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  5. An Accident Waiting To Happen? How You Can Become More Than An Accidental Manager

An Accident Waiting To Happen? How You Can Become More Than An Accidental Manager

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Many people’s first taste of management comes because they are high performers.

Their excellence earns them a promotion.

And they are thrust into their new leadership role without management training to help them survive and thrive.

It is a situation that resonates with many, and the term ‘accidental manager’ has been used to describe it – two-thirds of managers in the UK regard themselves as accidental managers.

It creates risks for the organisation and the individual.

What can we do about it? And how can accidental managers help themselves?

These were the questions we explored during our latest webinar, which you can watch here.

James White, our managing director, was joined by Dan Boniface, our head of training.

They began by further exploring what ‘accidental manager’ means and why we dislike the phrase.

“We often come across the phrase ‘accidental manager’ during our training courses,” Dan said. “I don’t like it as a term as it can be derogatory and label the person.

“’Accidental manager’ is about the situation rather than the person. It is someone who is good at their job and has been promoted – and it may not have been something you were angling for.

“We’ve done lots of work with the NHS, for example, and someone could be excellent clinically and then find themselves as the ward manager, where they need to manage people.

“I’ve worked with some talented engineers, and when they get promoted, they find themselves fixing people rather than equipment. And that brings challenges.”

Managing people brings challenges. And those challenges are significantly greater when you don’t have training or experience to fall back on.

James said: “Managing people is tough. It is a hard thing to do, regardless of whether you have been doing it for five minutes or five years.

“At times, it can feel like a thankless task. You have to keep the team and department running and keep everyone happy, motivated, supported and encouraged. And be aware of their welfare and progression.

“When you are new into management, that is even more challenging.”


So, what can you do if you are an accidental manager?

Modelling is a good starting point. It involves looking at how other leaders you respect conduct themselves and thinking about how you can become a bit like them.

These models could be people in your organisation. They could be world leaders. Football is another popular source of inspiration with leaders like Jurgen Klopp.

Dan said: “It is not about becoming someone else. The best thing about you as a leader is that you are you.

“The more authentic you are, the better you will be with your team.

“But there are traits you can take from others and add to your mix.”

Imposter syndrome

Accidental managers often suffer from anxiety, self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

“This is when we don’t feel like we belong,” Dan said.

“But it is not a syndrome or medically proven. It is negative thoughts that come up and hijack your mind.

“It might be that you are about to present to the board, and you start questioning how you ended up there and whether you know your stuff.

“It is your body’s response to getting ready for something that means something to you.”

What can you do about it?

Well, the good news is it is a state of mind you can overcome.

“One of the things you can do is to use the three As,” Dan said.

“This means Acknowledging that negative thought. Accepting it is ok to feel like that and Arriving at the next positive thought.”

You can learn more about overcoming imposter syndrome in our How To Conquer Imposter Syndrome webinar.

Understanding yourself

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses as a manager is also vital.

“You need to understand yourself – what you are good and not so good at,” Dan said.

“The more you do that, the more you can empathise with others, understand their needs and then positively influence them and help them grow and develop.

“It starts with you. And once you get it right, everything else should follow.”

This is based on emotional intelligence, and there are five main components: Self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills.

Self-awareness: Understanding yourself and how you are feeling at any moment.

Self-regulation: What are you doing about how you are feeling when you are stressed or anxious? What is your release?

Empathy: Understanding others. Seek to understand before being understood. Don’t confuse with sympathy.

Motivation and Social Skills: How you put that emotion across and talk to people.

You can essentially divide these categories into two sections: understanding yourself and understanding others.

Dan said: “The essential thing to remember is that we can control our emotions, but we cannot control another person's emotions. We can understand them.

“When management goes slightly wrong, it is often because we are trying to control our teams.”

Understanding others

Let’s explore understanding others in more detail.

There are four main personality types in emotional intelligence, which help us to understand ourselves and who we work with. And how to communicate effectively with them.

Fiery red: Strong-willed, ambitious, decisive, direct, competitive. They want to get on with tasks and are likely to be happy to take risks.

Sunshine yellow: Enthusiastic, persuasive and sociable. Often the centre of attention. Good for morale.

Earth green: Patient, friendly, stable, consistent and a good listener. Potentially more introverted. But always there to support when someone needs it.

Cool blue: Detailed, careful, logical, systematic, meticulous. They often enjoy data analysis and critical thinking.

Dan said: “We must remember we are never 100 per cent one of these colours. We are always a combination of these characteristics. And we can play different roles when we need to.

“The colours help us to adapt how we communicate with others. A fiery red might not want lots of detail, whereas a cool blue may want to know all the ins and outs.”

Different management styles

Managers will find themselves facing different situations and leading different people.

To do that successfully, they need to adapt their approach.

And four main leadership styles were identified by social psychologist, Kurt Lewin.

Autocratic: This is a dictatorship style – ‘this is what we are doing, and this is how we are doing it’. It is a style often painted in a bad light. But in a crisis, it is what you need to do.

Bureaucratic: This is a ‘by the book’ style. There are things in our jobs that we have to do and processes that must be followed, such as health and safety legislation and GDPR.

Democratic: This is about surrounding yourself with experts, building a strong team around you and getting their thoughts on decisions and changes. But someone still needs to be the decision-maker.

Laissez-faire: An easy-going approach that can often be viewed negatively. But it is about trusting your team to do their jobs with them having the knowledge you are there to support them.

