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Promoted to incompetence: the rise of the accidental managers

82% of new managers in the UK are “accidental managers”, taking on the role with no management training, according to recent research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

And this is a statistic with a real and damaging effect on employee engagement, ROI and, more broadly, economic performance in the UK. People are leaving ‘bad managers’ in droves, citing poor relationships with seniors and toxic workplace cultures – something management training is shown to mitigate.

Why is this phenomenon so common? What do we really need from managers? How can we better identify ‘management material’ and how do we help those already in the role? 

Why do we have so many ‘accidental managers’?

In many organisations – certainly in traditional hierarchies – management is seen as a reward for good performance in a given field, rather than an entirely different job conferring new responsibilities and requiring a distinct skill set.

As a result, people are promoted to their ‘level of incompetence’ – a phenomenon known as the Peter Principle.

Their skills and abilities no longer match the requirements of the job and simply working harder – doing more of whatever they did to get there – often doesn’t help.

Sales performance was negatively correlated with managerial success.

A 2019 study proved the adage by examining performance data for over 50,000 sales professionals at more than 200 companies.

The researchers predicted that organisations would prioritise “current job performance in promotion decisions at the expense of other observable characteristics that better predict managerial performance” – and their hypothesis was correct.

In this case, success in sales was predictive of promotion, and consequently, sales performance was negatively correlated with managerial success.

Where managers are promoted to incompetence, the impact on the individual, the team and the business can be incredibly damaging.

Without adequate training, new managers might not understand that they are not performing well, or why that is the case.

They might feel that they are lacking somehow – that they should intuitively be able to manage and if they are failing to do so, that they are perhaps not ‘management material’.

The team is likely to lose confidence, resulting in strained relationships, disengagement and higher employee turnover.

In Team Role terms

So what is happening in terms of Belbin Team Role behaviours when someone is promoted to incompetence?

Let’s suppose that our successful salesperson scores highly for Resource Investigator and Teamworker roles.

They will thrive on getting out and meeting new prospects and might instead find themselves ‘stuck’ in the office in one-to-one meetings with their team members.

The very Teamworker characteristics that helped them build rapport with customers might make it difficult for them to make potentially divisive decisions in crunch situations.



The broad view

Another common scenario is the Specialist who knows their own subject inside out, but who prefers working alone and isn’t accustomed to reaching beyond this specialism to consider the bigger picture.

Whilst others may consult the Specialist manager for their expertise, unless the manager also scores highly for the role, Co-ordinator, they might find it more challenging to take a broad view and build consensus in the team. 

What do we need managers to do?

Managers are the critical link between organisational strategy and its successful execution, translating leadership directives to teams on the ground.

They’re responsible for navigating the team from point to point, organising resources, delegating work and troubleshooting problems. They are also required to develop and coach those they manage, attending to the needs, relationships and performance of their team.

Gallup finds that 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores is attributable to managers and how effectively they guide their teams. In other words, it is managers who transform teams.

Good managers engage their people by enabling each person to play to their strengths and delegating work in a way that best benefits the team and organisation as a whole.

How does Belbin make managers more effective?

Belbin has been helping managers for decades, using the language of Belbin Team Roles. 87% of our customers say that using Belbin helps managers manage their teams more effectively.

For success at work, it is crucial for individuals to:

  • Understand and identify their strengths;
  • Play to these strengths when working;
  • Understand and value the roles they do not play, and seek out colleagues whose Team Roles complement their own.

And managers are no exception. Whilst there is no one combination of Team Roles on which success is predicated, a person’s combination of top Team Roles influences their management style.

The language of Team Roles enables managers to identify their strengths, communicate these to others and to develop their management style in accordance with these strengths. 

With Belbin, managers can:

1. Identify and articulate their Team Role contributions, to better understand how to use these to develop a strengths-based management style. 

To do this, managers need to complete the Belbin Self-Perception Inventory and receive a Belbin Individual report.

Provide feedback

2. Ask their team to provide Observer feedback as part of the Belbin exercise.

This gives a more rounded picture, boosts the manager’s self-awareness and enables them to formulate their own personal development strategy.

Are there differences between the manager’s own perceived strengths and those the rest of the team see? How can the manager use this information to become more effective in their role?

Get to know the team

3. Get to know the Team Role strengths present in their team using the Belbin Team report, so that managers know whom to involve at each stage of a project and can delegate according to strengths.

People are six times more engaged when working to their strengths. Belbin is a powerful tool in the manager’s arsenal, enabling them to nurture talent and delegate more effectively. This in turn leads to greater engagement, lower employee turnover and a greater ROI.

4. Use the language of Belbin Team Roles to help promote healthy working relationships, address performance issues, and depersonalise and resolve conflicts in the team.

Teams are always evolving, so one-off solutions that sound promising on an awayday don’t always stick.

Belbin is a common language which can be used to describe and delegate work, and to help with the many challenges faced by managers, whether discussing performance or diagnosing and addressing difficult working relationships.

How do we identify potential managers?

When it comes to selecting and recruiting managers, there is a better way than promoting to incompetence – a way that offers a better ROI and greater satisfaction for all concerned.

First and foremost, it’s important to consider what the role needs. Alongside the particular skills and qualifications necessary for the job, what characteristics should the manager have?

Should it be someone who is consultative and brings others towards consensus? Someone who is competitive and driven and will set goals for the team to achieve? A practical, reliable individual? A creative visionary?

Behavioural job description

The Belbin Job report can help those hiring to specify their requirements in Team Role terms, producing a behavioural job description which can sit alongside the hard skills checklist.

The Team Role profile of the job can then be compared to the Team Roles of your applicants, so you can see the degree of fit in behavioural terms and open a discussion as to the individual’s suitability for the role.

When a candidate is chosen, this information can be used to develop a strategy to grow the new manager in the role, cognisant of their strengths and areas where they might require help – from the team or from their seniors.

This can help prevent the costly mistakes associated with promoting to incompetence, which can damage individual and team engagement, and harm business performance.

Next Steps

Are you ready to use Belbin with your managers and their teams? The Belbin Individual report is the place to start. 

Do you need more guidance in introducing Belbin? Talk to us about running a bespoke workshop to make your managers more effective.

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