When bad management happens to good people

mm Russ Finkelstein

Take a moment and picture the worst manager you ever had. Now, take a moment and practice your calming breathing after bringing up that memory. I hope that this person is far in your past and not your current manager. Did you have a tough time choosing just the one?

The truth is that most of us suffer through careers with managers whose approach limits us. 70% of Americans are unhappy in their jobs and it is a far shorter task for them to total up their great bosses.

Bad management often happens to good people. I’m writing here to explain it, and offer some advice so you might feel more empowered to be successful with a bad manager.

Bad Managers Aren’t Usually Bad People

I have on occasion been managed by, or had as peers, poor managers. I often talk to people who share truly heinous things done by the insecure who hope to limit the progression of others. And yet, while there are some villainous managers out there stroking white cats with diamond collars, bent on destroying people, they are not the majority.  

When I was a wee lad of 13, I worked 20 to 30 hours weekly for a soup kitchen in New Jersey, and my manager was a priest. He was called to do this work there and sought to give comfort to the poor and homeless in our community. But we still had daily problems getting the food together to serve the 200 people who showed up to be fed.

He struggled as a manager. What was needed was for someone to improve our process by reorganizing the pantry. As a teenager with an interesting mix of skills and limitations, I could see the issue and was overly delighted to tackle it, and things soon improved.

Your bad manager probably isn’t a bad person, either. Their work may not be a spiritual calling, but they most likely want to feel good about their effort, be respected and feel like they can lead and develop others.

Most people haven’t been trained to manage

It is rare to start out as a manager. It is as likely that a person’s boss saw in them the potential to lead as it is that someone just left, or there were no other choices. And so, they were suddenly tasked with managing people, on top of their other work.

It’s not surprising most managers don’t do a great job at it because it is also very likely that their manager is winging it, too. Our kindly soup kitchen priest may well not have had a course on managing a soup kitchen, nor been trained by another. He may have been a magnificent priest in his counseling and advising roles, but he had to take on a role where neither training nor support may have been available.

People are often thrust into management without actually being adequately prepared, and it’s sink-or-swim. People usually learn to swim, but the stroke isn’t particularly elegant or efficient, and it’s more geared towards staying afloat or professional survival than reaching for the stars.

Bad managers Can Develop Bad Habits

With very little training, even well meaning managers are likely to adopt bad habits, and start relying on bad processes to make decisions or direct operations.

In the soup kitchen, we had instituted a pantry management system of sorts, where all the food was just stacked all over. If you wanted canned peaches, they might be spread across seven different locations, none of which were regularly screened to see which cans were out of date or whether we had enough to feed everyone. When I had started my service there I asked about the organization and heard in response the classic, “because that’s the way we have always done it.” Fortunately, they had a pantry prodigy.

However, that lapse may feel a bit more excusable in light of another experience. I once worked for a manager who wouldn’t make a decision without checking her handheld “biorhythm meter”. She’d check the meter and say, “Oh, my biorhythm meter says my intellect is not particularly sharp today”, and that would be it until a better reading could be obtained. This was a smart and competent person in many ways, but this one process could single-handedly undermine staff’s opinion of her.

I bet you have a good story about a bad manager using arbitrary reasoning, or perhaps even astrology, to justify a lack of good process or strategic direction. It’s hard to challenge unusual reasoning, and that’s sometimes the point of a bad manager relying on it. If your boss tells you annual reviews are going to be rescheduled because “Mercury is in retrograde”, for example, then it’s hard to know where to even start.

For some, removing responsibility may be a relief. Just be on the lookout for this kind of thing because it can be the symptom of a deeper problem.

“Good management” is often defined differently, depending on where you work

As a society, we really don’t have an agreement on what constitutes good management.

In some places, good management means making sure everyone knows they are replaceable, like “cogs in a machine”. While in other places, good management means making sure that everyone feels their talents are contributing positively to the bettering of an institution.

I’d like us to have more agreement that we should be striving for the second kind of management, in America. But there are successful companies in the United States and around the world where management is driven by the former approach. This is all worth thinking about, as you steer your own career path. What sort of work culture are you attracted to? How do you go about learning the culture of a workplace before you apply to or accept a position?

If you aren’t careful you will carry the worst of your prior bosses with you

As a result of the lack of training, accumulation of bad process, and no common agreement about what good management means, people will often find themselves working for a manager who has a single nugget of management wisdom that they cling to and impart as though it were irrefutably true.

Depending on how much pressure you’re under you may, in turn, then carry that nugget on into your own career, too, as though it were the fundamental sign of a good manager. We sometimes need to ask others whether we have true gold or fool’s gold.

For example, a good friend shared with me that her boss, also a woman, shared with her the delightful chestnut that “nobody likes the smartest girl in the room.” This friend took that as one of the final signs that this wasn’t a great fit and located another job. Who knows where and when her boss was told that, but it went unchallenged, and she shared it with my friend without considering the implications of the advice.

This kind of “wisdom” carries greater power and a lot more prominence in badly managed organizations. Can you think of any such examples in your own working life? Has anyone ever challenged you to rethink a bad practice or management nugget you may have picked up in a previous position?

How can you fix these issues?

I hope you haven’t encountered these issues in your career so far, but odds are that you have. If some of them have surfaced, here are a few tips to consider whether you have a situation that can be saved. As you prepare to look more deeply at the issue, ask yourself:

Can this be fixed?

  • How strong is my relationship with this person? Can I have an honest conversation? Are they open to improving their management or do they feel they know it all and want you to conform to their preferences?
  • If it’s bad, and likely to be irreparable, can I move within the organization to work for someone else? Is there another team I can join?

If fixing isn’t likely, can I tolerate this situation, and if so, for how long?

  • Are you the kind of person or working in the kind of place where you can disassociate or detach emotionally? Can you work the bare minimum of hours and not be driven to feel a sense of failure because you are not in a position to do your best work?
  • How much damage is this job doing to you? How much is it lingering after work and on the weekends, affecting your overall confidence, and so on?

If staying isn’t likely, what’s the price for leaving now?

  • What’s the story you might share with others about this that doesn’t make you sound like you’re the problem?
  • What are the financial implications? What kind of timeline do you have for making a next move?

You can always improve your position, but the question is always how quickly and at what cost. Try to remember that what you learn from a bad manager compels and positions you to find a better one next time.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >