Trifecta of Doom: How Expectations for/about Managers Stymie Learning

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When I was promoted to a management role, I realized that the skills that made me standout as a programmer were not the skills I needed in my new role. I started reading. I found a mentor. I applied for a graduate program in leadership.

But I was something of an exception. Many managers feel too busy to read. Many don’t have good role models within their companies. I meet many people in management roles who have never picked up a serious management book. Some managers I meet express relief that they no longer have to keep up with evolving technical trends–they can relax and stop learning.

I find this puzzling. But I see it all the time.  Why might that be?

My hypothesis in another snippet from my interview with Softhouse.se for Lean Magazine.

LM: Could you give examples of ways in which we can create a organisation where constantly managers get better at being lean/agile managers and where there is a “learning culture” even for managers?

E: In the US (and I suspect some other places) we face a trifecta of obstacles in creating a learning culture for managers.

FIrst, when someone is promoted to management it is a sign he’s “made it,” proved that he is “management material.” When you’ve made it, asking for help can signal that you weren’t “management material” after all. 

Second, in many organizations, it is more acceptable to be sure and dead wrong, than admit uncertainty and be approximately right. In such organizations it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help or show uncertainty.  That slows the learning curve for new managers.

Third, people have been taught that a manager’s job is to get other people to work hard.        Most people are motivated when they start a new job. But motivation drains away when people must work hard to overcome obstacles in the form of procedures, rules, and organizational hoops rather than value-adding work.  Managers need to focus on creating an environment where it’s easy to do the right thing and do valuable work. Then people will work hard on their own.

All these work against learning.  So we have some hard work to shift manager’s perception about their role.

I have seen organizations where managers hold their own retrospectives, to see how well their decisions and actions are working out. This is a critical feedback loop that’s missing in many organizations.

I know many managers who are learning to admit mistakes, and realizing that failing fast applies to management, too.

Finally, managers have to examine their own assumptions, and start figuring out “what they know that ain’t so”  (to paraphrase Will Rogers). This is difficult, no matter who you are, or where you sit in the organization. But it is a key to learning.


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