skip to main content
Do Your Managers Lack Courage?

Do Your Managers Lack Courage?

Story Highlights

  • It's impossible for managers to please everyone all the time
  • Low-courage managers undermine both their leadership and their teams
  • Organizations can boost courage by reshaping the "us vs. them" mentality

Management is a tough job.

According to Gallup's recent study of the manager experience, managers on average work four hours longer per week than individual contributors.

They are 50% more likely to strongly agree that they "have too much to do." And 37% of managers strongly agree that they felt a lot of stress on their most recent workday.

Some managers may feel like their job is impossible -- trying to please the people above them and below them at the same time.

When they talk to their superiors, they are always positive and agree with everything. When they talk to their team members, they want to be liked too.

They may say things like:

  • "Hey, corporate said we have to do it this way. I have no control."
  • "I don't know why we are changing the process. It's just the way it is."
  • "If it were up to me, things would be done differently."

Nothing is ever really their fault or responsibility. But if everybody's happy with them, they must be successful, right?

Unfortunately, this mindset is the source of many chronic organizational issues. Managers who try to please everyone by passing responsibility to another team or leader ultimately undermine your organization's success.

At heart, it's a question of purpose, conviction -- and courage.

The Problem With Low-Courage Managers

Ironically, these "low-courage managers" can be held in high regard by both leaders and team members.

Leaders like them because they agree to everything without complaint. And their team members are likely to take their side over the organization's.

Everybody likes to work with them because they never stir up problems.

But in reality, these kinds of managers are dysfunctional. They do not serve their team well -- and they don't serve their leaders well, either -- because they aren't being honest with anyone.

Inevitably, managers who lack courage produce burned-out teams. Why? Because low-courage managers fail to provide the kinds of support employees need to get their work done.

Among others, Gallup identifies the following as top predictors of burnout:

  • unmanageable workload
  • lack of communication and support from manager
  • unreasonable time pressure

Burned-out team members feel overwhelmed, under the gun and driven to exhaustion by unrealistic expectations because their manager does not advocate on behalf of their team. The manager tells them the pressure is coming from above, when in fact the manager could have negotiated a more reasonable workload if they had spoken up.

At the same time, leaders are flying blind. They may think everything is going great, only to find out too late that a project is falling apart or top performers are leaving for less stressful jobs.

This is also how workplace silos are created, particularly for high-performance corporate cultures. In an attempt to be "team players," managers don't communicate hard truths to other teams. As a result, they harm effective collaboration.

Why Managers Lack Courage

Over the millennia, humans have existed mostly in small groups. The survival of the group has depended on strong community bonds and a distrust of outsiders who might take away their resources.

The "us vs. them" mindset had value in the past, but it can be a minefield for large organizations that require complex collaborations of multiple teams, often over long distances.

Consider a front-line manager for a large retail chain. Human instinct makes it easy for that manager to identify and bond with their immediate team, while corporate leadership -- and its vision, values and goals -- can seem far away.

The local team becomes the "us." Regional or national management becomes the "them."

But it's not just distance driving the division. "Us vs. them" dynamics can emerge on different floors of a building, or even different sides of the same floor. (And remote work may even make this more challenging!)

Even for well-meaning managers, small differences in how they speak can shape team perceptions about who the true "team" is. Over time, silos form. Communication is tailored differently for insiders and outsiders. Change is resisted. And managers and employees ultimately identify with their own team, especially when their views are at odds with corporate policy.

In an attempt to be "team players," managers don't communicate hard truths to other teams. As a result, they harm effective collaboration.

In the end, the most important question becomes not "What's best for the customer?" but rather "Whose side are you on?"

How Great Leaders Cultivate High-Courage Managers

Gallup has studied great leaders for decades, and most of the traits of successful leaders can be distilled down to two elements:

  1. They bring multiple teams together.
  2. They make great decisions.

Team success depends on the bonds between a manager and their team members. The performance of an organization depends on the bonds between managers. Great leaders:

  • rally managers around a common vision and purpose
  • foster relationships and cooperation between managers
  • give managers an identity that is bigger than themselves
  • develop managers toward future high performance and career growth

In short, great leaders help managers identify with the "us" of the organization. Once they identify with the organization as a whole, they are more likely to be honest with leaders about problems because they know that honesty ultimately benefits everyone -- including themselves.

When a manager does not identify with the organization, they tell their team, "The policy says this behavior is not allowed."

When a manager identifies with the organization, they tell their team, "We don't allow that behavior here."

They own it. They stand behind it. They believe it. And that is ultimately the source of all courage -- knowing who you are.

Being in management means dealing with messy problems and making tough calls. But to truly resolve issues, managers need shared conviction around your organization's values. Hard conversations are never fun or easy, but they are more likely to result in positive outcomes when we have the motivation to do the right thing.

Develop managers who lead their teams with purpose, conviction -- and courage.


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030