BOOKS: The wrong boss for the job

At last, a book to help us deal with this recurring nightmare. Carol Fisher reports.

by Carol Fisher, a partner at the Ingram Partnership
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Few people in business today have never suffered under the weight of an incompetent manager. Strangely, though, as Adrian Furnham argues in his preface to The Incompetent Manager, many existing tomes cover the positive side of management but little has been produced to help people identify, understand and deal with incompetent managers.

This is all the more important because, he contends, 'the average manager is more likely to be incompetent rather than competent, and incompetence is hard to cure.' Indeed, he has discovered that more than half of all managers are rated as incompetent by both their staff and their peers.

Professor Furnham explains in detail what happens to organisations that suffer from incompetent managers - from restaurants changing hands to football teams changing managers, to a new CEO arriving at a FTSE 100 firm; a new manager can make a big difference.

It isn't easy to be a good one and, given the wide range of skills demanded, the perfect manager can hardly be expected to exist. The book contends that there is an assumption in business that a natural selection process takes place, yet numerous businesses suffer from incompetent, damaged or dangerous managers, who are likely to recruit in their own image.

Who are these people? Furnham produces numerous sources, each listing types that we'd all recognise. The Maverick, the Queen Bee, the Sidekick and the Smallshot, among others, are depicted in detail to explain their apparent and their real motivations.

The book points out that many competencies have both an upside and a downside. Action-orientated people can be reckless, team players can lack independent judgment, the innovative may be impractical. Thus the mania for recruiting people by these competencies may be misguided, and there may be an optimal amount for each.

But in a densely written book, full of technical language, the simplest and most credible equation detailed is that the wrong personality type in the wrong job leads to incompetence. How does this happen so often in business today?

A key factor is that most organisations pick staff on the basis of positive behaviour and do not 'select out', in Furnham's words, for incompetencies.

And the selection of managers is almost invariably based on characteristics needed to meet current business demands; but when these change quickly, so must the skill sets. There's a weight of evidence that the traditional job interview process is the least valid way to select the best candidate.

An interesting chapter deals with 'the latest management obsession' - getting the best out of teams. I was surprised to read that research is lacking on what makes an effective team. Furnham accuses firms of not taking team working seriously, because almost all reward mechanisms are individual and decisions to hire are rarely made with team considerations uppermost. The dark side of teamwork, however, is characterised as 'group think', where team members have more faith in group decisions than in any individual's ideas, distrust outsiders and discount both risks and alternative solutions.

The final section deals with diagnosis and offers cures. Underwriting this are assertions that intelligence is still a key predictor of success at work, that temperament is fixed at birth, but that management skills can be trained and indeed that training is a weapon in the fight against incompetence.

The message that hit home was the paramount importance of recognising and dealing with incompetent managers, for the sake of the organisation, the staff and the hapless managers themselves. Given the sheer pace of change, today's competent could be tomorrow's incompetent manager unless we are all vigilant. As a marketer, though, I struggle to identify the audience for this book: 251 closely written pages, lists of other learned treatises and a curious lack of cross-cultural references scarcely make it one for the armchair business reader. I hope competent HR colleagues can provide a precis.

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The Incompetent Manager

Adrian Furnham

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MT price &#163;17 (see panel, p30)

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