Dan said: “People thrive on autonomy - they don’t like being told what to do. And giving them freedom tells them that you trust them.

“But if you think back to your first day of work, a manager couldn’t take a laissez-faire approach with you – you have no idea what you are doing.

“Someone has to be autocratic with you and tell you what you need to do. Further down your career, you earn the right to have that softer approach.”

What would you do?

During the webinar, our panel worked through a couple of scenarios accidental managers could face.

The first one featured Bob, who is usually a strong performer, but has started missing deadlines and targets.

What should you do in the situation?

“Lead with empathy,” Dan said.

“If he is normally a strong performer, it is likely something has happened or changed.

“And we need to explore what that is before we make any decisions.

“Has something happened in his personal life? At work? Has he made a mistake? Does he feel he is under too much pressure?

“It might be that he is mentally checking out of the role and is looking for his next move.

“Once we understand that, we can start to move things forward. And the best way to get that understanding is by asking questions.”

The second scenario was about a senior team member who delivers training to other colleagues. They believe they are performing well, but you see room for improvement.

Dan said: “Let’s go in with a coaching approach and try to understand what is happening.

“Lead with open questions like ‘What’s going well?’ or ‘What areas do you think you could develop?’ and then we can explore what is happening.”

“Sometimes you need to have brave conversations. Know your senior managers and their characters. If they are predominantly a fiery red, they may just want to be told straight. An earth green or cool blue may want more of a conversation and evidence.”

Dan has a model or structure for these types of conversations called SBI – Situation, Behaviour, Impact.

Dan said: “You begin by talking about the situation – ‘You’ve been delivering this training. There is some great stuff in there, but some of it is not having the right impact on the team’.

“In terms of behaviour, they may have great energy and passion but are talking too fast, and messages are unclear. Or questions are being directed at the same delegates.

“The impact is training is not as effective as it needs to be, and people completing it are not hitting their targets.

“Impact is the most important part because it allows us to talk about the emotional connections, and people see how it affects others.”

Time management

It can be easy for an accidental manager to lose track of time.

You can quickly find yourself doing less in more time as you adjust to your new responsibilities.

And you feel time-poor.

“If you ask people how they manage their time, most will say they use a ‘to-do’ list.

“But that is just a list on paper and does not tell us that much.”

Instead, Dan recommends an Urgent versus Important matrix. It’s sometimes also referred to as the Eisenhower Matrix – after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. He once said: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Dan said: “It allows us to prioritise our tasks and understand the things we must do and those that are not that important and that we could get rid of from the list.”

Urgent and Important: If something goes in this box, do it now. It might be broken machinery, customer complaints, or some form of reputation threat.

Important not urgent: Most people-based activity goes in this section – appraisals, one-to-one reviews. Give people the time they need and deserve.

Urgent not important: These are the tasks you can delegate. But don’t give them the tasks you don’t want to do. Delegation is about empowerment, ownership and accountability. When you delegate, let the task go – don’t micromanage. But make sure they have the skills and abilities to do the task.

Not important not urgent: These are things that should not be on your to-do list anyway. Dump them.

Monkey business

Despite the amusing name, Dan believes this is another technique that can seriously help accidental managers with better time management.

“This is the idea managers have a monkey on their back, and it is where they become time-poor,” he said.

“The monkey is the next task or project you are doing. As a manager, someone comes to you with a problem, and you say, ‘No problem, leave it with me’. And then someone else comes to you with a problem, and you do the same.

“Suddenly, you have all these other problems or monkeys on your back.

“You have to learn to say ‘no’ and coach your team members. Rather than take the problem on, ask them what they have tried to do to solve it. Let them know you are there to support them, but it is their problem to solve.”

Can management ever be as simple as ABC?

Well, no.

But ABC is a model that can help accidental managers better understand those in their teams.

“I like the principle because it is about making things simple in your mind,” Dan said.

“Management is complex, and the more we can simplify it, the easier ride we can have.

“ABC is a People versus Players model. People in the A category are sociable and friendly. People in the C category are the toxic ones in a team.

“The Players section is about performance. Those in the A category are star players who always hit targets. Those in the C category are underperformers.

“Ideally, you want someone who is AA in the People and Players sections. They are your star performers, the ones you need to keep nurturing, supporting and challenging.

“If you have a CC, you’ve got problems. And you need to address that before they bring others down.

“But you may be able to quickly turn them around to a BB. So, don’t fall into the trap of pigeonholing people.”

How can HR departments best support accidental managers?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear a company specialising in management training say the training is crucial.

But accidental managers need effective training.

Dan said: “Make sure they have the right training in place and have the right skills.

“Often in business, we set people up to fail. Let’s set them up to succeed at the beginning of their management journey, make sure their skills are in place and that they are supported.”

Dan also believes organisations must remove the fear of failure.

“Removing the fear of failure is massive,” he said. “Everyone’s biggest fear is failing, getting it wrong and making mistakes.

“Organisations need to remove that fear and give people the freedom to experiment and try different things. People need to need to feel it is ok to make mistakes.”

How can you overcome the challenge of managing team members with more experience and knowledge than you?

Dan believes business coaching skills are crucial.

“It is about coaching principles and challenging people.

“Challenge their thinking and use their expertise to your advantage. Use coaching questions to tap into that knowledge.”

The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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