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THE BEST MANAGERS ARE BORING MANAGERS HBR, September 2015

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 people 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?

First, let me explain in more detail what I mean by “boring.” In psychology, the technical – and less socially loaded – term is
emotional maturity. It is mainly a function of being emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientious. Unsurprisingly, we all become
more “mature” (boring) as we age. In any culture people are more volatile and antisocial during their teens, and they become more
conforming, conservative and rule-abiding as they grow older. Although this tends to have a negative connotation in much of the
Western world – which avowedly values creativity, disruption, and individuality – it is clearly an asset when it comes to managerial
potential.

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.
Tasks
Which word or phrase describes a leader’s (L) or manager’s (M) point of view?
Point of view M/L M/L
Organizational culture represents shapes
Relationship with co-workers followers subordinates
Risk minimizes takes
Rules and regulations breaks makes
Outlook for the future long-term short-term
Persuasive technique sells tells
Source of power authority charisma
Strives for achievement of objectives vision
Dynamism proactive reactive
Zeal (devotion) control passion

Pre-reading
Who are “perfect” managers? What qualities do they have?

Reading. Read and answer the questions:


1. What are the main qualities of robot managers, according to the article? Para 1
2. On the basis of what are managers promoted? What is the wrong with it? Para 2
3. According to the article, what is meant by “boring” managers? Para 5
4. Complete the table with the information from the text. Para 6-9

Qualities of “boring” Managers Qualities of Entrepreneurial leaders/tycoons

Prepare a multiple choice test (8 questions) to check understanding of the text.