Protocol Managers

There’s a certain dissonance that almost every employee faces in the workplace. The sharp contrast between the inspirational leaders we sometimes see in the media and their own manager. Quite a difference, right?

Now we can’t expect everyone to be an Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or a Barack Obama. They are truly a selected few and frankly may not be the easiest people to work for anyway. But you can and should expect your manager to be more than just a timekeeper or a performance evaluator.

The right 10% percent?

In a presentation by Gallup, it was estimated that 10% of the workforce has the potential of becoming excellent leaders in their respected organization. This correlates nicely to the average number of managers per individual contributors (IC) we find as a best practice in many companies. The only caveat is whether these are the right 10 percent.

The current paradigm prevents organization to reach that right 10 percent or even come close. The main reason being the age old belief that to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder you need to manage people. The more the merrier. This creates an influx of employees looking to manage people whether they want to or not. Qualification, skills and suitability are brushed aside while tenure and past performance are used as the prime indicators.


The move to management is substantial as you become responsible for other people’s agenda and priorities and not solely your own. This entails as much opportunity as risk. A well led team can compound your impact and influence across the organization but can also become a liability, preventing you from delivering even on your own work.

The difference comes down to your leadership.

As Peter Drucker said, Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things. It’s all about priorities and making the right calls for you and your team which separates leaders from managers. And to that Drucker added that there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently what should not be done at all.

Following protocol

Many managers who realize they come short in the leadership category try to fake it by following protocol and best practices of successful leaders. So if you’re supposed to be nice, organize social gathering and ask your team for their well being, you probably are doing what is expected from you and are a great leader!

Right?  Wrong.

When pressure amounts and making the right decision becomes all that important, people usually get back to their basic instincts. A former British commander once mentioned that when the bullets start flying soldiers always revert back to the most simple strategy. He is now a strategy officer at a betting firm but his experience in the field is relevant in business. When it counts, your true colors are shown and you cannot simply fake it.

There’s no protocol for that.

Faking it

However, faking it, even if it becomes so obvious to the point of absurdity, has become a common behaviour among protocol managers. You would hear managers talk about agile, transparency and vision without having a single idea what these terms actually mean in practice. So in essence, they may talk the right talk and use the correct terminology but on the walking part nothing has changed.

To the team members it can be extremely frustrating as they do try to implement this modern way of working and frequently find themselves arguing with their managers about it. The managers, on the other hand, simply don’t get it.

If we take agility as an example, we see that it requires managers to live with a certain degree of uncertainty. That doesn’t imply loss of control but merely a temporary blind spot until the feedback loop returns. A protocol manager may appear to promote that but would subject it to as many bureaucratic anchors as possible to the extent that it would prevent any new initiative from ever taking place. A leader, on the other hand, would understand the current obscurity in predicting future results, would ensure that the team has done all they can and support the trial.

This preference of doing nothing is a common symptom of insecurity by protocol managers who prefer it than risking a failure. I have also heard the term ‘teflon managers’ as nothing really attaches to them, good or bad. Either way, in the fast-paced digital world we’re in doing noting is as if you’re committing suicide.

So if leadership is all about results, genuine human relationship and impact, Can you really fake it and for the long run?

Cost to the organization

The cost of employing these seemingly technocratic managers in the organization is huge. (I deliberately refrained from using the term technocats in this article as they can be useful at times, while with protocol managers there is no benefit.)

Let’s look at the work culture.

Culture is derived from the leadership practices and if you happen to have too many managers faking it then you get a culture which is based on a lie. Talking the talk but hardly walking it. After a while, like every lie, it will catch up with the company, impairing its operations and its ultimate performance. And besides, having that one sacred and shared foundation which unites all the employees together be based on a fallacy is not recommended.   

If facts, truth and honesty are compromised, very quickly one can expect an erosion of result driven or meritocratic culture. Instead of growing the business and its talent, we shift towards politics, headcount games and lip service to maintain the leadership disguise. What’s worse is that the team members start to imitate the behaviour of their managers and the corruption trickles down.

Ethical talent leaves, bureaucrats remain, and in a place where ethics are no longer valued you find politics, hypocrisy and ultimate corruption fill the void.

HR to the rescue?

So how can we prevent this downward spiral from taking place? And more importantly who can reverse that situation?

Without picking on HR or People Operations, I do believe that they are well situated to solve and prevent these issues from happening. As they partner with the business and are thorough when recruiting new talent, they should be even more involved when deciding who should become people managers.

In addition, we should ask ourselves whether protocol managers can ever become leaders and more importantly is there a risk that good leaders can become protocol managers?

Can rouge managers be fixed by coaching and training or once they have crossed that line it is too late? Should everyone be allowed to manage people?

And finally, should the leader earn the most and be on a higher corporate ladder than his or her team members?

Food for thought

All these questions are becoming more relevant as organizations are challenged to tweak their operations by the digital tide technology has brought them.

To that end I believe traditional paradigms need to be challenged. Specifically, more employees from the business need to occupy HR roles so a better context can be provided to the this impartial function.

A lot of scrutiny needs to be put in place when assigning people-manager roles to get that right 10%. We should also ensure that the great talent we get in stays great and doesn’t follow unethical practices. And most importantly, if some managers are not cut for the job and are consistently failing on the basic elements of leadership, we should re-assign them to an IC role. The sooner the better.

And finally a disruptive thought. The leader doesn’t necessarily need to be the highest ranking or earning individual in the team. Just as sport coaches earn less than their players, a leader-team relationship can be the same.

People managers should be honored for their position and treat it with humility. Their impact on their team’s professional and personal lives is substantial, making it all the more important to have the right people manning them.

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