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The Effect of Incompetent Middle Managers

by John Callaghan, Senior Consultant, DMSRetail

Retail employees can rise up through the ranks fairly quickly compared to a lot of other industries. It makes a great career in that respect. Entry into retail is easy and promotions come quickly provided the individual can operate a retail store, make the sales happen, follow the Policy and Procedures manual to the letter and always say the right things to visiting Head Office executive.

I have seen this happen many times. In some cases, it has turned out to be good for the company and good for the individual. There are many great managers in the retail industry and I give them full credit for the job they do in promoting retail as a decent profession and for delighting customers. In more cases, however, it has turned out to be good for the individual but, for the company Ė not so much! The most unfortunate part is that the company usually doesnít know it.

These individuals get the title, the salary, the perks, the stores and the unsuspecting people and then, almost overnight, rise to their level of incompetence. It is not easily or quickly identified because, often, retail middle managers do not work out of their Head Offices. They spend the majority of their time traveling and working out of their home offices. Another reason that the incompetence goes unrecognized is because the individual who promoted the person held that same position before and is not likely to be looking for issues. That promoter either got lucky or got better or both. Still another reason is that the impact of management changes, on the organization, are usually not immediate.

Of course, under the guidance of the incompetent middle manager who is neither lucky or smart, it is likely that sales results will eventually take a downturn prompting a closer look at the individual but until that happens, the incompetent middle manager has total control over a group of stores and employees of the company.

Imagine, if you can, the havoc that can be wreaked on an organization with an individual like this running stores/districts/regions.

The person is very good at selling to customers, keeping a store clean and neat and visually pleasing, repeating slogans and generally sucking up, and strictly adhering to all company policies and procedures. But thatís it.

This person cannot manage people, cannot motivate people, cannot analyze a situation thoroughly enough to see what is really important and what is not. This person is more adept at putting up roadblocks than removing obstacles for the people working for them. This person is customer friendly but only to the extent allowed by company policies and procedures.

This person will not step out of bounds to satisfy a customer or to motivate an employee. And when I say Ďstep out of boundsí I am not talking about blatant disregard for the company Ė only that sometimes, if you have any kind of business brain whatsoever, you will make some adjustments for the good of the customer, the employees and the company. But no, the incompetent middle manager will not make any adjustments to anything. They have always done things a certain way and, as evidenced by their meteoric rise (however unfounded) in the company ranks, it must be the best way, right?

Of course that is not right but how to convince them? Everything they know is what they learned while doing a more junior job. They never had to manage a manager before and they donít know how to do it. They donít know itís different. In short, they just donít know what they donít know.

The incompetent middle managers are not doomed to living with that title forever. They can learn and grow. They can listen to others, read books, get some training. They can do what any other middle manager in a different industry might do. But too many of them donít do it and never become better and continue to wreak their own brand of havoc on the unsuspecting companies they work for and on the poor souls they have control over.

I did say Ďhave control overí. While we donít like to think of the manager/subordinate relationship as one having control over the other, and while we know that the much smarter and more productive way would be working together in partnership, the incompetent middle manager controls. That is the only way to hang onto the job
- details, minutia, nickel and dime-ing, crossed Tís and dotted Iís, nit picking Ė itís Micro Management 101 and it is the practice of the incompetent.

If you are one of the incompetent middle managers, act immediately to broaden your horizons and get better at what you do. There is so much information available to you. If you have an incompetent middle manager working for you, correct the situation right away. Train them or remove them but you must stop the negative effect this individual is undoubtedly having on your organization. And if you work for an incompetent middle manager, do your best and shield your direct reports and then move on if it becomes unbearable.

You can reach John Callaghan at jcallaghanatdmsretail.com


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