5 Habits of Bad Managers

Bad managers can make a good team bad, a bad team worse, and in either case will make you want to pull your hair out and scream into the void.

5 Habits of Bad Managers
Photo by Icons8 Team / Unsplash

We've all been there, had those jobs, and worked for those people: bad managers. Bad managers can make a good team bad, a bad team worse, and in either case will make you want to pull your hair out and scream into the void. Trying to work with a bad manager is like trying to explain astrophysics to a poodle, you're better off avoiding them and finding workarounds than trying to rely on them for anything. But what if I told you there are two kinds of bad managers? One kind are the ones that think they know everything and will never change, and the other are the ones who are bad because they don't know any better, didn't have any good examples to follow, or maybe just don't know what being a good manager looks like. So today I would like to walk through the five habits of bad managers and provide some guidance on how to break those habits. Maybe we can rescue a few bad managers along the way.

Habit #1: Reacting With Emotion

Often the first sign you're in for dealing with a bad manager is seeing how they react to situations or treat those whom they have some authority over. Yelling, screaming, name-calling, making threats, and other antisocial behavior is a sure sign that someone is letting their emotions take charge and is not reacting or speaking from a place of thoughtful consideration. Emotion-first behavior is detrimental to the morale and culture of an organization because it relies on spreading those emotions to others – most often those of fear and insecurity. Abuse of any kind, even verbal abuse, is never appropriate in a workplace environment and should never be tolerated. Just because someone is "intense" or "means well but has a rough attitude" is no excuse for belittling and bullying anyone, workplace or not.

The things that leaders say and do are important, and managers are leaders, whether they want to think of themselves as such or not. The words that we say as leaders should be measured and thoughtful and come from a place of sincerity. There is a place for emotion in the workplace, I wouldn't want to pretend that there's not, but emotions should not be the thing that lights the path forward.

How Can A Manager Break This Habit?

Stop and think. Before you react, take five seconds to think about what it is that's happening, how you feel about it, and what the correct course of action should be. Think about it logically, not emotionally. Don't ignore your emotions – a gut feeling can be a powerful tool – but don't let them rule you, either.

Habit #2: Taking Credit, Giving Blame

You've been working long nights on your latest project. You've spent hundreds of hours generating requirements, soliciting feedback from partner teams, contacting vendors, listening to pitches, evaluating solutions, matrixing, decisioning, discussing, debating, and deliberating. Finally, you sit down and hammer out your report: a beautiful, tightly worded, 15-page whitepaper on why Vendor X will serve the needs of the business best and save the company tens of thousands of dollars over building the solution in-house. Proofread and redlined, you attach your report to an email that outlines the basic argument and the broad strokes of your findings and send it to your boss. A few days go by and the next thing you know your skip-level manager is talking at your division all-hands about how your boss put together an excellent report and will save the company a ton of money. And, to add insult to injury, because of the excellent work, the company decides to give your boss a small piece of the savings as a bonus. You are livid. How could he just take credit for your work? You confront your boss, but he dismisses you as not being a team player or being jealous of the attention, and he says you should focus on your next project instead of complaining.

Sound familiar?

I think we've all been there, and I think we all would agree that the boss is an asshole. But still, let me spell it out.

A good leader, and a good manager, should actively look for opportunities to praise their team to whoever will listen. A good manager will give credit where credit is due because a good manager wants his or her reports to succeed and not stand in the way of that success. In fact, in a healthy organization, those managers and leaders who routinely develop talent and have reports promoted year over year are recognized for that work because that is the work. Managers should be investing in their people to help them achieve their career goals, even if those goals lie outside their current team or even outside the company. Investing in and developing people is the #1 priority, but you can't do that if you don't provide the sunlight for your people to grow. Taking credit for work they haven't done and failing to speak up for their team are traits of toxic managers. But that's not to say that these kinds of managers aren't willing to share attention with their team, in fact, they're more than happy to blame the team when things go wrong. Bringing their team into the spotlight when projects don't go as planned or when the manager fails in their responsibilities means there's less blame to be heaped on a single person. But this is the exact opposite of what they should do. A good manager/leader shields their people from blame and takes ownership of mistakes, regardless of whether those mistakes or outcomes were in their control or not. That is the cost of leadership.

How can a manager break this habit?

To change you must first understand and take to heart what your role as a manager is: a coach, a mentor, a leader, a shepherd, and a guide. The best way you can demonstrate your value to a healthy organization is to develop your people so that they surpass you, not so you can stand on their shoulders. Praise them in public and in private, shield them from politics, fallout, and bullshit, and take a personal interest in the people you lead. Do this and people will follow you.

Habit #3: Talking First

This one hits a little too close to home for me, but it's something that I'm actively working on and trying to get better at. When making decisions or soliciting feedback it is important for every member of a team that wants to speak up and voice ideas or opinions are able to do so. Not just the ability to speak up and voice their opinion, but not feel as if they're going to contradict management or step on anyone's toes if they do. Bad managers think they know everything and will walk into a room and talk about "we're gonna do X, we're gonna do Y", ask a placating "any questions?", then adjourn thinking the team came to a decision. In reality, the manager didn't give the team a chance to respond in a way that was psychologically safe or that demonstrated their voice would even be heard. Commandeering a conversation from the start shows your team or your conversation partner that their opinion doesn't matter, that you don't want their input and that you know better than they do, even if the opposite is true. The things you do as a leader carry weight even if you don't intend them to, so it's important to be extremely conscious of when you might be putting a toe on the scale.

