Accidental Managers

If you’re an accidental manager, the first thing you should do is download our We invest in people framework.

There are many reasons why ‘accidental managers’ aren’t a good thing. The bottom line is still productivity. When you look at the factors that drive productivity, there is only one group of drivers that businesses can influence with ease. Crucially, these are around leadership effectiveness, vision and values, staff engagement, people development and continuous improvement. Drivers that align perfectly with our framework.

According to more recent research by our friends at Lumien, the impact of an Accidental Manager is still rife today, causing up to a 4.5% reduction in productivity per person.

4 years on from the Chartered Management Institute’s 2017 Management Manifesto highlighting that there were over 2.4 million accidental managers in the UK, costing the economy an estimated £84bn a year, where are we now? Well the answer is, not where we should be. And that’s because not much has changed. Have we really sat back and allowed that 2.4 million number to grow? Have we really taken over a quarter of a trillion pounds hit to our economy because we’ve just not tackled the problem?

We did our first webinar on the topic in 2018…

Organisations' productivity loss due to poor mental health and wellbeing
Managers in the UK that categorise themselves as accidental managers...
Employees in the UK say a bad manager is why they leave a job
Employers in the UK say they don't train their first time managers

Driving productivity

Improving management capability, to enhance the productivity, skills and wellbeing of employees, is an opportunity that’s too good to miss. When you look at the factors that drive productivity, there is only one group of drivers that businesses can influence with ease. Crucially, these are around leadership effectiveness, vision and values, staff engagement, people development and continuous improvement. Drivers that align perfectly with our framework.

 The link between bad management and poor productivity is well established. An improvement of just 0.1% in management effectiveness results in a 10% increase in productivity*. It is worth noting that the UK has a persistent problem of low productivity and we continually lag behind other large economies. By 2025, if current rates of productivity improvement continue, we will be 32% less productive as individuals than people in the US and Germany. If that productivity gap could be halved, it would add £254bn a year to the UK economy, generating higher wages for individuals and greater tax revenues to pay for public services. The more productive we can become as a country, the more prosperous and fairer our society can be.

Unlocking the potential of your people managers

Psychological theories on cognitive load refer to the need to ‘maximize the signal to noise ratio’. In a work environment this translates essentially to ‘cut the noise’. Noise for managers can come in many forms, from emails, notifications and meetings, to ineffective multi-tasking. In order to develop people managers, we need to build into their time a focus on people development. By earmarking that time, we send a strong message about how development is valued and prioritised.

Providing templates that not only facilitate regular tasks, but also promote behaviour change, is a great way to cut the noise. A facilitating structure that gives the opportunity for review, along with nudges towards best practice, helps people to see the effectiveness of their actions. The latest technology from Clear Review, for example, is an excellent enabler in this respect.

Structured frameworks are considered a direct approach to the problem of cognitive load. Scaffolding ensures that everyone has the same base of knowledge and method of approach, providing consistency across teams. An effective framework helps to generate learning and create new pathways in how to manage responsibilities, allowing the focus to shift from simply delivering to improving.

Reducing cognitive load does not necessarily mean reducing the scope of a manager’s role or adjusting responsibilities. It means reducing unnecessary cognitive efforts, or to put it another way, going to the route of the problem and supporting your managers to get real headspace and a chance to focus on their people. By reducing the burden to working memory we are able to become more cognitively efficient.

Embedding the right management behaviours 

When we talk about accidental managers and managers who are not managing, lack of appropriate management training and skills are often cited as the cause. Therefore, if we are going to successfully tackle poor people management, we need overcome another, fundamental blocker which is frequently overlooked. 

Management behaviours we want

  • Regular performance and development discussions
  • Meaningful conversations
  • Clear, relevant goals and expectations that are
    flexed as priorities shift
  • Performance issues tackled as they arise
  • Personal development actively supported and progressed
  • Feedback given regularly, both positive and constructive
  • Open and honest relationships

Behaviours encouraged by annual appraisal processes

  • Performance and development discussed once or twice a year
  • Completion of paperwork
  • Objectives set annually which often feel irrelevant to the day-to-day job
  • Issues saved up for the appraisal meeting
  • A written PDP created annually and put in the draw until next year
  • Feedback saved up for the appraisal meeting, mainly focusing on the negative
  • Fear of being completely open because of ratings and performance related pay

Making the change

Managers need to understand why investing time in people management activities is important and ‘what’s in it for them’. Unless they understand and buy into this, any guidance on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ is likely to fall on deaf ears. 

HR teams have got out into the business, holding two way conversations and workshops with managers. HR have spent time listening to managers, accepting their concerns (“I don’t have enough time”, “I don’t know how to have these conversations”, “It might open up a can of worms”, “It didn’t work for me in the past”) and discussing together how they might be addressed.

Change management initiatives that put effort into a ‘big launch’ and then move on rarely succeed. Successful organisations have built up momentum over time – spending time engaging key stakeholders and influencers in the organisation and running small pilots with advocates to prove that the new approach works. Think of the change as a journey and not a destination. Getting the senior leadership on board early on in the journey is key.

Until the right people management behaviours are established and become ‘the way we do things’, managers may need to be held accountable for having regular conversations with and giving feedback to their team members. When we are busy and have conflicting pressures on us, most of us will naturally prioritise what we are held accountable for. How you do this will vary depending on the culture of your organisation. Some of the organisations that we work with have created ‘leaderboards’ of people management activity by division (using data from their Clear Review system), which are shared with the board periodically. Others have set mandatory objectives for people managers, or set targets around people management expectations.

It might seem counter-intuitive that if we want to encourage more meaningful conversations between managers and employees, that we should be using technology. But as we will explore in the next chapter, using the right technology is key to successfully embedding management effective people management behaviours.

Benefits of using technology

It’s fairly easy to grasp the benefits of using technology for gathering data. In the case of supporting ongoing people management practices, technology designed for this purpose can provide visibility on which managers are and are not having regular conversations with their team and how frequently they are giving feedback. This is essential not only for identifying where interventions are needed but also for creating accountability.

What’s less obvious is the role that technology plays in changing behaviours. Dr. B.J. Fogg, the Director of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University has developed a model to understand what drives our actions as humans. It is represented by the formula: B = MAT A given Behaviour will only occur when Motivation, Ability and a Trigger are present at the same time in sufficient degrees. Driving Motivation comes through emphasising the ‘why’ as we explained above. But to fulfill the Ability and Trigger elements of this formula, we need technology.


Technology can provide automated triggers, such as emails or notification alerts, in a way that a manual process simply can’t. Without these triggers (e.g. “Sarah is due for a check-in conversation”, “Tariq hasn’t received any feedback in a while”) an individual is unlikely to take action until they have formed a new habit.


Fogg defines Ability as an individual’s capacity to do something at a given time, which is influenced by a number of factors including: The easier the action, the more likely the user is to do it. With this in mind, consider the steps a manager might take in preparing for a one to one check-in conversation without dedicated technology to help them. For example finding notes, thinking about what to discuss and what kind of questions would work, track down the person’s objectives, trawl through emails for feedback, the list goes on. Such a process fails the Fogg ability test on all three counts – the Time and Brain Cycles required and the level of Disruption to the individual’s routine. So much so that only the most motivated of managers will do this regularly.

When you use the right technology 

Contrast this with the process of preparing for a check-in conversation using Clear Review. The manager clicks one button and has a check-in meeting ready to go with suggested prompts for discussion, notes from the last meeting, the individual’s current objectives and status and recent feedback, all on hand to discuss. It’s quick, simple and effective. The same goes for giving feedback. If you provide technology to employees that enables them to give feedback in-the-moment in a couple of taps from their mobile phone, they will be much more likely to do it.


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