In focus

In charge yet totally out of their depth: The rise of the ‘accidental manager’

As many as 82 per cent of new bosses in the UK have been put in charge of teams of people without first receiving appropriate guidance or instruction. Katie Rosseinsky speaks to those who’ve been promoted above their skill level, as well as the employees forced to work under people who have no idea what they’re doing

Sunday 22 October 2023 06:30 BST
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<p>Being a good manager is a talent that we are often expected to somehow acquire by osmosis – as if by absorbing enough unflattering office lighting, we will transform into well-organised, motivated and empathetic bosses</p>

Being a good manager is a talent that we are often expected to somehow acquire by osmosis – as if by absorbing enough unflattering office lighting, we will transform into well-organised, motivated and empathetic bosses

When Helen* was offered a new job as the deputy editor of a small magazine, she thought she’d be spending her days hitting tight deadlines and making last-minute changes to features – all pretty standard practice for an experienced writer. But soon after she started, she learnt that her boss worked part-time, doing so from home, “leaving me to manage the team day-to-day on my own,” she says. “I spent all day answering questions when I was still learning the ropes myself. It became almost impossible to do my job properly.” As the magazine hired more staff, who also became her responsibility, things got worse. “I’d had no management training whatsoever, and was completely out of my depth.”

Helen had become an “accidental manager” – an employee who is put in charge of a team by default, without proper guidance or instruction. According to recent research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and YouGov, as many as 82 per cent of new bosses in the UK are in this position, essentially left to improvise when it comes to dealing with their junior staff.

“The attitude of those above me was pretty much ‘get on with it’,” Helen adds. “When the team and our output doubled in size and I asked what the plan B was if I couldn’t cope with the extra workload, I was told, ‘We won’t need a plan B.’ I was obviously a hopeless manager, but nobody wanted to hear about it.” When she eventually had to fire someone, she ended up googling how to break the news to them.

Ask any high-flying leader or start-up founder what their business’s secret is, and they’ll soon start gushing about how their “people are their biggest asset”. But despite this, “the management of those assets is not considered to be a craft,” says Farley Thomas, leadership coach and CEO of skills development programme Manageable. “Especially in the UK, no one seems to take management seriously.” Being a good manager is a talent that we are often expected to somehow acquire by osmosis – as if by clocking up a certain number of hours in a meeting room, or absorbing enough unflattering office lighting, we will transform into well-organised, motivated and empathetic bosses. And, naturally, we’ll do this while juggling the many demands of our actual job. Seems reasonable.

However, research from workplace consulting firm Gallup has found that only one in 10 people actually possess the natural talent to manage. Those aren’t particularly reassuring odds. Indeed, the chances are high that if you’re not shoved into the role of “accidental manager” yourself, you’ve been led by one. The manager who lets it be known that being a boss isn’t really their thing – that it makes them feel awkward, in fact. Or the one who’s been promoted because they’re a popular face around the office. Or the one who has to ask their underlings to show them how to convert a Word doc into a PDF. Communications specialist Katherine* can still remember how her own “accidental manager” would “often throw co-workers under the bus when issues came up, or they would back out of projects at the last minute because they couldn’t handle the responsibility”.

Her manager’s behaviour left Katherine feeling “more resentful, bitter and resistant to their assignments” (as she knew that she’d do things differently, and arguably more efficiently). Her reaction is far from anomalous: the CMI’s study found that one-third of workers with an ineffective boss are less motivated to do a good job, with around half considering quitting in the next 12 months. “A very high-level implication [of the ‘accidental manager’ trend] is the really low level of employee engagement,” Thomas says, citing another dispiriting survey from Gallup, that found that almost 90 per cent of employees in this country are disengaged from their job.

I felt like a complete imposter through those first few months

Mia*

It’s a phenomenon that’s short-changing workers on every rung of the corporate ladder. “If we don’t give people the skills to manage, that’s setting them up for failure, but it’s also a disservice to the people that are working for them,” says careers coach Natalie Trice. Take PR executive Mia*, for example, who once found herself “jumping straight into managing someone who was expecting a promotion in their annual review”. The colleague in question was already “feeling fed up with their development plan and saying that if they didn’t get their promotion, they would start looking elsewhere”; senior leaders had previously “promised [them] a lot and never delivered”.

But Mia had never been trained to deal with a tricky situation like this one. “I felt like a complete imposter through those first few months,” she says. “I had such Sunday night dread every single week as I knew I was going to have to deal with someone who was frustrated and upset each week, with no real way of knowing what was right or wrong to say from a professional perspective.” Her eventual tactic was to “just be a human” and “give them the space they needed to vent” – but her experience shows exactly how leaving new managers to fend for themselves can be damaging for both sides.

Right now, the world of work is volatile, thanks to ongoing economic uncertainty. “So there’s cuts in staff and redundancies, or we have big changes in the structure [of a workplace] or in the leadership team,” Trice notes. As a result, workers are finding themselves placed in new positions of power, without a “bedding-in period” to get to grips with their new responsibilities, she says. They might be presiding over colleagues who are still dealing with the aftermath of a stressful redundancy process; they might simply never have wanted to be in charge of a team. “They just inherit it and it’s expected of them – that can cause resentment”. Another potential diplomatic minefield? When the new “accidental manager” is already close friends with the colleagues who are now their subordinates. “What happens if tomorrow they go, ‘Oh actually, I’m your boss now, and I just want you to make me a coffee?’” Trice asks.

A lack of training can leave new managers feeling out of their depth

At the heart of the “accidental manager” issue is the fact that a worker tends to be moved up the ranks in the office hierarchy for one of two reasons. Either they are “brilliant at something that has nothing to do with management”, Thomas says, or they have “lobbied or politicked themselves into a management role” because they see it “as a route to more pay, more status and more success”. In which case, Thomas notes, the “accidental” label might be a bit misleading, as they have deliberately gone down this path – they’d be better described as “unequipped managers”, he suggests. In both scenarios, though, “there’s no real evidence of any interest in managing.”

And sometimes what makes you great at your job might even work against you if you’re parachuted into a more senior position. “I’ve always worked in sales roles and the normal structure of [those] businesses is to employ the more experienced salespeople as team managers,” says Tom Hurst, now an entrepreneur and founder of Rockstar Spirits. “The nature of being a good salesperson is to be competitive with your colleagues in order to achieve the best results. This doesn’t necessarily lead to being a good manager.”

He also found that many of his “accidental managers” would “try to get me to change the way I worked in line with [their preference] instead of encouraging me to follow my own style, which was working for me”. It’s a common pitfall, Farley Thomas says: “We project onto other people what we feel, what we think and what we want to do. Without being [properly] equipped, unfortunately, a lot of managers are going to treat everybody in the team like themselves … and [they] are not curious to find out what makes individuals tick.”

I would like to see people management as a specific career path

Tom Hurst

So what can actually be done to combat this epidemic of “accidental managers”? Thomas reckons that it’s time to “stop the normality of senior executives getting frankly luxurious investment” when it comes to personal development; he suggests that instead of spending vast amounts on management training for those at the top of the organisational chart, it would be far more beneficial to divide the same money between more people, lower down the chain.

Leanne Coppock, freelance PR consultant at Search etc, has been an “accidental manager” in the past, and believes that organisations need to get better at “creating different role opportunities for people who might not want to be a manager” at all. “It’s about having those conversations early on with people and really asking them if it’s what they want, because I think sometimes people feel like they get shoehorned towards it, as it’s the only way to get a title or pay rise.” Entrepreneur Hurst has a different take, but it’s rooted in a similar logic. “I would like to see people management as a specific career path … rather than just something that falls to the most senior members within a department,” he says.

In a best-case scenario, being the “accidental manager” – or working alongside one – might be a learning curve. Mia reckons she is now a more empathetic boss as a result of her experiences. After her ordeal with her over-promoted boss, Katherine “wanted to prove [she] had earned this position” when she later inadvertently ended up as an “accidental manager” herself. And as for Helen? “I learnt that I am not a natural manager and vowed never to be put in charge of people again. I left the job and went freelance, where I’m much happier and only have to manage one person – myself.”

*Names have been changed

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