Good People, Bad Managers: An Interview with Samuel Culbert

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As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It’s one of my favorite quotes and I mention it to my students at least once every semester. Think about the tech giants from the early naughts: AOL, MySpace, Yahoo!, etc. How many of them are still around today? Blame “technology” if you like, but it doesn’t implement itself. People—or, more specifically—senior managers made or failed to make decisions that resulted in the demise of these previous giants.

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Samuel A. Culbert, an award-winning author, researcher, and professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. His new book is called Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing this book?

SC: I’ve spent my career working as an MBA professor and researcher investigating questionable management practices — acquiring a reputation as a muckraker for doing so. I was under the impression that well-intentioned managers would revise their erroneous ways once they realized the negatives that their “good” management practices were creating for the people they were mandated to help. My investigations exposed the widely practiced misappropriation of hierarchy into relationships, and the distrust and lack of accountability that inevitably follows. Researching corporate discourse I found that bullshit, not straight-talk, is the communication etiquette of choice. Investigating performance reviews I learned that every single premise used to justify them is fraudulent, bogus and dishonest. And I’ve identified many other fallacious mainstream practices.

I’ve never gotten much pushback about the dysfunctions I’ve exposed, nor disagreement about what revised management practices would be in everybody’s best interests to make. Yet despite all the good intentions I’ve heard managers express, saying they would revise their ways as their situation permitted, there always seemed to be a situation, and too often it didn’t permit.

Wizened by my experience, impatient that, despite people knowing better, bad management practices persist, I needed to get to the root of the so-called “good” management reasoning that leads to bad practices in the first place. I felt that until this reasoning and the circumstances responsible for it were exposed and denounced, bad management would continue as the norm.

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PS: What are some reasons so many good people are bad managers?

SC: Because they are immersed in a work-culture of success, and their primary instincts are to rack up accomplishments for purposes of getting ahead. But accomplishing isn’t that straightforward when the emphasis is also on maintaining “good management behavior.” Required is a self-focused mindset and a great deal of pretending.

My book shows how managers see themselves in competitive situations while having to portray themselves as consummate team players. They pretend to be objective, unbiased, as putting company’s interests ahead of their own, open to criticism, authentic in their dealings — all things they’re not.

Constantly having to pretend makes managers anxious and insecure about being found out. It leads to daily dramas that command their attention. Under the gun, they lack the time and capacity to focus on others or make others’ well-being a priority. They deploy people and stipulate so they don’t have to worry about things getting done.

In contrast, good management behavior requires an other-directed focus. It entails learning about others — their unique talents, imperfections and goals. It means helping imperfect people to compensate for what they don’t do well, work independently, learn from their experiences, accomplish and advance on goals that are meaningful to them.

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PS: Why is it so important to create reciprocal relationships on the job? What’s the impact on accountability?

SC: Many work culture assumptions need revising before truly good management behavior becomes the norm. Since you asked, let’s start with replacing the one-sided accountable, boss-dominated relationships that most people have. I advocate two-sided, boss/subordinate reciprocal relationships: holding the employee accountable for results, and that person’s manager accountable for providing what was needed for the employee to deliver the “goods.” Thus, any time the employee screws up, it’s appropriate for the operative’s manager to stand accountable too.

I’ve had it with performance reviews, which overlook managers’ dereliction and allow them to succeed while the people to whom they assigned the job, who they were supposed to be guiding and providing help and oversight, get scored down. I’m for putting the managers’ skin in the game so you can have real teamwork where it truly counts — in their relationship with each direct report. I’m for providing both boss and direct report reason to talk openly and accurately about what’s taking place. Bosses, managers, need the motivation to ask the question that’s seldom uttered and to get a free from intimidation, honestly-stated response: “What do you need from me, what do you need in the way of help?”

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