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I’ve been meaning to pen this blog for a while; I’ve had the pleasure of working with many people over the last 15 years of my career, and for some reason over the last few months, I’ve had the desire to jot down the traits of good and bad managers that I’ve noticed, and share my experience.

Whilst working with people is complex, there are definitely certain traits that bad managers made, and the worst of them make all of these mistakes, every day. I hope you can read this and be introspective.

Bad managers…

Don’t give clear and consistent feedback

Have you ever worked with a manager, and you ask how you’re doing, and they respond “Great”? You ask what you could be doing better and they tell you that everything is great. I remember a conversation with two managers a few years back, where they criticized one of their employees to me. I asked the question “have you given them that feedback?”; they looked at each other, perplexed.

Many times, if you give someone feedback, they will change their behavior; this isn’t foolproof, as some things don’t change, but my experience is that many times, when people behave a certain way, they aren’t self-aware.

They say that you shouldn’t tell off a cat, unless you catch it in the act; they have no clear sense of cause and effect apart from in the moment, and this is similar with humans: if you have feedback, then give it then and there. Sometimes it can cause offense, but most people don’t hold this against you.

Get frustrated with their employees in front of others

I was on a call a few weeks back, and the manager took another manager to task, in front of their team. I took the first manager to one side later, and pointed out this behavior. All this does is build resentment.

Instead, just take the person to one side and point out the behavior. Be clear, and timely.

Point out the obvious, without helping (seagull management)

Quite often when a manager looks in on a problem from the outside, the solution is quite obvious. Sometimes, a manager will swoop in like a seagull, poop everywhere, and fly out again. In many cases the people involved in the problem is already well understood by the team, and what they needed was help, rather than someone pointing out the obvious.

If as a manager, you get called in to help with a problem, it’s because your team need your advice, experience, and ability to change the dynamic of what’s going on. Perhaps they need you to change the parameters of the problem, the timeline, the deliverable, or the team. You need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Take credit for other people’s work

I always judge a manager by the way in which they develop and grow their team, and the people with whom they work. So if a manager takes the work from one of their team, and presents it as their own, it gives a really bad impression. What’s worse, if you’re presenting the information and you don’t know the detail, you can look really stupid if the people you are presenting to want detail.

For sure, it can be easy to do this by accident – so always make a point to attribute who within your team did the hard work. As a manager, it may be your job to present the work, because you have the skill of information aggregation, but take a moment to give credit. And, if you need to present the detail, bring that person into the meeting so you can call on them for their expertise.

Get people to do things they aren’t good at

One of the great correlations in teams, is the correlation between people working on what they are good at, and enjoying their work. If you’re not a good project manager, then being asked to do project management will make you miserable (that’s me!). If you’re not a good public speaker, then being asked to speak at conferences may not be the right thing.

Good managers see what their team are good at, align their tasks and goals with this, and then push them to give more. Most people like to be challenged to give a little extra. And great managers can tell the difference between what people aren’t good at, and what they don’t have the aptitude to do, and will push their team accordingly.

Aren’t willing to get the pizza

Good leaders are 10% strategists, and 90% waterboys. A good manager will realize that if their team is performing very well, and under extreme pressure, then the best thing they can do is to be in charge of communications and nourishment.

If your team needs pizza, then go buy them pizza (and salad, to be healthy!). Don’t delegate this to a stressed-out team member and don’t ever think that a task is below you. And if your team needs protecting from the customer, a steering group, or themselves, then be the shield and do the communications. Make sure you get what your team really needed (buying Hawaiian pizza when your team are don’t eat pork will win you no friends!).

Get frustrated… at the wrong time…

There’s nothing wrong with showing frustration, and sometimes you need to show frustration to get your point across. But you must choose your time, and bad managers don’t know when to do this. For instance, if your team is under extreme pressure then they will make mistakes… and adding to that pressure will make them unhappy.

If you can keep your head when all about you  

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  

                                                            – Kipling, If

Control your frustration, and show emotion when you want to.

Are too busy to spend time with their team

We’ve all been there – deadlines are looming, pressure is mounting, and stress levels are high. But if your team ask for help, you need to be willing to drop what you’re doing and spend time with them. Bad managers don’t prioritize their team, and why should your team prioritize you in return?

Instead, take the time to listen, and empower them, because bad managers…

Don’t empower their team to make mistakes

Your team should be able to make appropriate decisions according to their role. Is it necessary to spend some budget to take the team out to dinner to say thank you? If so, then they should be able to do it. Bad managers micromanage their team members and try to make small decisions for them – wasting everyone’s time.

Let your team make mistakes, and tell them where they went wrong, give feedback in a positive way and move on.

