How to be a Bad Manager: Part One
A friend of mine used to be a high school teacher. He didn't believe in positive approaches or emphasizing self-esteem and would start each semester by putting a list on the blackboard. He would point to the list and explain, "Here is what it will take to fail this class." This article is about what it takes to fail as a manager.
I was going to title this piece "Bad Managers and the Staffs Who Hate Them." But then I realized that bad management can be omni-directional and not just focused downward to staff. Managers can also fail their bosses and their peers in other units. Some managers find ways to fail in all three directions – achieving the organizational equivalent of a hockey hat trick – but their tenures tend to be pretty short.
Management failure also takes place at various levels. The corporate scandals of recent years have produced a veritable rogues gallery of bad managers, almost all of whom previously had been considered – and considered themselves – to be geniuses. The operations issues that concern most of us might just as well have been occurring on Mars from the perspective of these high fliers, so their experiences aren't particularly relevant. Our concern is the everyday managerial failures that make people hate their jobs and produce a broad range of organizational problems and bad outcomes.
There are lots of ways to succeed as a manager. There are successful managers who are always out walking around and others who spend most of their time in their offices. One way or another, they all focus on results. The number of ways to fail as a manager may be smaller, and these roads to perdition seem to fall into the following categories:
Lack of Desire or Interest: Most people in this group never wanted to be managers, especially to be managers of people. Typically they were promoted from a job that they did very well to one where they are now responsible for a group of other human beings. In many cases, they don't really like people, which may have been why they were previously so good at what they did alone. Now they are lost, and they cannot go backward because that means going, well, backward. Managers in this group are often profoundly alienated from the staffs that report to them because they are seen – correctly – as lacking empathy and being indifferent to the needs of others. If you don't care about us, why should we care about you? If there is a solution for this one, it is in the realm of increased self awareness and the qualities that the author Daniel Goleman associates with emotional intelligence.
Lack of an Organizational Perspective: The need for an organizational perspective emerges when the number of people being managed approaches double digits. Six or seven workers can still be a "family." At 12 or 13, there needs to be structure. This group of failing managers does not see their worlds through an organizational prism. They do not put things into the right contexts, or frequently into any context at all. For them, managerial life is a series of unplanned individual events, and the only meaningful unit of time is today. For example, they make decisions about people in isolation, failing to grasp that what they just decided will set a standard that others will use to judge their own positions. Sometimes they micromanage, and at other times, they allow things to drift.
This group almost invariably (and unintentionally) creates deep-seated feelings of unfairness and injustice among those who report to them. They often fail to communicate effectively because they don't think through communications as a discipline. They don't grasp that the manager's words mean something. They don't think politically in the sense of developing strategies and approaches to achieving a set of goals. The outcome is a lack of results and an unhappy and unproductive unit or organization.
One-Dimensional Management – The John Bolton Syndrome: In his hearing to be United States ambassador to the United Nations, one of John Bolton's non-admiring peers described him as a person who kissed ass up and kicked ass down. Everyone has seen the type, and although they are terrible failures as managers, they often have quite successful careers, Mr. Bolton being just a single example of this melancholy fact. This type of one-dimensional manager seems to have become more prevalent in recent decades as all rewards have flowed to the top and increasingly narcissistic leaders have tended to demand greater praise and less dissent from managers, while showing less and less interest in "the little people" who do the day-to-day work. This is not a pretty picture. Many of these managers become nothing but transmission belts for orders that may or may not be achievable. Staff turnover is one reliable indicator of the failure of this group.
There are also failures across the other two dimensions. Occasionally managers become excessively defensive on behalf of the staffs that report to them, justifying performance standards that are too low and contributing to a culture of mediocrity.
And finally, there are those who see other units within their own organization as adversaries. These are the bad horizontal managers. They often foster the belief that "we" are killing ourselves and the people in the other departments are just slacking off. The result is fractured work processes, bad communications and a less productive organization because everyone is not pulling in the same direction.
A Belief in the False Equation – Management Position = Status Rather Than Function: This source of management failure can also be called "I've got the job, and you don't." Rather than focusing on the responsibilities of their position, members of this group stare at their lofty position on the organizational chart and think "hooray for me."
A false sense of entitlement takes hold of these managers, entitlement to deference, to the perks of their positions and to not having to get their hands dirty by dealing with real problems. They feel no responsibility to the other managers and workers who report to them. In my experience, this norm that focuses on status rather than function is endemic in Virgin Islands government and to a lesser extent in the tourist industry, although it is hardly limited to the territory. It exacts a heavy cost in performance and produces deep-seated cynicism.
The managers in these categories, some of which overlap, manifest behaviors that produce all kinds of negative outcomes for their organizations. We'll look at these behaviors in Part Two.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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