Death by Promotion (to Manager)

4 minute read

Most companies out there fail to recognize that becoming a manager isn’t a promotion but a career change. This is clearly represented in the new manager death spiral model:

“How your good intentions and well-trained instincts are going to erode your credibility, stunt the growth of your team, and re-enforce the theory that most managers are power hungry jerks working with all the authority and making judgment calls with woefully incomplete data.”
“It combines every single leadership mistake you can make spun into a beautiful, cascading, horrific mess.”
— M. Lopp (2017) The New Manager Death Spiral

It’s very important to highlight that the death spiral is a trap for the team as well as the manager: the manager is truly trying to do their best, but the lack of training and the old skills will set them up for these stumbling blocks.

This spiral happens when a professional gets “promoted” and starts managing people, and it can be summarized as:

  1. “I can do it all” → fail by too much work.
  2. “I’ll half-delegate some smaller projects” → withhold informations, micromanage.
  3. “I’m proud, I won’t listen, I blame the team” → closing the door to feedback.
  4. “They talk between themselves” → the team spirit is broken.

This sequence is incredibly common, but it’s also unsurprising once we acknowledge that being a manager is a career change. How would anyone expect to perform well leading a team, if they never learned about it? Sure, some people picked up the skills along the way while they weren’t formally managers, but that’s a rare exception. Most people aren’t that lucky.

This example of spiral mentions “half-delegation” as a step downward the spiral. Let me expand on this as I believe it’s one of the most important trigger points there. There are many ways the half-delegation can happen:

  • Power issues — the task is formally delegated, but in practice there’s no real power given, as the final word and decisions are still in the hands of the manager. This is a hidden form of micromanagement.
  • Scope issues — the delegation is on a project too small or that can’t have enough breadth to reach the stated goals.
  • Information issues — full control is correctly delegated, but there are withheld details and data. The team is thus set up for failure, as they can’t have the full picture of what they are meant to work on.
  • Vision issues — while sometimes, especially in urgent instances, it’s necessary to give a very narrow and precise scope, most of the time it’s more important to give a vision and why that vision is important, and let the team to decide the best path forward because they have the expertise to do so.
  • Shifting goals issues — this is probably the most troublesome as the delegation might have happened properly, with scope, power, information, and vision all correctly assigned, so everything looks fine. Unfortunately, there was a shift in goals at some point, and thus the project is now leading in a direction that’s not desirable, but the manager never communicated this back to the team.

A lot of these issues are about communication, that’s why management requires excellent communication and inter-personal skills.

The article gives some solid advice too:

  • “Let others change your mind” — even better, this shouldn’t be just a passive skill, seeking feedback is an active skill. A manager should proactively involve the team and seek information and feedback.
  • “Delegate more than is comfortable” — delegation is hard for many personal reasons, but it’s also reinforced by an obvious context: if you got promoted it means that you have experience and skills, probably better than anyone else in the team. It’s thus a direct consequence that you will be able to do everything better than the others. It’s hard seeing things done you know you could do better. A good way to approach this is to have a shift to a teacher mindset: good teachers don’t do the homework for their students, they provide all the tools they need for them to succeed.
  • “Augment your obvious and non-obvious weaknesses by building a diverse team” — this isn’t directly related to the issue above, but it’s a solid advice. Having a team that among its members have experts able to cover your blind spots, that’s a recipe for success. The more diverse the team, the less blind spots you’re going to have.

“At the heart of each lesson is the same essential leadership binding agent: trust.”

This last point is especially important. A more actionable way to frame what we mean in a work context with “trust” can be taken from the hybrid traits model in terms of:

  • Skilled — trusting the person they have the competency to do the task.
  • Responsible — trusting the person they will complete the task as expected.

There’s an interesting corollary that comes out from the new manager death spiral, and from the idea that management is a career change: sometimes there are great managers that don’t have any of the skills of the team they are leading, but they have the management skills they need, and they delegate to the team all their blind spots. Exactly because they have not choice but to delegate, they learn how to do that early.

These managers are probably rarer, as it’s easier to grow a manager from a specific discipline, but they do exist.

While in general I hope that “promotion to manager” isn’t the only career path for people inside a company, if a switch like that happens, it’s important that as any career change it’s supplemented with coaching, training, or any other form of preparation for this new role.


Thanks to Ryan Cowles for the tip.