Don’t provide the tools to do the job

Your team need the tools with which to do their job, and if they don’t have them, they will be unhappy. I remember working in a company where there was a culture that important people got the best laptops, and junior people got hand-me-downs. This meant that the people doing most critical hands-on work had the worst machines.

When we set up the IT policy at Bluefin, we deliberately set this up the other way: consultants get new laptops when they arrive, on the day they arrive. If they need a new laptop then they should get one – notionally on a 3 year rolling policy, with exceptions where relevant. If anything, the management team have older laptops.

Lack Self-Awareness

Yes, this is #11, but I wanted to add it at the last moment. Probably the worst trait of bad managers is that they don’t know that they’re making the mistakes above, and aren’t aware on the impact. Their team doesn’t grow and they are resentful towards them, and escape, either internally or externally.

To grow as a leader, all you have to look inside yourself and see what’s going on, and make corrections. This is a tough ask!

Final Words

Just in case it wasn’t clear, whilst the words you read have been shaped by my experiences, this article isn’t a tirade towards a manager of mine – past or present. In fact, if anything, the managers that I have worked for have taught me these lessons and helped me, so thanks for that.

And yes, probably there are people reading this who see the irony that I’ve behaved towards them in one of those ways. Yes, I’ve probably made all of these mistakes and then some. Sorry about that.

What else did I miss?

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14 Comments

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  1. Joao Sousa

    Don’t get me wrong, I find your blog well written and loved some of your other blogs, but these “10 things….” have been done to death by Forbes or Harvard Business Week.

    I was reading the Pizza one, and remembering I had just read that one this last week (I don’t remember where).

    And to make it clear, I’m not saying you copy pasted some article, just that the content is available in other sources and people probably have read something similar to it before.

    Giving feedback 🙂

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      1. Joao Sousa

        Actually the “ask for feedback” could be on the list. Managers shouldn’t be afraid to ask for feedback from their team, it opens the communication both ways,


        Just last week one of my team said I was looking  upset and she was afraid to talk to me about some stuff (I could bite her head off). i didn’t think I was, but apparently that was preventing fluid conversation. We talked and everything was discussed.


        If she didn’t feel comfortable giving feedback it would have decreased team efficiency.

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    1. John Appleby Post author

      Thanks for the feedback! People don’t call me out often enough, and it certainly made me think.

      I think I agree with you that much of this information isn’t new – what is truly new in this world after all? It’s the subject of many books on management, leadership and some of those – which have dealt with it in many times more detail, with empirical facts.

      I also agree with you that listening skills, including feedback, would be a good addition to the list. It’s also, ironically, something that I could also be better at.

      I’m not sure that I agree with you that it wasn’t worth writing – there are plenty of people who read SCN that don’t read HBR or other sources. Perhaps it helps someone. My mantra right now is “change is a process, that requires repetition”.

      And also lastly, missing from this blog was the rationale behind writing it. Sometimes, I write to educate, market, or a hundred other reasons, and sometimes I write for myself. This one was written for me. 🙂

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  2. Simon To

    Great blog John! I see many of these behavior in most of the companies I work/worked. Some of these are common sense. Unfortunately, management typically is too wrapped up with his/her own growth that he/she cannot see them.

    I would like to add one more if I may. A good manager should know how to maintain a good balance of “Chief-to-Indian” ratio. Very often, you have way too many people who have a say on the design and how it should be done, but not enough people to actually do the job. Too many “Chiefs” and not enough “Indians” will guarantee a failure and resentment.

    In my humble opinion, a manager’s success should always be measured by the success of his/her subordinates.

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    1. John Appleby Post author

      Thanks and good shout. Yes and many companies now realize that they have too many middle-managers and not enough people actually doing work.

      It’s something I’ve always tried to ensure I retain – the ability to get stuck in. Sometimes managers create a culture of being too important to do actual work, and this becomes something to aspire to.

      It comes to the topic of another blog I’ve been meaning to write – how the universe will always eventually reset itself, when it is out of balance. In this case – a bad management culture will always have to be corrected, if only because financial results or the entire market forces it – see the financial crisis and the impact on banking as a great example.

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      1. Joao Sousa

        It’s something I’ve always tried to ensure I retain – the ability to get stuck in. Sometimes managers create a culture of being too important to do actual work, and this becomes something to aspire to.

        And then your best people stop doing “actual work”. Worse, some of these people aren’t even good manager material and yet they desperately want to become one. Not that I consider management irrelevant, it’s very necessary, but it shouldn’t be viewed as the only outcome to aspire to.

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        1. Jon-Paul Boyd

          Might be slightly OT, however totally agree to this point.

