career satisfaction

Unhappy manager? You're far from alone.

July 20, 2012: 10:57 AM ET

There's plenty of evidence that most managers dislike their jobs. To change that, says one expert, stop trying to be someone you're not.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Your recent column about the possible downsides of getting a promotion struck a nerve with me, because I have kind of a weird problem. What happened was, I put in extremely long hours and a lot of creative effort during the past couple of years, while our company was suffering badly from the economic slump. Now that business has picked up a little, I've been "rewarded" with a big promotion. The trouble is that, most days, I feel like I won the booby prize.

I accepted this job because it comes with a big raise, and an office with an actual door, and because I didn't want to seem like a slacker by turning it down. But I really don't think I'm cut out to manage other people. I'm too introverted, I work (and think) much better alone, and I don't enjoy telling other people what to do or holding them accountable for doing it. Would it be crazy to ask for my old job back? Or should I just suck it up and try to get better at this? — Corner Office Blues

Dear C.O.B.: First of all, it might help to realize that your problem is not weird. In fact, it's extremely common. Consider: Fewer than half (42%) of new managers believe they understand how to succeed at their jobs, only 23% actually want to lead other people, and barely one in ten has had any formal preparation for the role, according to a recent study by training firm Development Dimensions International.

Another survey, by business publishers Berrett-Koehler, found that only 43% of managers are comfortable in their jobs, and fewer than one in three (32%) say they like managing.

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"Everyone thinks they're alone with this, but disliking being in charge is actually more common than liking it," says Devora Zack, head of Only Connect Consulting, based near Washington, D.C. In her work with organizations as diverse as Enterprise Rent-a-Car and the Internal Revenue Service, Zack has met so many unhappy managers that she has written a book about it, the soon-to-be-published Managing for People Who Hate Managing.

"Many people hate managing because they have a fixed idea in their minds of what an ideal manager is or does, and they think they can't live up to it," Zack observes. "For example, you might think, 'Now that I'm the boss, I have be strong, tough, and decisive!' But maybe you'd really rather manage by consensus -- or it might be vice versa.

"If some part of your job feels wrong to you, change the way you do it, or delegate it to someone else," she adds. "The truth is that there is no one right way to be a leader. You have to find what works for you, not for some imaginary perfect boss."

The first step, as you might expect, is to take a close look at your own personal style. Zack's book includes an assessment exercise, based on the Myers-Briggs Type personality test, to pinpoint whether you're a Thinker, basing your behavior on facts and logic, or a Feeler, leading from the gut and more empathetic in your approach to others. Most people have a mixture of both traits, but understanding where you stand on the continuum can help you understand your strengths.

"Accept who you are and use it," Zack says. Let's look, for example, at your preference for working alone, a classic characteristic of introverts. "Contrary to popular belief, introverts can make great bosses. For one thing, they are usually excellent listeners one-on-one," says Zack -- compared to extroverts, who like to do most of the talking.

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One popular management technique that spells misery for introverts is an open-door policy. "Letting people interrupt you all day will drive you crazy and make you frustrated and grouchy," Zack says. Instead, make it known that your door is open only during certain times of day, except in emergencies. "The point is to stick with practices that let you be your best self," she adds. "People respond to leaders who are authentic."

While you're at it, Zack suggests, "take the time to notice what drives the people on your team. What motivates and engages them? Then deal with them accordingly."

For instance, if you're giving performance feedback to a Thinker, she says, "stick with the facts and get right to the point. Otherwise you'll just annoy that person, and they'll start tuning you out." Making the effort to tailor your approach to different individuals "is more work than treating everyone exactly the same," she adds. "But you'll get much better results -- and that in itself will give you more satisfaction with your job."

You're starting with at least one big advantage, by Zack's lights. "Even being willing to admit that you don't like this job, and you don't think you're good at it, shows a high level of self-awareness," she says. It may not seem so right now, but that's actually a positive thing. "The worst is someone who thinks he or she is a great manager but actually is not," says Zack. "Those are the people who do real damage."

Talkback: Have you ever gotten a promotion you weren't ready for or didn't really want? How did you adjust to it? Leave a comment below.

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