Incompetent bosses are a staple of American pop culture, and their portrayals as clueless toadies and insecure bullies may be surprisingly accurate. Companies frequently award leadership roles to high performers and flatterers who think and behave like senior management, putting otherwise capable teams in the hands of overlords who aren't qualified to motivate or coach fellow employees.
At one time or another, most workers have experienced the confusion and dread of watching their least qualified colleagues get promoted to leadership roles. Bad managers lack the authenticity and influence to build strong relationships, resulting in a demoralized team that resents upper management for being out of touch with the needs of the company. In a 2014 study, Gallup reported that companies pick the wrong managerial candidates 82 percent of the time, even though managers have the greatest impact on employee engagement.
Instead of cultivating and measuring management potential, employers often give leadership roles to employees who sell the most product or land the biggest clients. In this success model, authority over others is a reward for following orders. Senior leaders want results and validate the people who stick to the status quo and deliver exactly what is asked of them, rather than developing the talents of employees who create new solutions and markets. Unfortunately, giving leadership roles to employees who only think inside the box prevents the company from growing. Not to mention, unqualified managers who find themselves surrounded by better qualified candidates usually try to protect their own power by stifling colleagues who put forth innovative ideas.
Companies that promote high performers by default overlook key factors. How did the employee achieve good results? Was the success a team or individual effort? Can a high performer succeed with a new set of responsibilities? In most cases, a leadership role requires an entirely different set of skills than an employee's previous position. Granting a promotion without assessing the person's capacity for leadership reduces the role to a mere transaction. Pay your dues or suck up to the right people, and you get the job. However, some high performers get good results through unethical or cutthroat methods, while others take credit for teammates' work and struggle on their own. Many are experts at their current jobs, but lack the imagination, authority and communication skills to lead others.
While unqualified leaders gain authority from titles, successful leaders earn authority by establishing mutual trust and accountability among colleagues. They encourage risk-taking, productive conflict and individual career development, and they inspire confidence by being assertive and unbiased. Employers are doomed to advance the wrong people if they don't distinguish promotions from rewards. Promotions should be based on demonstrated ability to excel in higher-level jobs because the employee has already proven himself qualified by taking on greater responsibility. Employers stand a better chance of protecting the company's future if they promote the majority of high performers to senior specialist and support positions while reserving leadership roles for employees who have the skills and strong track record to back up their authority.
With employee engagement decreasing globally, employers should be concerned about the consequences of empowering unqualified workers. Filling leadership roles with confident, communicative and emotionally intelligent people can help employers motivate a detached workforce and solve organizational problems that are holding the company back.
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