          Companies should reward technical expertise on same footing as management expertise and allow for multiple upwards avenues or pillars of progression. The same “Recognition” and “rewards package” should be accessible to those bringing a wealth of technical know how and can-do but with little appetite for team management as for those wishing to manage larger teams.

          Would this mean less bad managers?

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          1. Joao Sousa

            Would this mean less bad managers?

            I believe so, because I find that the predominent culture is to reward the management careers, and good technical people are forced onto that path, a path for which they lack the skills.

            In the end you lose a good technician and gain a bad manager.

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  3. Kumud Singh

    Hi John,

    My first thought was to put an additional point in the list..but then I think one of the toughest challenge a manager could face is to earn respect of his/her team members. Probably you could rename the title as ‘How could a manager earn respect of his team members’?

    I also very much agree with an opinion I must have read in Marcus Buckingham book that when situation demands a manager should be able to code and help out the team and project. ( in case he is leading a development team )

    These are few topics which often gets to the surface and gets discussed. I am not sure if you would agree but the list would only get changed and added with time.

    Regards,

    Kumud

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  4. Bjorn-Henrik Zink

    Hi John,

    thanks for sharing your experience, I always enjoy reading your posts.

    Perhaps this one fits on the bad manager list: Kiss-Up and Kick-Down managers

    The manager is very charming and perhaps adored by those who are friends or equal-status colleagues. They go out of their way to compliment their peers or those they view as in higher positions. However, if you are a person who is seen as inferior or who has a lower position in a company or organization, watch out! You will be subject to a barrage of negativity and blame you may have never experienced before.

    (Understanding the Psychology of the Kiss-Up/Kick-Down Leader | Lightkeepers Journal)

    Another thing I was thinking about when reading your blog is that you mainly focus on interpersonal skills. I assume it is because you have had the luck to always have managers that know their managerial tools, such as planning, being well-structured and communication among many others.

    /Björn-Henrik

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  5. Jon-Paul Boyd

    Interesting blog John, as I’ve been around “the block” 20 years and it still amazes me how poor many can be at management, and how refreshing, inspiring and motivating it is to work with good managers.

    Personally I see the essential ingredients separating good from bad is their level of humanity and ability to understand human needs.

    Poor managers can act like schoolyard bullies.   They can be secretive with change that affects livelihoods and micromanage to the extent of oppression.   I have seen grudges borne because they are overly sensitive, will always want the last word or generally have a personality disorder!

    They are vague with direction and instruction.  They have little backbone to challenge their own bad management.  They misunderstand the needs of each individual, for example not consistently attending a weekly scheduled meeting with a trainee – manager might not see it as the most important meeting in their working week, but the trainee does. 

    I also detest managers who do not give recognition where deserved, especially to juniors who value this for confidence building.  Poor managers can be narcissistic where every meeting turns into the “Mr/Mrs X Show”. 


    Poor managers fear feedback.


    Unfortunately there is also just sheer incompetence with those in positions of management who shouldn’t be there.

    Poor managers earn nothing but contempt and poor performance.

    Good managers stay out of a team’s way so they can get on with the job.  They share visibility and tell the truth, even if that can be difficult.

    They demonstrate trust by allowing competent teams to self manage.  They have an empathy for each individual (we are all different, with our professional skills, our private and family lives) and they are interested in engaging with the whole team.  They liberate rather than suffocate.  They have a pretty stable personality!

    They are clear with direction and instruction. They shield the team from duress.  They know how to actively listen.  They sing praise and reward where appropriate, right down to those on the front line.  

    Good managers solicit feedback from employees.

    They earn loyalty and extra effort.

    Just my 2 cents as I see it.

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  6. Karl Tan

    Hi there,

    This blog created some jokes amongst the people I used to work with and we could easily pinpoint instances that match every single reason you listed!

    Jokes aside, the next blog you might be interested to write is to advise what can one do to address this issue if he/she has a manager like this, besides quitting. 🙂 I read somewhere that the most common reason one quits his/her job is the boss, so a manager like this can potentially hurt the organization because good people will not be inclined to hang around for long. Certainly, a great company like SAP deserves better managers, and as a result, superb employees/workers.

    Cheers!

    Karl

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  7. Reuven Gorsht

    Great post John.

    If there’s only one takeaway, it serves a good reminder that there really isn’t such thing as a “manager” who is responsible for just managing and delegating (or dispatching if you want to call it that).   Those who can inspire the collective intelligence and capabilities of their teams, roll-up their sleeves and spend time in the trenches with their teams will always thrive.    Those managers who are dispatching work and add no value won’t last.

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