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Let's Be Frank: Cream Rises?

By Inspector Frank. August 25, 2022
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"When the civil leadership is ignorant of military maneuvers but shares equally in the command of armies, the soldier gets confused." – Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu wrote this over 2,500 years ago. Now, he was talking about specific problems with military command and control by people who didn’t know what they were doing, but take another look at the quote above and modify it slightly:

“When upper management is ignorant of equipment integrity concerns but shares equally in the command of resources, the EI department gets confused.”

I have worked in a few places where I wondered if anyone who was in charge actually knew anything. Then I start to wonder: how did they get there? Then I start to wonder: why I am there?

Most of you reading this work in corporate structures where we supposedly have a meritocracy in place. That should mean that, regardless of wealth or social class, people in most owner-user companies are supposedly promoted on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement as measured through examination/certification/education and demonstrated effectiveness.

So why do I not see this as the actual effect in many of the companies I work for? Well, I do, and you do too, but it’s just not executed in the ways we might hope.

So how did that “guy” get promoted rapidly into mid and then upper-level management? The individual was never competent at inspection; they didn’t spend the time to even understand the integrity systems and after their first promotion we saw they were never good at managing people. If this is meritocracy, then something feels wrong. The worst (and potentially most toxic) individual in the workplace is now in charge.

There are a few things I would like you all to ponder:

First off, what was it that got this individual noticed, and then promoted? If said individual wasn’t competent at their job, then it wasn’t that their base skill set got them noticed. So, what did get noticed?

If they got promoted and then couldn’t manage people effectively, why did they get promoted again? Obviously, personnel management wasn’t their merit. So, what was their merit?

Now you watch as this incompetent manager is slashing the EI budget and they don’t even know what the department is supposed to do or what it is trying to accomplish.

So how did they get those promotions so quickly? What was noticed and got them climbing the food chain?

Well, it could be a number of situations; let’s consider a few possibilities. The following is probably not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of things I have witnessed that got people promoted during my working career -- possibly even including myself:

  1. Yes men. Employees who are very good and are showing managerial promise can be seen as threats to their bosses. This tends to lead to conflicts, and it scares senior management. The person who agrees to everything their superiors want without a “questioning attitude” are seen as team players and are not threatening to the corporate structure. At the end of the day, most normal people dislike conflict.
  2. Saved money for the company/increased profit. When people get promoted because they have made (or saved) company money, that would seem like a good thing. Except sometimes the easy returns aren’t the ones that benefit the company in the medium to long term. Additionally, just because someone can shave pennies off the dollar doesn’t mean they are any good at managing people. But to a lot of companies, looking good in the financial short term is all they are really worried about, especially in a quarterly or annual bonus-based system where the financial results (or plant throughput) of the time frame plays a huge role in the bonuses being given out.
  3. Nepotism/cronyism. This is the “you don’t fit the suit” issue. While not always referring directly to hiring friends and relatives, it can also show up as you only see a certain “type” in senior management. Have you ever worked somewhere that all upper management is men, or women? This category basically refers to preferential promotion processes that aren’t based on competencies, but rather on who you know or if you fit the ideal. Many companies have an unspoken idea of what represents the ideal candidate, and that leads to promotions only occurring if you are an insider.
  4. The “Peter” Principle. Named after a Canadian schoolteacher in the 1940s who was curious about the incompetence of those he worked for and with. This principle posits that people who are good at their jobs get promotions until they’re incompetent in the new position. Then, they no longer get a promotion because of this failure. I don’t entirely subscribe to this theory, but I am pretty sure I have seen it in action on multiple occasions. When managers realize they’ve hit their peak/comfort level, they then start to focus on playing politics instead of delivering results to hold onto their position. And then they tend to promote people under them who they don’t see as being a threat.
  5. The “Dilbert” Principle. This is a more recent modification of the Peter Principle. According to the Dilbert principle, an incompetent Equipment Integrity professional would get a promotion to give other competent inspectors the opportunity to actually get work done. The recently promoted manager could spend their day doing less-important things or going to less-important meetings, whereas the rest of the Integrity department could then dedicate their time to doing the work that actually benefits the company. Why would you promote incompetence? Well, if you are scared that taking the competent people out of the department will hurt its productivity is one reason, but another is that newly promoted manager poses little threat to his manager….
  6. Fear of Change (or the work involved in that change). In a big, established organization, nobody likes being made to work harder. Everybody is just an employee, sometimes all the way up to the CEO. In this situation an outperforming manager can upend the cushy lives of everyone else in the company. If the great ideas require work, then why promote the great ideas employee in this environment?
  7. Organizational Dysfunction. A 2018 report from Gallup showed that one in two surveyed left their job to get away from a bad manager at some point in their career. When dysfunction reigns in an organization, toxic management thrives. And I personally think that organizational dysfunction is the biggest overall reason these ineffective bosses get promoted and is the fundamental driver for all my points above.

In essence, the things that can get someone noticed and promoted aren’t necessarily things that will make a good or effective manager, especially in a dysfunctional workplace. When an organization has no clear vision, it is becoming powered by chaos. Without strategies to follow, managers make decisions, and promote people, based on their own pride and greed. When there is neither vision nor collective goals in an organization, then pleasing upper management or shareholders can often become the focus.

This appears to me to be a major flaw in most companies I have worked for. The promotions are not based on a meritocratic approach to whom would make the best manager of people or processes.

Someone once told me those who can’t, teach; and those who are really incompetent, manage. I don’t agree with the sentiment, but I can see where it came from based on observation on what occurs all too often in the industrial/corporate world. I have done both so maybe I should just hang my hat up….

Here’s why I think we need to make a firm distinction between the concepts of manager versus leader.

A manager has authority over employees or processes that is granted by the company. A manager’s fundamental mission is to use the resources (including people) in the most efficient way for the company. For a manager to be effective they must understand their role and how they fit into the organization. I think almost anyone can be trained to be an efficient manager, not that companies necessarily put a lot of effort into development of managers.

A leader, on the other hand, is someone with a vision that can inspire people to get behind them in executing that vision. I do not think this can be easily taught even though there are a ton of contractor companies/educational institutes out there who will tell you they can train your “new generation” of leaders. So, while someone can get all the skills required to be an effective manager, that won’t necessarily make them a leader.

And while I would like to work for leaders and be a leader myself, I would settle for competent managers to work for, selected by merit. Unfortunately, I do not think most companies are in the right place to accomplish that.

Every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence." – Laurence J. Peter


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