Creating Excellence Through People

Having Empathy for Unskilled Managers

Unskilled managers can turn a business and their team upside down. Is it even possible to have sympathy or empathy for them?

If you have chosen to take a look at this blog, my guess is that you are motivated by curiosity to learn what the heck I mean by this. Empathy for unskilled managers? “Bad” managers can turn a business and their team upside down, so how is it even possible to have sympathy or empathy for them?

To begin, choosing to use the terms “skilled or unskilled” to replace terms like “good or bad” is the first step in choosing empathy and exercising awareness. When we deem something good or bad, it can be regarded as more of a personal opinion or judgment. A mentor once explained to me that describing someone as skilled or unskilled, even in our own personal and professional development, allows space for acknowledgement, change, and potential improvement.

According to research, 85% of new managers receive no formal training for their new roles. Another study indicates a substantial number of management roles are filled with untrained and unskilled individuals who are promoted because they are popular, solid individual contributors, or simply in the right place at the right time. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve never seen one or all three of these dynamics come to play.

These stats align with a previous Level Up blog: The Peter Principle: Impacts to Your Organization and Your Career, when I discussed how the Peter Principle establishes that current performance is often the basis of a promotion into management. As a result, people within the organization will be promoted until they reach a level of incompetence. Why would we want that for our company or our own careers?

There isn’t a day that goes by that my LinkedIn feed doesn’t show content pitting managers and leaders against one another. “Manager” has become a “bad” word, while “leader” has taken over the spotlight. Leadership and management are both full of skills that overlap. Both are very relevant in roles that set the vision and offer others direction on how to get there. That direction is the managerial part. Try being a manager without the knowledge or skills to delegate tasks, partner with people, and gain results.  There is no room to even think about strategy or vision when we can’t find wins in the tactical aspects of management.

On the leadership side of the equation, remember that only about 10% of people possess inherent leadership qualities and around 20% more display managerial skills that can be cultivated into leadership. This means that many managers lack the skills to perform their job as managers, much less be skilled enough to become authentic leaders.

So, how can we leverage empathy to identify and support unskilled managers, and determine a path forward for all?


  • Making decisions based on what we know or have experienced ourselves will become repetition until we gain new knowledge and experiences. Ensure hiring managers are skilled at making decisions based on qualifications and are proactive in identifying areas of needed development in a candidate prior to making a hire or awarding a promotion. Otherwise, they may be perpetuating cycles of how they were promoted to manager or become impressionable through the decision-making of other unskilled managers. As Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
  • Have a personalized employee development plan for new managers out of the gate. Compose a personalized employee development plan for managers who have been in place for a while. Most will need it, and if not, those rare folks will be your best advocate for professional development and encouragers of their fellow managers.
  • Having sympathy for a new or struggling manager is basically watching and waiting to see if they sink or swim. Having empathy means that you take the time to try to understand the manager and offer feedback, development opportunities, resources, and a path forward for the manager. Does this mean it always works out? Maybe or maybe not, but doing your due diligence is your obligation as an employer who made the decision to hire or promote.

New or Struggling Managers

  • Your career is your responsibility. Before taking on a management role, make sure that you are up for the commitment. It not only comes with a new title or pay bump, but it comes with a lot of responsibility to others and yourself.
  • Seek out your own development opportunities. Don’t wait for an employer to offer training. It may or may not happen. Reflect on your go-to styles of communication and leadership, along with strengths and areas of challenge. Then, act on it. Information alone lacks impact.
  • Own it! If you have fallen into the trenches of a struggling manager, recognize it. This doesn’t mean that you will never be a highly skilled manager. What it does mean is that you are aware enough to acknowledge areas and situations that challenge you. Maybe you are more successful as an individual contributor. If so, look for lateral moves that offer career expansion. There are also plenty of progressing managers who can never hit a growth spurt because they are in an environment that puts a cap on learning, development and organizational change. If this is the case, pivot and find a place to continue your management and leadership journey.

Unskilled managers can do a number on a business in terms of work environment, team dynamics, retention, and results. It seems outrageous to even suggest we should apply empathy in this context. Doing so certainly does not minimize the damage that behaviors and decision-making of an unskilled manager can cause those who report to them, but the research says it all.  Putting the cart before the horse to extend blame to managers who have never been offered support or development, and may not be qualified for the role in the first place, will not offer solutions.

Level Up Solutions can help you make a positive impact on your business and career. Management training and career coaching are offered to support new and struggling managers. Visit our website to learn more.

“As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.” ~ Jim Rohn

Like and SHARE!

Picture of Terri Cummings

Terri Cummings

As Owner & Senior Consultant at Level Up Solutions HRD LLC, Terri Cummings is an advocate of lifelong learning who fosters bridging the connection between personal and professional development. Through strategy and proactive development, her aim is to align students, members of the workforce, and employers with continuous growth and opportunity that achieves sustainable success.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get bi-weekly tips and tricks to restart your career – right to your inbox!