5 Myths of Bad Managers

I've discovered that there are a few things that from the outside might make someone seem like a bad manager but are often mirages that obscure the truth.

5 Myths of Bad Managers
Photo by ABDALLA M / Unsplash

Managers get a bad rap. That's been true since the first manager and will continue to be true until the end of time. Whether managers in general deserve the bad rap is a question for another day; some certainly give the profession a bad name, for sure. However, I don't think that all of the complaints levied at managers are completely valid. In my journey into people management, my perspective on managers has definitely changed and has become more contrasted – bad managers have no excuse for being bad, and great managers should be praised for being great, with little to no middle ground. In that journey, too, I've discovered that there are a few things that from the outside might make someone seem like a bad manager (and can be a sign that someone may not make a good manager) but are often mirages that obscure the truth. So let's take a look at a few of these Bad Manager Myths.

For clarity's sake, in this article, the term "manager" can apply to anyone whose primary function is to manage other people, so can apply to managers at any level (team manager, director, VP's, etc.).

Myth #1: Not Knowing Technical Details

For a long time, this was something that I complained about constantly to myself, my coworkers, and my wife (who would sit and listen to me whinge with the patience of a saint). I often wondered how someone so incompetent could rise to the level of becoming a leader, especially one in a technical organization. But what I didn't realize at the time is that a manager's job, especially in a technical function, isn't to understand and be able to recite all of the minute technical details their team is responsible for. A manager's job is to understand their people, the team's objectives, and the processes by which the team accomplishes the work. Should the manager have an understanding of systems, architecture, and the like? Absolutely. But theirs is not to be able to dive down into minutiae, it's to understand holistically and be able to reason about the larger context into which their systems integrate. And, as you move up the rungs of management into a director, senior director, or vice president position, you lose ever-increasing levels of detail from your scope. This is why it's often hard for startup CTOs to grow with the company: they don't want to lose sight of the minute details that they had intimate knowledge and control of because that's how they got where they are today. But, in order for the company to be successful and for technical leadership to thrive, a CTO, CIO, or other senior technical leader needs to step back from the day-to-day details and focus on strategy, policy, process, and people. I've seen first-hand how failure to do can affect technical organizations that would otherwise be high-performance: without leadership, engineering standards suffer, products get released with bugs, and the overall morale plummets.

That said, not knowing any technical details can be a harbinger of deeper issues to come. A manager who doesn't want or doesn't feel the need to understand the technical side of things will fail as a leader and a manager. Proper leadership requires balance; go too far one way and you are no more than a senior engineer, go too far the other way and you become useless to your team. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of implementation, leaders should focus on the broad system architecture and ensure that the implementation derived by the engineering team falls within the parameters of not just the requirements but also within the bounds of what is possible or practicable for the platform, team, organization, and a load of other factors. Leaders act as both direction-setters and backstops for their teams.

Myth #2: Managers Just Want to Micromanage

Let me be the first to say this to preempt the inevitable comment storm: micromanagers do exist and they are terrible managers, both to work for and work with. Those people are not who I'm talking about; I'm discussing the general idea that managers just want to track every little thing their people are doing at every moment, that they just want to spy on their employees, etc. Those people do exist, but again, that's not who I'm talking about. I see this most often centered around discussions of "return to work" and the tension between employers wanting employees to return to offices and employees wanting to continue primarily working from home. One of the common sentiments is that managers want employees to return to offices so that they can spy on them and look over their shoulders. As a manager who prefers in-office settings, my stance isn't around not trusting my people to accomplish their tasks, it's just the opposite actually. Interactions and dynamics tend to go missing in remote-first cultures, especially those quickly converted from in-person to remote-first when the pandemic hit. So many ad-hoc conversations and casual interactions are vital for well-functioning teams that without being consciously set on recreating those experiences remotely teams often find themselves disjointed and lacking cohesion.

There is a second facet to this issue as well: as managers trade technical context for organizational context it can be hard to articulate the work that a team does to higher-ups in the org. The temptation for managers, especially new and inexperienced ones, can be to ride their team for updates, statuses, and outcomes, falling into the "micromanager" label. In an in-person environment it is easier to glean details about where projects sit without being too "hover-y", but in remote-first environments, without the proper tools, processes, and systems in place, it is nearly impossible. Not only do you need to have increased trust in your people but you need to have the correct culture in place in order to make remote-first work for both the team and the manager.

So while bad managers indeed do exist, and they tend to trend toward trying to be overly involved in intimate details, good ones also exist and the last thing they want to do is be an Over-The-Shoulder Manager.

