Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everything I ever learned about good management from bad managers

Several weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague of mine, who had confided to me that she had had the worst managers ever at a former company. Naturally I was intrigued, because poor managers are a special interest of mine, and I hoped to cash in like Scott Adams on her tale of woe. So, while tucking into a delicious French country salad with mushroom pizzata, I settled in for a pleasurable tale of pointy haired bosses.

Here is her tale: Her first hiring manager out of school had left the company by the time she showed up. Her new manager was not unkind but unable to either communicate what he wanted or understand what she needed from him. She moved to a new team and again her new manager transitioned somewhere else. Her next manager was a 'resource hog, an information hog and a gate keeper.' On one memorable Monday she was no where to be found - it turned out she was in Europe and couldn't get home until the middle of the week! When my friend requested some additional training to grow professionally and add more value in her current role, this was denied on the grounds of it being unfair to the other team members. And when she finally complained about her manager's incompetence to the next level manager, that manager failed to treat the information in confidence and disclosed the entire converstation to her manager, making it impossible for them to continue working together. She then went on to have several other medicre manager encounters before going to graduate school and starting over with a clean slate.

What chiefly struck me as I listened to her tale is that nothing very horrible happened - no one was yelled at or publicly insulted or forced to clean toilets with a toothbrush. No sexual harassment or anything like that. A fresh, ambitious new hire was thwarted in her desire for speedy professional growth, which is frustrating but not that unusual. And a poor middle manager was protected by an equally poor upper manager. In fact, if anything the upper manager is the real villain in the piece for allowing a poor manager to destroy team morale on his watch.

But far more interesting than my own reflections is what my friend took away from this experience: She learned that bad managers get away with bad management and that the only way to escape bad management and enjoy management perks - and make a positive difference - is to become a manager.

Our conversation made me wonder if this is what companies are teaching people by promoting people who lack management skills into management positions and then allowing them to continue in leadership roles regardless of whether they have the makings of a leader. If so, the workforce is probably full of people who are dissatisfied with both their current role and their current manager.

Oh, wait, it is.

I refer you to a thought-provoking post over at Talented Apps about the importance of job fit when considering promotions. Here we see the hint of an ideal world where success is not about the next promotion, but about doing what you love and being recognized and rewarded for doing it well. This can only happen, however, if management stops being seen as the path to autonomy, recognition and higher pay.

Or alternatively, I should add, a thankless job that involves lots of paperwork and political tapdancing so that no one with the right skills wants to do it.

What do you think?


  1. In schools, the management just sucks up the pay checks and excels at protecting each other from any one finding out that they really do jack!!! Absolutely jack. I want to fire the whole administration to hire some more teachers.

  2. I agree! I don't want to advance upwards as I like what I do, but some appreciation and encouragement wouldn't go amiss! Most managers seem to think that all employees want is more promotion and more money, no matter what kind of crap they have to put up with.

    I do think that this hamster wheel syndrome starts at college where the emphasis is on having a career. I believe the emphasis should be on doing something you love.

  3. I could so relate to your post.

    A little over a year ago I was promoted from workerbee to lower management. I was thrilled, and I thought I would be able to implement those changes I had talked about wanting to see while I was a workerbee.

    A year later, I have discovered to my dismay that I am still just a workerbee only with a fancy title. I feel I am being squeezed.

    I hear the complaints of the staff who are asking me what happened?! Why hasn't anything changed?! At the same time, I am being told by upper management do what I say not as I do.

    I hear upper management tell me to cut costs, cut hours and cut staff, and yet I know they make high six figures and frequently travel across the country for 'corporate training retreats.'

    I feel like I am in a employment hell.

  4. Belated thanks for the hat tip and I have to say I think this might be the topic of your book some day. Bad managers and the havoc they can cause. I had an idea once to write a book about how managers can screw up any talent strategy faster than you can make it but I realized I don't know how to write that well ;-).


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