How can a manager break this habit?

The first step is to recognize the influence and authority that you have. As a person in a position of power, even of limited power, you have natural sway over the people in your care. After all, you're the one that ensures they continue to have a job, earn a paycheck, and can find work elsewhere. The simplest way to break this habit is to facilitate discussion, not lead it. The difference is in how the discussion is framed and orchestrated: instead of giving your opinion and asking for input, first set the topic and allow space and time for the team to discuss. At that point, your job is to guide the conversation, bringing up potential pitfalls or setting guardrails, but not telling or leading where the conversation should go. Once everyone has had an opportunity to give their input, then you may pipe up and give yours. But, as I often find, the collective wisdom of my team is often smarter than my original opinion, and whatever solutions we walk away with are typically a hybrid of my original thoughts cross-bred and co-mingled with the best and boldest that my team has to offer. And in this synthesis, you'll find a team that is more willing to engage and give input, is happier with the overall outcome, and is more invested in the work than if they had simply been told to do some tasks or take on some project they had no insight or input into.

Habit #4: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

It's trendy these days to say your company or organization is a data-driven one, where metrics are king and business intelligence informs key decisions. Companies like Meta and Amazon are notorious for making cold, calculating decisions based on nothing but some numbers in a spreadsheet. And in some ways, I understand the impetus to move decisions from the realm of intuition to empirical data: it's easy to defend a decision if the numbers back you up. After all, numbers don't lie, do they? As the name of this Habit alludes, numbers certainly can lie, and sometimes the worst lies are told with mountains of data backing them up. It's only through a rigorous and thoughtful application of the proper methodology to the data can we begin to pull truth from the data lake. But even then, even when you have all of the available data, all of the metrics, all of the measurables available to you, even then it's not enough. Some decisions are too important to leave up to the algorithm, and some choices should not be made by regression models. Sometimes the impact of a person, their performance, relationships within an organization, or even a single seemingly isolated change can have massive ramifications that reach far beyond the data lake's edge.

As well-intentioned as a bad manager may be in wanting to rely on empirical data to make decisions, not recognizing situations in which that reliance is misguided results in bad management decisions. On paper, it may seem that a senior developer contributes less code to a given codebase than a junior developer and that senior developer may have a slower user-story velocity than their peers. Those individual facts won't be disputed by anyone that looks at the data, but what they will dispute is the story that they tell. Someone who doesn't know any better may look at that and think the senior developer isn't pulling their weight, but those who understand teams and the roles that senior team members play in those teams will understand that the senior developer's contributions aren't just to the code but to the team as a whole. Metrics and KPIs can't account for intangibles like leadership, mentorship, and experience. Organizations relying only on metrics-based personnel decisions inevitably regress to the performance mean; in other words, high-performers with low metrics leave while low-performers with good metrics stay, skewing the relative performance of the organization somewhere to the middle (accounting for skills growth in some subsection of the population). Organizations that don't prioritize individual growth and self-betterment are even worse off.

How can a manager break this habit?

Don't look at people as a set of numbers or a matrix of metrics to be compiled, divided, apportioned, or calculated. That's not to say that metrics are bullshit – metrics very much have a place in organizations when it comes to personnel – but one cannot live on metrics alone. You need to take a more holistic view of the individual, team, and organization, understand the dynamics in play therein, and calibrate expectations and performance ratings based on the global picture. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, never really cared for statistics or win/loss records.  In fact, his measure of success never even mentions winning. Coach Wooden's definition of success is this:

Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable.

How you measure success in your team or organization will most likely be different, after all, you have deadlines or OKRs to meet. However, measure success (or performance) in the totality and don't fail to ignore its intangible signs.

Habit #5: Facing the Wrong Direction

We've all worked for that one person that's more interested in what their boss thinks of them than the well-being or culture of the team they're leading. My first real taste of this pro-level brown-nosery was as a barista at Starbucks. Our store manager was more concerned with hobnobbing it with the district manager than actually running the store. Whether it was her being constantly on the phone with corporate, ignoring the store when the DM was around, or simply not showing up at all, her special flavor of upwards management was especially obnoxious. And not just for us hourly bean-slingers, the assistant manager had to pick up the slack left by our store manager. Not only was the AM doing her own job, which was arguably more hands-on than the store manager, but she was also having to do a lot of the store manager's job too as those duties were being ignored in favor of our store manager's biscuit-sniffing pastime. When a bad manager makes their position all about their supervisor and the chain of command above them, effectively "turning around on the org chart", they ignore those who now stand behind them, and it's all too easy to ignore what you can't see. This kind of selfish behavior creates waves of stress and additional work for those that report to the bad manager; not only will the bad manager expect their "underlings" to do their work for them, but they are reluctant to share praise for that work. Everything they do is for the benefit of their upper-echelon audience, not for the well-being of the team or the organization.

How Can A Manager Break This Habit?

To break this habit, you need to understand who you work for. You don't work for your boss, or his boss, or the CEO, or the board, or the shareholders; you work for your team. You are accountable to your team first, their function and performance, morale, and culture should be your top priority. The way I like to phrase it is to define my job as a manager as someone who translates priorities into actionable work, provides my team the resources to accomplish that work, and in turn, provides cover or shielding to the team when internal politics threaten the team's ability to function properly. On my teams, shit rolls uphill and any that falls back down stops with me.

Were there any habits I missed? Any you would like me to cover? Let me know in the comments!