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The (Still) Sad State of the American Manager—and What We Can Do About It

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Every year, Gallup releases the State of the American Manager, its analysis of the current condition of managerial expertise. The latest results, released December 2017, contained several new conclusions, but the grim fact remains: Little has changed with the state of management in the United States. The sobering news:

  • One-third (35 percent) of managers are engaged in their work.
  • One in five managers (18 percent) has the “high talent” needed to succeed in their roles.
  • Bad management costs the U.S. economy anywhere from $319 billion to $398 billion in lost productivity annually.

We all know that bad managers wreak havoc on employee performance—either by not developing their teams and enabling accountability for results, or by simply creating an environment where employees don’t want to come to work. In fact, Gallup reports: “Managers account for at least 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. Gallup’s study of employee engagement found that just 30 percent of U.S. workers are engaged, demonstrating a clear link between poor managing and a nation of ‘checked out’ employees.”

Yet, the most somber news in the Gallup analysis may not be that the state of management is in disarray. More worrisome is Gallup’s conclusion about the innate nature of good managers: Only a certain number of managers are born with the capacity to manage others and, as a result, companies should focus more heavily on selection of managers rather than the development of them.

“If great managers seem scarce, it’s because the talent required to be one is rare. Talents are innate and are the building blocks of great performance,” the report states. “Gallup’s research reveals that about one in 10 people possess high talent to manage. Though many people are endowed with some of the necessary traits, few have the unique combination of talents needed to help a team achieve excellence in a way that significantly improves a company’s performance. These 10 percent, when put in manager roles, naturally engage team members and customers, retain top performers, and sustain a culture of high productivity.”

It's an odd conclusion to make because it defies the fundamental understanding we have about human development and the ability for people to change in a positive, progressive way. What’s more, taking such a static view inherently limits many people by default into managers or nonmanagers, ignoring the capacity for people to develop their skills.

So, are there some leaders who are just bad managers and can never be that great? Sure. But I would argue that a majority of individuals can be great—with the right tools, culture, and framework. That’s where ATD can set the right approach with its ACCEL model, a framework for the core skills managers need to be successful: accountability, collaboration, communication, engagement, and listening and assessing.

ACCEL revolves around establishing a culture (from the CEO to every manager on down) where learning and improving is the focus. And rather than focusing only on an individual’s strengths, ACCEL encourages managers to develop in five core areas, which might be areas that they currently are not considered strong.

Some might say this notion is folly, because having a talent for managing is simply innate. But ATD believes that everyone has the capacity to become better—where weaknesses can become strengths, with a focused effort on culture and learning as a priority.

Think about it: If every executive focused their efforts on improvement of their team, wouldn’t they see improvement in performance? Wouldn’t their results also improve? Indeed, in the end, your business certainly isn’t static, so why should your view of people be?

Learn more about our ACCEL model at, and make sure to check out our ATD/Yale Foundations of Management Excellence program, which is based on our ACCEL model.

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About the Author

Tim Ito is the co-founder of three ventures: Marketing Nice Guys, a marketing training company, Clarendon Digital, a marketing consultancy, and Find My Marketer, a jobs and community site. Previous to those roles, he served as a vice president at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), overseeing the content and digital marketing division. His career has also included stints at ASCD, America Online, Netscape, and AltaVista in content, marketing and product strategy lead roles. Tim started his career as a journalist—first as a reporter and writer for U.S. News & World Report magazine and then as a senior producer for He is the co-author of The B.S. Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak (April 2020), with Bob Wiltfong. Since 2015, he has also served as an adjunct professor of a popular digital marketing course at Georgetown University.

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Our team has dedicated 2018 as our Leadership Development year. We conducted a needs assessment in late 2017 to determine that we needed a formalized manager on-boarding program and adequate training to build a bench for potential managers. I would love to talk to anyone in ATD who has built a successful management/leadership program for a Technology Company (
Hi Carol,
Thanks for your comment. I'll email you separately.
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According to Gallup's research, it seems that the best investment of a learning/talent development practitioner's time is to develop methods to help their organizations identify the 1 in 10 people that possess the ability to manage others successfully. Once these individuals are identified, target resources into their development--not individuals whose abilities, competencies, and talents would better serve the company in other ways.
Hi Kim, I think that is Gallup's conclusion. I think the problem with that is that it's a lazy answer in some ways. It means people either have it or they don't. And learning departments shouldn't focus on it because 9 out of ten will never get there. To be honest, I haven't found that to be true. People do have the capacity to good become managers even if they don't seem like they have the ability at first -- particularly if they are shown how to do it the right way.
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The problem lies more with the managerial system than it does with managers. Empower managers and employees to think and act like owners, and all are engaged, not to mention profits improved. These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background:
Thanks Bill. I appreciate the heads up on these articles. I would definitely agree. Systems make companies work. In a bad system, even talented managers or employees won't be successful. In a good one, they should thrive. I think that's why setting up managers in the right system and developing them to succeed is critical.
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