The problem with your manager

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Managing managers

It may be the case that the problem with your manager is… you.

Let’s start with the thing that you don’t want to hear: your manager will always disappoint you. This isn’t necessarily because they are bad at their job or because they have a specific grudge against you. In fact, generally speaking, they may consistently do an excellent job of managing you and your peers from the perspective of the outputs that the organization produces.

Teenage Rebellion: Raging Against the Machine

However, as you become an increasingly senior leader, there are a number of traits that you will develop, and be expected to master, that will lead to friction upwards:

  • You will be expected to be self-sufficient. This means, in the long term, you will be the one who is responsible for your own development, and you will be expected to be able to self-coach and self-direct. Exactly what you spend your time on will be up to you, and you will be expected to prioritize your own work as well as that of your team.
  • You will be the expert. This is especially true if you run a large organization or a team of domain experts such as machine learning or security. You will be expected to be the expert in your field and know more than your manager does about it. This means that you will be expected to make decisions and trade-offs without their explicit input, and you will be expected to be able to coach them on the intricacies of your domain.
  • You will develop your own leadership style. This means harnessing your strengths and developing your weaknesses in order to be the best leader you can be, which is a unique function of your skills and personality. Perhaps you are a great coach or a great communicator or an avid, concise writer. Every senior manager has their own style, and it will likely be different from that of your own manager. That doesn’t mean one of you is right and one of you is wrong; you’re just different.
  • The lens that you view the organization through will be unique. Your own global maxima may be one of your manager’s local maxima: their view is broader. This is especially true around strategic decisions and resource allocation. This can put you on the path to conflict in the same way that you may have experienced conflict with your peers.
  • If you are a high-growth individual, your next career move might be the seat they are sitting in. That means you can have an extremely high standard for what you expect from your manager, and you may be disappointed if they don’t meet it.

Thinking about it, there may have been another time in your life where you experienced growing self-sufficiency, development of your own character and style, and a differing long-term view of the world: your teenage years. These are the times where despite having been created, born, and raised by your parents over the course of at least a decade, you can rebel and develop a fractious relationship with them. You may have in fact called them rubbish and expressed your displeasure at the fact you are related to them at all. Ah, youth.

The same thing can happen with your manager. Despite the fact they may have given you the opportunity to do the job you are doing, and despite the fact that they may have coached you and helped you develop your career, you will likely always hit a ceiling where your own developing independence and self-sufficiency will lead to friction. This is especially true if you are a high-growth or competitive individual.

The Reporting to Peter Principle

The Peter Principle, coined by Laurence J. Peter in 1969, states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.” The idea is that if you are good at your job, you will be promoted, and you will continue to be promoted until you can no longer get promoted: this is Peter’s plateau; the level at which you are no longer competent. This is a somewhat overly simplistic view of the world, but a gradual regression of talent to the mean is a common phenomenon in organizations.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose a new principle: the Reporting to Peter Principle. It’s a useful way to think about the relationship between you and your manager. The Reporting to Peter Principle is as follows: in every organization, you will rise to a point where you will experience extreme internal conflict with the way that your manager does their job. This will manifest as disappointment, frustration, and a feeling that you should be doing their role instead of them. More often than not, this is an invention of your own mind rather than them actually doing a bad job.

This represents a key inflection point in your own development as a senior leader. It’s where you need to zoom out from the problems you are inventing in your head and focus on what’s best for your team, the organization, and yourself. Following the principle, you have two choices:

  1. You can continue to be frustrated and disappointed with your manager, and you can let this develop into resentment. This will lead to a breakdown in your relationship with them, and will likely lead to either you leaving the organization, or forcing a change in your manager through a risky, high-stakes escalation. This is short-term, selfish thinking that turns a functioning organization into a dysfunctional one to the detriment of everybody else. For reference, read any news article about politicans fighting each other instead of making progress for their constituents.
  2. You can embrace your differences and consider them a strength insofar that you can both learn from each other and develop a symbiotic relationship. This is noble, selfless thinking that improves your performance, their performance, and the performance of the organization as a whole. This is longtermism and altruism in action.

The key is noticing when the Reporting to Peter Principle becomes true, and then taking action to ensure that you take the second path rather than the first. This will serve you and your organization in the long term and will help you develop a symbiotic relationship with your manager.

So remember: your manager will always disappoint you. I’d even put money on it. However, it’s up to you to decide what to do about it, because it’s a real chance for you to grow.

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  1. Pingback: Reading List. Week 1, 2024 – The Amazing Adventures of a Sexy Software Engineer

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