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The Under-management Epidemic … Ten Years Later

This is the first in a continuing series investigating the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace by best-selling author Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc.

Ten years ago, we released a landmark study, “The Under-management Epidemic.” At the time, one of the most common questions being asked of leaders in the workplace was, “Are your employees engaged?” Of course, we knew very well that the key factor affecting employee engagement was and remains the relationship employees have with their immediate supervisors. That’s why we had been asking a different question of business leaders: “Are your managers engaged?” 

Since 1993, RainmakerThinking, Inc. had been conducting ongoing research on the dynamics of supervisory relationships in the changing workplace. Late in 2002, we began to focus our research on an alarming pattern: We had found that a huge preponderance of those in leadership positions, at all levels, were “under-managing” their direct reports.


We define under-management as a condition in which a leader with supervisory authority fails to provide, regularly and consistently, any employee directly subject to that authority with the "management basics":

  • Clear statements of broad performance requirements and specific expectations

  • Support and guidance regarding resources necessary to meet requirements and expectations

  • Accurate monitoring and measuring and documentation of the individual’s actual performance

  • Regular candid feedback about the individual’s actual performance

  • Rewards and detriments allocated and distributed in proportion to actual performance

Based on data collected over 18 months (from December 2002 through June 2004), we reported that under-management was a problem of epidemic proportions (nine out of 10 managers) throughout the workplace in organizations of all shapes and sizes in every industry. We found the costs were huge and often hidden. We identified four leading causal factors and offered recommendations for possible remedial actions.  That landmark study was the subject of hundreds of news stories and features.


Now, 10 years later, we are releasing new findings from our ongoing research on the stubbornly persistent under-management epidemic.

Today’s workplace is still afflicted by an under-management epidemic with huge (often hidden) costs to employers, managers and employees.  We find under-management to be deep and widespread throughout the workplace, at all levels, in organizations of all sizes, in every industry.

The remarkably consistent data continues to show:

  • Only one in 10 leaders/managers/supervisors provides all of the management basics to all of their direct-reports at least once per week.

  • Only two in 10 provide all of the management basics at least once every two weeks.

  • Only three in 10 provide all of the management basics at least once per month.

  • Nearly half fail to provide all of the management basics to every direct report even once per year.

We find that under-management is the overwhelming common denominator in most cases of sub-optimal workplace performance of all types and at all levels. The costs and lost opportunities caused by under-management are incalculably high and remain consistent over the 10-year period.  


We find there are eight primary consequences that result from under-management:

  • Unnecessary problems occur.

  • Small problems that should have been solved with relative ease instead get worse before they are identified and solved.

  • Resources are squandered and managers and employees spend time salvaging resources and acquiring substitute resources.

  • Employees fail to do tasks according to established best practice for extended periods of time before anybody realizes it.

  • Low-performers are not identified or held accountable.Mediocre-performers often mistake themselves for high performers.

  • High-performers suffer diminished morale and are more likely to leave their jobs voluntarily.

  • Managers spend more time performing lower-level tasks that should have been delegated to a direct report.

The data also shows that under-managers are almost always held in lower regard by their direct reports, their colleagues and their own managers than are more highly engaged managers.  At the same time, direct reports of under-managers are more likely than those of highly engaged managers to report feeling resource-constrained, uninformed, and frustrated by working relationships with lateral colleagues in their own team or other teams and departments.


After decades of profound change in the workplace, organizations of all shapes and sizes are perennially seeking to be more lean and flexible, adopt increasingly aggressive human capital management practices, and trying to get more and more work out of fewer and fewer employees. Organization charts are flatter; layers of management have been removed. Reporting relationships are more temporary.

Yet employees still rely on their immediate supervisors more than any other individuals for meeting their basic needs and expectations and dealing with a whole range of day-to-day issues that arise at work. We find that these and other “post-great recession” pressures on supervisory relationships seem to underlie the top causes of under-management:

  • The vast majority of managers still cite “lack of time” (due mostly to other non-management responsibilities and increased spans of control) as the number one reason why they don’t more consistently practice the basics of management.

  • The second most cited reason now is “lack of sufficient training” in the best practices, tools and techniques of effective supervision, management and leadership.

  • Third is “lack of sufficient resources and support.” This is a function of increased productivity requirements and tight budgets.

  • Fourth is “constantly changing priorities.”

  • Fifth is “logistical constraints” such as remote locations, different schedules and language or cultural barriers.

We also find another less straightforward set of causes of under-management that are more psychological or philosophical in nature. This is a combination of what we refer to as “false empowerment thinking” (the belief that managers should refrain from asserting authority by being strictly directive or punitive), plus “false nice guy syndrome” (the belief that being strong is tantamount to being unfriendly or will lead to negative interactions or conflict), plus fear of other various potential negative repercussions (such as complaints, bad-mouthing, foot-dragging, sabotage, lawsuits, etc.).  Further, we find a surprising number of managers say they could be stronger and more highly engaged but they choose not to for reasons that fall into one or more of these categories. 

Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc., can be reached via Follow Tulgan on Twitter at His latest book, "The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-step solutions to (nearly) all of your management problems," is available for preorder now.


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