of BS on the HBR at around 20-30%. This fits into my broader goal of constantly testing my assumptions and worldview through exposure to ideas I don’t agree with.

    Always assuming *you* are always right is just as dangerous as taking everything written on a page to be gospel …

  • Bob:

    Great piece. Even better than your usual good work.


  • Bob:

    I think there’s a flip side to the question of accountability. As a recent retiree, the one person I will miss most is my last boss, and here’s why. He would alway consult me before assigning me a piece of work — sometimes he would understandably forget the five other things I was already working on. He was also really good at tagging me for work that I found interesting and challenging. I always had the option to say “not now” or even occasionally “no”. However, once I took on an assignment, he rightly assumed that I was making a commitment and expected me to deliver on that commitment. In other words, I was accepting accountability. When I did deliver, he recognized my accomplishment with a “thank you” and, when he could, financial recognition. Those in his organization who didn’t get how he operated and said “yes” to every request and then couldn’t deliver did not fare so well.

    Over the years, I experienced bosses who applied the principle of accountability inappropriately and unfairly. For example, the boss who overloaded me with way too much work and brooked no objections – “just make it happen”. Or the boss who shifted blame from herself to a subordinate for work that didn’t get done or was not done well.

    So I think there’s some nuance around the concept of accountability that has to be considered. That said, I fully accept your argument about faulty studies that postulate theories based on little or no substance.



    • Susan … As you might be aware, I draw a strong distinction between taking responsibility (what you described) and holding people accountable (what the HBR authors recommended). The former comes from inside, the latter is imposed, which to me is an enormous difference.

      As a business leader, I think it’s entirely appropriate to establish an expectation that employees will take responsibility, and that those who don’t are simply in the wrong role and will be replaced with other people who are better fits for what the organization needs.

  • Ha! Dilbert (05-08-08)

    Dilbert (giving a presentation): “I did not have any accurate numbers, so I made up this one. Studies have shown that accurate numbers are not any more useful than the ones you make up.”

    Audience Member: “How many studies showed that?”

    Dilbert: “Eighty-seven”

  • Hey Bob,
    I have never read “The Harvard Business Review” and I faithfully read each issue of “Keep The Joint Running”. I do agree that what I read in KTJR is of priceless value…

    Seriously, another great article from a truly great thinker. Keep up the good work; you have many that are learning from you.

  • What we have around my place is a situation where one boss makes a mistake and hires a bad employee – or hires a good employee that is then put in a different posisiton and doesn’t work out. The rest of the management team doesn’t hold the original boss accountable, or the employee – but merely shuffles the bad employee from place to place dragging down the morale of the rest of the organization that is (or was) doing fine work.

    A smart (but devious) employee can get in a full career working at levels far below what they are paid for and doing almost nothing. A few of those in the wrong place at the wrong time and the entire organization looks inept from the point of view of an outsider. All too many outsiders have seen these worst cases – usually highly visible because they have so little to do – and called the entire organization a failure.

    My original fix was the hope that a 360 degree evaluation would find both the poor boss and the result of their poor decision sooner than later, but I’m now not sure that fixes the root of the problem. My latest thought is that you make managers an “up or out” track so that managers that hit their level of incompetence are put out to pasture and those that don’t want to be managers aren’t pushed to be managers. Hire managers to be managers on a manager track, don’t hire random people and expect them to be both outstanding employees and outstanding managers.

    One study found that outstanding engineers were the least likely people to make good managers on a percentage basis. I suspect that is true of some other occupations as well, but it was an older study looking at a particular problem in a particular place.

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