What would the perfect robot manager be like? Looks aside, it would arguably be objective, transparent, unselfish, and apolitical. Because of this, it would assign the right task to every person and reward unselfish team behaviors, creating a culture of trust and keeping morale high. It would monitor individual and team performance with the precision of the best quantified-self app, and provide real-time feedback to boost everybody’s productivity. Undoubtedly, it would operate according to data rather than intuition and make only evidence-based recommendations. In short, the perfect robot manager would be utterly predictable – and completely boring.
And yet dullness is not how most organizations choose managers today. Instead, they look for flash and vision, and bold displays of confidence – whether or not that translates into actual competence. Indeed, despite the vast body of knowledge – including independent scientific evidence – on what makes a good manager, too many
get promoted to management positions based on past technical expertise or their previous individual job performance, so they end up, in effect, transitioning from skilled labor to unskilled management.
This problem can be mitigated if we are able to assess managerial potential more effectively. And the barriers to achieving this have less to do with finding the right tools to assess managerial talent than our inability to understand what we should be looking for. You can have the best tools in the world but if you are really good at measuring the wrong thing then your problems won’t go away.
So, what does a boring – and very good – manager look like?
In the most compelling and comprehensive synthesis of independent scientific studies about managerial competence, Tim Judge reports that effective managers tend to be highly adjusted, sociable, friendly, flexible, and prudent. They are, in fact, the reverse of the famous self-made billionaires and tycoon entrepreneurs we often use as examples of great leaders. Imagine working directly for Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or David Rockefeller; it may sound great, but most people are happiest working for people who are the exact opposite. As Michael Maccoby pointed out in an influential HBR essay, these entrepreneurial leaders “tend to be poor listeners who are sensitive to criticism and demonstrate low levels of emotional intelligence.” In addition, it should be noted that people who are as ruthless, impatient, demanding, and excitable as Jobs and Bezos usually lack the genius to get away with it, so they are much more likely to derail than to invent the next Apple or Amazon.
Second, as you transition from individual contributor to manager, you shift your focus from solving technical problems to solving people problems. To achieve this, you need to be able to delegate in order to concentrate on your team members. This makes emotional labor a key quality in managers. Much as in the service industry the best performers can connect emotionally with the customers, when you are a manager you need to be able to connect emotionally with your subordinates. As an employee, you labor to manage your own emotions; as a manager you also labor to manage other people’s emotions. This depends on having quality interactions with your team, and you can only do this if you are calm and cool-headed, if you are able to display strategic emotions – which involves a fair amount of faking it – and if you are capable of understanding that it’s not really about you.
Again, when we think of classic charismatic or colorful leaders, you get a very different type of profile. To have emotional intelligence is not to be overwhelmed by emotions and unwillingly leak non-verbal communicational cues; it is about having low emotional reactivity and being as phlegmatic as the Queen of England. As psychological studies have indicated: “The most effective leaders are found to be those who operate from a stable center, who are personally grounded, other-directed and create the kinds of secure and supportive environments where creativity and productivity thrive.”
Third, what people value most in a manager is integrity, which is best conceptualized as an attribution and assessed via others rather than self-ratings. The best way to predict counterproductive or unethical work behaviors is by asking subordinates to report on the probability that their manager will, in not-so-subtle language, screw them over. And once again, it is boring managers who take the prize: the fewer dysfunctional dispositions or dark side personality traits they display, and the more predictable, reliable, and, yes, boring, they are, the higher they’re rated on integrity, and the more morally they behave. This issue reminds us of the many famous case studies of leaders who are clearly brilliant from an expertise or competence standpoint, but morally feeble: Sepp Blatter, Bernie Madoff, and Pablo Escobar come to mind.
In brief, it is time for organizations to understand that their best potential managers are not the people who stand out; they are not the people who self-promote and take credit for others’ achievements, or have mastered the art of politics and upward career management. They may lack charisma and have no remarkable vision for the future, yet they are probably the best people to help execute the company vision and ensure that staff stays engaged and productive.