Why people don’t want to be managers any more – and what to do about it

The general decline in workers’ keenness to take the conventional career path has profound implications. HR chiefs must rethink their strategies in areas ranging from employee retention to succession planning 

Young businesswoman in a meeting with colleagues

Offering opportunities for promotion has long been a key factor in employee engagement, but people’s aspirations are changing in a way that’s making the traditional career ladder less attractive to them. 

A recent survey by recruitment consultancy Randstad suggests that almost half of employees have little interest in climbing the greasy pole. While 56% of respondents considered themselves to be ambitious, one-third said that they had no intention of becoming managers. 

Jess Munday is the co-founder and HR chief of Custom Neon, a manufacturer and retailer of LED signs. She believes that such findings reflect a “changing perspective on what ambition and success mean”. 

More and more of us are associating managerial jobs with stressful workloads for which no pay rise can compensate, according to Munday, who believes that this view is deterring potential managers from seeking such roles. Instead, people are prioritising work/life balance and valuing their wellbeing and self-fulfilment as much as, if not more than, traditional career advancement. 

The rise of lateral and T-shaped career paths

Some workers prefer to focus on their own contribution rather than helping to develop others. Their ambition is to build a specialisation and hone skills that will keep them relevant in the longer term. That has nothing to do with ascending the corporate hierarchy. 

“Employees seeking fulfilment value becoming experts in their fields, diving deeper into their areas of interest, rather than taking on the extra responsibility of managing people,” Munday says.

This trend has been driven partially by the general flattening of organisational structures over the past 30 years. So says Sarah Hernon, principal consultant for career management at Manpower Group’s talent development company, Right Management. 

“There are more lateral and T-shaped career paths than vertical paths these days,” she reports. “As many organisations have flatter structures than they used to, people may work with several teams a day, none of which is led by their line manager. It’s a very different way of looking at the world.”

This situation has serious implications for line managers and senior decision-makers, especially HR chiefs. In particular, it means that strategies for employee engagement, staff retention and succession planning require a rethink.

Tailoring career development plans

For its part, Custom Neon has devoted much time and effort to understanding its employees’ motivations, introducing quarterly check-ins and biannual performance reviews with line managers. 

The aim is not only to discover potential in people and unleash it. It’s also to tailor development activities to the preferences of each employee, as not everyone will be motivated by the same training opportunities and incentives. Munday wants to ensure that all members of staff feel “challenged and stimulated”, whether they want to become managers or not. 

Even if people say they’d like to become managers, only a subset will have the right characteristics for that

For those who don’t, the company has concentrated on skills enhancement, created more project-based roles and introduced alternative career paths to support employees who are seeking to specialise.

“We’ve looked at ways to offer people more project work or to delegate some managerial tasks, as that still enables us to promote learning and growth, avoiding stagnation,” Munday explains. “The ethos is to try to meet the team where they are, while still enhancing our productivity, prosperity and purpose as a business.”

Another approach is to enable employees to develop complementary interests and skills. This works especially well in positions where there are obvious crossovers with other roles, such as sales, marketing and public relations. 

“Allowing some fluidity has worked well for us. Autonomy breeds innovation,” Munday says. “But, if there were no obvious opportunities available for someone, we’d evaluate where the strengths of that individual lie and how we could use these most effectively for them and the business.”

The problem of succession planning

An employer will also need to consider how people’s changing career preferences could affect its succession plans. Many firms have struggled with this in any case, so the challenge is becoming even tougher for them. 

Bruce Watt, senior vice-president at leadership consultancy DDI, cites his firm’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023, which revealed that only 12% of the 1,500-plus employers it surveyed had a strong pipeline of talent at all levels of the organisation. He believes that too many firms are promoting high performers to management roles whether they’re suited for these or not.

“Historically, presenting a one-dimensional pathway for ambition has always been a problem, but this is being magnified now, partly because more experienced managers are retiring,” Watt says. “Even if people say they’d like to become managers, only a subset will have the right characteristics for that.”

One way to address this is to focus on the top quartile of performers in the organisation and identify suitable management candidates: empathic listeners who naturally behave like coaches.

Munday notes that it’s important to understand why people with such qualities aren’t keen to move up the ladder. Some of them might be persuaded that they’d find a management role fulfilling, she suggests. This may be a case of “nurturing them and instilling confidence without pressure”.

Creating a virtuous management cycle

Munday believes that employers will be best served by reviewing people’s roles regularly to check how their work is evolving.

“At every quarterly check-in, we’ll look at our job descriptions to ensure that they’re still relevant and aligned with the company’s direction. This results in opportunities for some roles to change and integrate a broader range of responsibilities,” she explains, adding that this process will also give people the chance to “lead in areas they’re passionate about and, in some cases, become managers organically”.

A final consideration is the importance of ensuring that existing managers serve as positive role models. Watching an effective manager at work will make people more interested in emulating that individual, thereby creating a virtuous circle. 

But the opposite effect will obviously apply if “employees see a manager failing – that’s one of the most toxic situations. The adverse environment that this creates will deter them from becoming managers,” Watt warns. 

His advice to firms seeking to convert more employees into managers is straightforward: “This is about casting a wide net, identifying suitable candidates, offering them relevant development opportunities and providing the training and support that will set them up for success.”