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Bruce Tulgan says we’re suffering from an undermanagement epidemic.

“It may seem like management is ever-present. But what is missing in most workplaces is the human element of management: Managers providing direct reports with the guidance, direction, support and coaching that they need to succeed,” he writes in a recent report by his consultancy, Rainmaker Thinking.

Mr. Tulgan has been talking about this for years – or as he puts it, tracking the undermanagement epidemic since 2004. You can deride that as a consultant with a gimmick to sell. Or you could argue he has found a weakness in our current light-touch management approach – accentuated in recent years by the crazy-busy of work – that needs to be addressed. I’ll leave it to you to judge.

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The trends leading to this epidemic start with the fact the intensity, complexity, and pace of work is increasing at a time when delayering has left managers responsible for larger and larger teams. As well, more work is being handled in interdependent working relationships and cross-functional teams so managers are responsible for overseeing more moving parts than ever before.

He finds managers struggling in seven areas – you might want to use this list to check how you and your supervisors are faring:

  • Delegating new tasks, responsibilities, and projects to team members.
  • On-boarding and up-to-speed training for new team members.
  • Providing employees with troubleshooting help and feedback that is both timely and effective.
  • Helping employees meet and exceed goals and deadlines.
  • Recognizing and rewarding above-and-beyond performance.
  • Helping employees meet work-life balance needs.
  • Implementing effective performance improvement plans, particularly with low performers, and terminating those low performers resistant to improvement.

He finds most supervisors are actually spending a lot of time managing but are not getting the results they need because their communication is weak. They don’t focus on individual performance in meetings, even though that’s the key to accountability and improving operations. When they touch base with subordinates it’s often a friendly conversation about non-work subjects rather than a focus on performance. They monitor e-mail, but things slip through the cracks. And they create problems for themselves by saying “let me know if you need me,” which invites constant interruptions.

Undermanagement leads directly to firefighting, the most time-consuming activity of all, forcing managers to solve problems that need not have occurred if they had been more proactive. “Managers who are convinced they don’t have time to manage almost always spend lots of time managing people anyway. That’s because whenever a manager avoids spending time up front making sure things go right, then things almost always go wrong. Small problems pile up and grow until they become so big that they cannot be ignored. By that point, the manager has no choice but to chase down the problems and solve them,” he writes in his white paper.

His solution is to regularly schedule “high-substance, high-structure” one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports, so you can stay on top of what’s happening and help your employees plan and prioritize. That requires some attention to the high structure part of the equation so you ensure time and opportunity for the substantive part.

In his 2015 book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face, the structure called on leaders to set aside an hour a day for one-on-ones, concentrating on three or four subordinates. In an ideal world, he said you would talk to every direct report every day, but that’s probably impossible so you will have to triage. Your initial instinct will be that you can’t find the time for those extra meetings but he says that’s because you are wasting time firefighting; these meetings will save you time as there will be fewer fires to beat back. “If you are not able to maintain an ongoing one-on-one dialogue with an employee, you are not managing that person,” he insists.

Prepare in advance and make sure subordinates do as well. Follow a regular format for each session, customized to that individual. Always start with top priorities, questions either of you have, and any work in progress. Consider holding the conversations standing up (perhaps holding a clipboard for note-taking) to keep the meetings quick and focused. If you manage people who work different shifts, stay late or come in early. Deal with remote employees as rigorously as in-office staff. Remember not to dominate by doing all the talking.

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Whether there’s an undermanagement epidemic or not, he highlights the importance of accountability and communication. At the same time, this has to be handled without becoming micromanagement. Some highly competent people might see this approach as diminishing their freedom and prefer an undermanaging boss.


  • Fifty per cent of new hires fail, says recruiting specialist John Sullivan, based on seven studies covering six job levels.
  • Great leaders are not necessarily born, says career coach Joel Garfinkle. Often there is a lot of self-defeating behaviour they must overcome to succeed.
  • It may be time to let your employees work from anywhere – not just from home, which is increasingly common, but anywhere they choose in this country or even the world as long as there’s a reliable internet connection. That suggestion comes from three academics – Prithwiraj Choudhury, Barbara Larson and Cirrus Foroughi – whose study of patent examiners at the U.S. Patent & Trade Office found output increased by 4.4 per cent after transition to such working rules, with no significant increase in rework or deterioration in patent quality.

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