The "Accidental Manager" is perhaps ubiquitous now more than ever, but the concept has been around for a long time. The Peter Principle, by Laurence J. Peter, introduced the concept that people successful in their role are promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer competent, and that was published back in 1969!
This idea was further popularized by the Dilbert cartoons, in which the Dilbert Principle mocks the notion that the least competent people are given more managerial responsibilities and power, which is often misused. Quite simply, the "Accidental Manager" can be characterized by a person who reluctantly, unknowingly, unintentionally, or inadvertently becomes a manager.
Perhaps the people management responsibility has defaulted to the "Accidental Manager" because the incumbent manager is too busy, or perhaps the organization has created the new position and has mandated that a person from the existing hierarchy and team takes on the post.
It is of course possible that the manager position has been removed altogether to reduce headcount, but all their responsibilities still need to be picked up by someone, or perhaps the organization has struggled to recruit for this position from the labor market, and "you're it" until they find someone better! There are many circumstances where an accidental manager is created.
In the organization's defense, from their perspective, succession and continuity are rarely easy. Taken to the extreme, the alternative would be to promote someone who is clearly struggling in their current role. Out of the two choices, it's logical to opt for the seemingly more reasonable option. So, if you are an accidental manager, take it as a compliment and confidence booster. It's in your organization's interest to set you up to succeed, and there are people who believe you are capable of becoming a manager.
Rewarding underperformance, as opposed to achievement, could be seen as a blow to the morale of others and a cultural disaster affecting the organization's core people values. It would be a realization of the Dilbert Principle! Ask yourself the following questions:
- You're a brilliant developer. Can you manage the team as well?
- You're a brilliant developer. Can you manage some projects, too?
So, what does all this mean to you, and how can you understand it and use it to your advantage? For argument's sake, let's say you are a brilliant developer, probably the best among your peers as recognized by the organization. In that case, there's a chance you could become an accidental manager if the circumstances arise, and perhaps you already are. Being an accidental manager can be interpreted as a purely negative thing, a lesser version of what you may think of as being a "real manager," but let's be clear - it is not!
Circumstances create the accidental manager, but they don't define the person in this position. The key to making this accidental journey a success is to embrace it and get the required training and support – as little or as much as you need, when you need it.