The definition of a good manager will vary from employee to employee, depending on personality. Some may thrive under one type of leader, while others may think the same person is the worst boss they’ve ever had. As a result, being a good leader is a virtually impossible challenge.
“Most of us have had more bad managers than good,” says Matt Casey, author of The Management Delusion—The Easy Way to Do a Hard Job and cofounder of DoThings, a people management software platform. “The interpersonal combination makes it difficult. You have to be selfless and at the same time demanding. Employees have different work styles, and you have to be all things to all people. It’s hard to do the job well.”
Organizations tend to rely on management training to change the manager into someone who is effective, but Casey says it isn’t the fix.
“I’ve seen good managers get better, and bad managers a bit less bad,” he says. “But in the end, a bad manager is still bad, and a good manager was already good. It’s not enough to move the dial.”
While he was the managing director of Moonfruit, a U.K.-based website-building service provider, Casey looked at his responsibilities and determined that the easy way to handle some of the tasks would be to cross them off his calendar and put the onus on the employee to carry them out. He calls his approach “lazy management” and says changing the job, instead of the manager, is the best solution.
Performance Reviews and Bonuses
One of the responsibilities Casey took off his plate is evaluating performance and assigning bonuses. Previously, he was tasked with rating employees between one and five and distributing money accordingly. Taking his new lazy approach, Casey assigned everyone a three by default. He told the team, “I’m only going to talk to you if I think you deserve less than that, and I will tell you why. If you think you deserve more, come tell me.”
“Everyone got their score exactly right,” he says. “If they felt they were worth more, they came to me with the number I would have given. The people who were given threes might have griped and been unhappy before making this change. But the onus was on them. They knew they didn’t have a case, and so they didn’t make it.”
Changing the performance review and bonus was the moment Casey felt he was onto something. “If people make judgments for themselves, they are more comfortable with honest ones,” he says. “When they have to justify it, they know they have to come up with something reasonable. It saved me a lot of time and frustration.”
Casey also told his team that it was their job to tell him when they wanted a pay raise. By putting employees in charge, Casey removed the invisible barrier that used to exist around asking for more money and eliminated the risk that they silently felt overlooked.
“It would be no longer my responsibility to talk about what you’re worth,” he explained to his team. “I told them they would never get a raise unless they asked. If you’re complaining about not being paid enough, come talk to me and present your case. It’s completely fine and expected. The moment you do, the whole problem can be solved.”
Another management task that took time on Casey’s calendar was approving vacation days, which he admits he’d been handling inconsistently. Employees would put in time-off requests, but he would sometimes forget to review the request.
“I would quickly approve it because I knew I kept them waiting and it created a mess,” he says. “It occurred to me, when they’re making the request, they’re really asking, ‘Can you check if it’s okay for me to not be here?’ But they should know that. They should make sure they aren’t taking a day off and making it difficult for everyone else. Approving vacation is like a manager being a [personal assistant], finding out that answer for you.”
When a manager is responsible for authorizing time off and it creates a problem, the employee is off the hook. “The manager gave them permission,” says Casey. “It creates an awkward position. Any issue it caused became my bad management.”
Casey put the responsibility back on the employee, which solved the problem. “I told them, ‘You handle it,'” he says. “‘For me to be counting days became stupid. I’ve hired you to do the job. Make sure not being at work doesn’t impact everyone else. As long as you get your job done, I don’t care how many days you take off.”
Over three years Casey says he removed a good portion of the management structure, rebuilt the business, and turned a profit each year. The biggest surprise of taking a lazy manager approach is how few things went wrong, he says.
“There is an expectation that some people might take advantage and see this as an opportunity to do little as possible and exploit the freedom,” Casey says. “But no one did. It’s almost as if being treated like an adult encourages you to act in a more adult way. When there were more boundaries, people pushed against them. When they were taken away, they didn’t have anything to push against, so they did their job.”
Lazy management also created a social contract, says Casey. “Everyone liked having the freedom,” he says. “No one wanted to be the employee who jeopardized it. It created a level of trust among the employees.”
Modern management is broken, says Casey. “It was designed for a simpler world with no career development, internet, performance coaching, or employee engagement,” he says. “The solution is to turn things around and take a completely different approach. One that gives employees more control over their careers.”