Watch Out For Dependency-Motivated Managers

““It is easier to exclude harmful passions than to rule them, and to deny them admittance than to control them after they have been admitted.”” Seneca

There is a certain kind of manager you need to watch out for.

He is often extremely bright. Entirely competent. Completely dependable. In short, everything you’ve ever wanted in an employee. He may be working for you right now –or he may be the first person you hire when you start your own business. One thing is likely: He is –or will be one of your very favorite employees.

But watch out, because he can damage your business. Not because he wants to hurt you, but because he wants nothing more than to please you.

Saul Gellerman writes about this type of personality what he calls dependency-motivated managers in his solid and very thorough book, Motivation. According to Gellerman, the primary business goal of such managers is to please their bosses, because they count on them for survival. So long as they keep their bosses happy, they reason, their careers are secure.

Think you are immune? Don’’t be too sure. Since dependent managers are generally smart, they are very good at figuring out your interests, objectives, moods, and desires. They may get to know you better than you know yourself. They become mirrors for your vanity, balms for your ego. And they will wreak havoc with your business if you let them.

This is a much more common problem than you may think. Especially with entrepreneurial businesses.

At the early stages of a company’’s growth, above all else, the entrepreneur needs someone to execute his ideas. A dependent manager – smart and hardworking – is the perfect match. And as the business grows, the executive will be rewarded for his efforts and loyalty with promotions. Before long, he will be managing big projects and large and important groups of people – which he may not be able to do.

I’’ve seen dependent managers in just about every fast-growing business I’’ve worked with. And if the truth be told, I’’ve hired and promoted a few myself.

Gellerman tells the story of a company that almost went belly up because it had a history of hiring dependency-motivated people and promoting them into management. At one point in time, these people were running most of the company’s retail stores. They were excellent at effectuating directives from headquarters (and so everything seemed hunky-dory), and they never bucked the system.

When corporate central decided it wanted to move some inventory, these loyal managers put that inventory in a prime position and left it there until it sold. This, of course, is a violation of two of the cardinal sins of retailing: tying up shelf space and tying up capital.

Luckily for this retail outfit, it had a few “troublesome” managers who refused to feature slow-selling products just because they were told to. Since these managers were more concerned with producing a profit than pleasing their bosses, they ruffled some feathers – but eventually saved the company.

Dependent employees make great assistants. If you need someone to do your bidding, someone who cares about pleasing you is the ticket. But if you are talking about taking on P&L responsibility and managing a sizable staff, you are going to have serious problems with these people.

Things will work, more or less, as long as you are actually running the operation – having regular meetings with your dependent and telling him what to do. But the moment you don’t have time to handle his responsibilities for him, he will be at a loss. Since he is not motivated by achievement, he won’t necessarily make the right decisions. He will hire and keep only dependency-motivated employees, because he will be threatened by anyone who thinks for himself.

Dependency-motivated managers manage upward well and downward not at all. They are favored by their bosses but disliked by their staff.

Motivating the Dependency-Motivated Manager 

Can you “convert” a dependent manager into someone whose loyalty is to the bottom line? You can try. And he will give it his best. But not because it’s good for business. He will do it for you – to please you. And that’’s why these people will ultimately fail to convert themselves. It is simply not in their nature to work without trying to please.

I could tell you stories about the several times I’’ve attempted to coach such people into independence. In every case, it started well. But then a curious thing happened. They felt betrayed. By me. While I thought I was helping them achieve more in their careers, they thought I was trying to dump them softly.

Try to reprogram a dependent manager and you will get late-night phone calls, teary-eyed complaints, and threats to quit.

In your current career and in the business you may some day own, there are certain fundamental objectives you need to pursue: a quality product/service, a good growth rate, and profits, to name three. Good managers will adopt those goals as their own. They will do what you do – and more – to achieve them. Dependency-motivated managers will do only what you want. So they doom your business to be no bigger than you are. And they populate their departments with people just like them.

Again, there is nothing better than a smart, hardworking dependency-motivated person when you need someone to help you execute your own ideas. But to grow your company big – to break into the $50 million level – you need to look for something else.

If you have such a person working for you now, don’’t fire him. Just make sure he works for you and you alone. Give him whatever title you want, but don’’t fail to recognize what he can – and can’’t – do.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]