Myth #3: Those Who Can't Do, Manage

As with most things on this listicle, there is some truth to this in that some managers chose to pursue management because they weren't cut out for being an engineer, but on the whole, this generalization isn't true. In fact, some of the best engineers I've known have also been managers. The reasons for becoming a manager are as numerous as there are managers, and it might be true for some that they felt their talents were better used as managers and not engineers, but on the whole, I don't see this as the majority case. In fact, in a lot of organizations you have to prove yourself as an individual contributor (IC) before you're considered for a management role, so by default tech managers should at least be decent engineers. The truth is that as you venture deeper into the management waters you start to succumb to something called "skills rot". Skills Rot is a phenomenon that is unique to fast-moving industries like technology: after a while, you find that the things you know and were good at no longer apply or are completely outdated. Without putting conscious effort into staying current with the march of technology a lot of managers find themselves out of touch with the current trends and frameworks which can lead to the unfair assumption that they were never able to do the work or were never good at it in the first place. It's unfair to be sure, but this is the way. Just how as you grow up you wonder how your parents ever survived due to their woeful inability to use modern technology, forgetting that your dad could probably program a VCR to record seven different shows blindfolded and in the dark – time has a way of making amateurs out of all of us at some point. As much as I want to believe it won't happen to me, that I'm pretty tech savvy and won't get blindsided by some new gizmo or widget, I know at some point my kids will snicker and wonder behind my back at how I ever managed to work with technology.

Myth #4: Bad Managers Make Bad Leaders

There's a point that I feel like I need to make clear here: leadership and management are two separate concepts and abilities. Just because someone is a manager doesn't mean they're a leader, and just because someone is a leader doesn't mean they're a manager. At the most basic level, "manager" is a title, a description of a job function and nothing more. Leadership can and does happen at every level regardless of job function or title. And, importantly, both are necessary for the well-functioning of a technology team. Sometimes the leader of a team and the manager of a team are two separate people, either by the emergence of team dynamics or by the design of the organization, and sometimes there's a single person who takes on both roles. Either scenario, or some blend between the two, is perfectly valid for the appropriate team and organization architectures. And it's precisely because leadership and management are two discrete ideas that the logic doesn't hold true that a bad manager will be a bad leader or vice versa.

Managers, by virtue of their position, make decisions on processes, systems, personnel, and strategy and act as liaisons between various parts of an organization. While at times it can seem like a manager doesn't do much "real work", the truth of the matter is that a manager's main job is to maintain relationships and communicate both within the team and without, meaning that things like sending emails, chatting on Slack, and attending meetings are the work, not the byproduct of it. It's through these activities that good managers maintain a broader context for their teams, ensure their teams get credit for the work they do, and find ways to make the lives of their teams easier.

Leaders, by contrast, can be found at all strata of an organization in all manner of positions. Leadership can be less well-defined in an organization making room for people to step up and take ownership. A senior engineer who's been at the company for 25 years and an intern who started last week can both be leaders; leadership has more to do with being a voice that people want to listen to and a person they want to follow rather than someone they have to. Good organizations find ways to retain their leaders by putting people around them that make them more effective at leading and who offset their weaknesses.

A good leader who is a good manager is as rare as a gold-plated unicorn. Those are the kinds of people you want to hitch your wagon to.

This chart shows the relationship between managers and leaders and how they can complement each other in a technical organization. Just because someone isn't cut out to be a manager doesn't mean they can't be a good leader, they just need the support and resources placed around them to be effective. Often that's someone else taking on the role of team manager, allowing them to focus on the details of work and not the details of running a team.

Myth #5: Introverts Make Bad Managers

This final point is close to my heart. As someone who isn't naturally extroverted, I believed for a long time that meant I wasn't cut out to be a manager or a leader. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, there's no hard and fast rule about who or what personality type makes a good leader or a bad one. Leadership (and management) isn't about being the loudest or the most outgoing or the most vocal person in the room. In fact, it's often the opposite. Knowing when to shut up and let others speak and when to speak up and provide direction or input is a very important skill that I think might be easier for someone who is more naturally reserved in group settings to learn than someone who needs to be the life of the meeting. Being an effective manager isn't about being The Boss or being Type A or whatever, it's about understanding your people, understanding the work you've been asked to do, and helping your team execute on that work effectively. There's no prescription for gregariousness or volume just as there's no one-size-fits-all approach to being a manager. I don't necessarily like pointing to CEOs or titans of industry as role models, but sometimes it's a convenient way to illustrate this point: some of the most successful managers and leaders of organizations have been introverts, from the likes of Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Steve Wozniak to Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. There are going to be times when you're uncomfortable and need to venture beyond your comfort zone, just know that you're in good company when you do.

Do you have a myth that I missed? Anything you do or don't agree with? Let me know in the comments!