Management journals would not exist if managers were always perfect, so it’s no surprise that HBR has long been exploring the reasons behind manager incompetence and whose responsibility it is to compensate – the boss or the subordinate.
Nowhere was the problem stated more acutely, it could be argued, than in the wicked 1969 satire, The Peter Principle. Taking the form of a serious work of business research, complete with entirely fake examples, it purported to have discovered the root cause of manager incompetence: Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. At that point they stop being promoted. So given enough time and enough promotion levels, every position in a firm will be occupied by someone who can’t do the job. The book struck a chord with the general public, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year, and it’s still in print 45 years later.
HBR took it seriously enough to offer up two straight-faced contemporary responses, both of which were remarkably quick to accept the book’s premise.
The first, from 1973, “A Postscript to the Peter Principle,” suggested that certain groups of managers – notably women and minorities — were exempt from the insidious effect because they often weren’t promoted despite their competence and so didn’t get the chance to reach their level of incompetence. The second, from 1976, ”The Real Peter Principle: Promotion to Pain,” argued that what really happens is that managers are promoted, not to their level of immutable incompetence, but to their level of anxiety and depression, which overwhelms their ambition and desire to succeed.
These two pieces were squarely in line with HBR’s focus on improving the practice of management by focusing on the managers. It wasn’t until 1979 – a full decade later – that that HBR addressed the question of managerial incompetence from the subordinates’ point of view.
This seems surprising since of course every manager is a subordinate as well. And indeed in The Subordinate’s Predicaments, Case Western Reserve management professor Eric Neilsen and then-doctoral candidate Jan Gypen make that point explicitly. But, they observe, most managers address the bad boss problem by getting out of the subordinate role as quickly as possible and, by improving their own leadership skills, becoming a good boss. This, one might argue, is a sort of reverse Peter Principle, in which people learn to rise above their incompetencies (or at any rate other people’s) as they move up.
But the message here is still that incompetence is rife, and for Neilsen and Gypen subordinates inhabit a very dangerous world. The heart of their argument is this: In dealing with superiors, subordinates must navigate through a minefield of potential disasters by continually asking themselves six questions.
- Is my boss interested in my welfare or does he see me as a competitor who needs to be neutralized?
- Can I correctly work out what my boss wants or am I stuck second-guessing from what he’s actually saying?
- Will my boss reward — or punish — me if I make improvement suggestions?
- Am I capable of doing my job?
- Do I want to emulate this boss, or should I distance myself from his poor example?
- Should our relationship be friendly or strictly professional?
Guess wrong, and calamity may ensue, so subordinates spend a lot of energy in self-protection. The analysis resonates powerfully: Who’s never had to consider these questions in the course of their career? But what’s to be done? Recognizing the tensions is certainly the first step, but then Neilsen and Gypen do just what they say previous thinkers and managers always do – address their suggestions to the boss. Why? Because the boss is the one with the greater power to act.
It is in this context, the next year, that HBS professor John Gabarro and a young associate professor, John Kotter, come up with what will become a powerfully enduring response that for the first time recognized that subordinates could do something to help themselves. Managing Your Boss, published first in 1980, remained fresh and relevant when it was reprinted in 1988, 1995, and 2005, and is still well worth a read now.
They too recognize that ultimately it’s the boss who has the power to change things. But they don’t accept the premise that the subordinate-boss relationship is at its heart adversarial. They start with an assumption of good will and argue that subordinates have a responsibility to help the boss help them. That starts with taking into account the boss’s goals, strengths, weaknesses, and organizational pressures. And it means falling in with the boss’s preferred style of working – Does he or she like to get information through memos or formal meetings? Does your boss thrive on conflict or try to minimize it?
But critically, the wise subordinate recognizes that the boss can’t magically know what he or she needs. It’s up to the employee, then, to speak up if expectations aren’t clear, to keep the boss informed, to fulfill commitments dependably, and to ask for help when needed. “It is not uncommon,” Gabarro and Kotter say wryly, “for a boss to need more information than the subordinate would naturally supply, or for the subordinate to think the boss knows more than he really does.”
Subsequent discussions begin to recognize that problematic bosses aren’t so much utterly incompetent as so good at something that their failings are overlooked. The ultimate expression of this idea is Michael Maccoby’s Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons, and the upside of their insight is extensively explored in Making Yourself Indispensable, which offers up a step-by-step guide to making the most of your strengths, so that your weaknesses don’t matter.
These kinds of analyses go a long way toward explaining why poor bosses persist, and they also put the onus of dealing with them squarely on their subordinates, since it’s not entirely in the organization’s interests to weed them out. And so to balance out the narcissistic leader we have the Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero and Casualty, a clear-eyed look at those people common to so many organizations who repair the damage a bad boss does by voluntarily shouldering “the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger that are endemic to organizational life.”
What underlies these later discussions is the assumption that if most leaders are also subordinates, most subordinates are also leaders, with power of their own that they can bring to bear on their bosses. This view was anticipated back in 1988, when in In Praise of Followers, Robert Kelley found that the traits of good followers are nearly the same as the traits of good leaders. They “manage themselves well; are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves; build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact; and are courageous, honest, and credible.” Of course if everyone were like that, the Peter Principle would probably never have been written.