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HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: How to Be a Bad Manager, Part II

Source Manager's Journal: How to Be a Bad Manager, Part II

How to be a Bad Manager: Part Two
In last week's column, paths to management failure were placed in various categories. These included a lack of desire or interest in being a manager, absence of an organizational perspective, and a perception that the title of manager is a status or a kind of property rather than a function. This week, let's look at specific behaviors that produce managerial malpractice in so many organizations.
In the most basic sense, management is about helping. It is about helping the organization to achieve its goals and the manager's "direct reports" to be as effective and productive as possible. The best manager that I have ever worked for was the No. 2 official in the New York City Department of Health. My job was "reforming" New York's sprawling and disastrous prison health system. My ultimate boss, the mayor, once told me that he thought I had the worst job in city government, but I loved it and look back on it with great fondness. What made it so rewarding was my boss, Alan Gibbs.
What was it that made Alan so exceptional? Beyond his great intelligence, Alan operated on the basis of trust, the most powerful bond that any manager can have with others. You always knew where you stood, and that your boss would support you if you operated in an ethical manner. He also focused on problems and how to solve them, picking spots where you needed help and leaving you alone when you didn't. He never asked you to do something that was not possible, but he spent a lot of time figuring out where the limits of possible change were and how to get there. He also had a clear sense of his own strengths and weaknesses as well as yours. He was both self-aware and empathic.
The result was that he knew when to challenge you, as well as when to rein you in. Finally, we were driven by a set of shared values and goals for change in a highly change-resistant and unbelievably screwed-up system. Alan got everyone moving in the same direction, and, as a result, New York City became the national model for change in prison health care.
To think of the behaviors that constitute bad management is to think of the anti-Alan Gibbs of the world. These behaviors undermine innovation and change, make workers unproductive and dissatisfied, and contribute to unhealthy organizational cultures. We have all seen many examples of them in action. Here are some of the most important behaviors to guard against.
Lack of trust and trustworthiness
As Alan Gibbs demonstrated, trust is the foundation stone of effective management. A manager who is not trusted is by definition a failure. In the recent past, I worked with a small organization in which the top manager would make statements, and then when things didn't work out, deny that he had made them. Game, set, match. It didn't matter what other positive qualities he had (and there were a number of them), he could not be trusted, and everyone in the organization either made adjustments or left. Those who made the adjustments found it necessary to become as untrustworthy as their boss, reinforcing the notion that – for better or worse — leaders and managers are the creators of organizational cultures.
Control versus empowerment
For a variety of reasons, these managers try to control – micromanage – those who report to them rather than giving them the tools they need and empowering them. Whether a result of lack of trust, insecurity or learned behaviors in other bad environments, the results of these attempts to exert high levels of control are invariably bad. Other managers and staff feel diminished and disrespected. There is a strong correlation between micromanagement of this kind and high turnover. Except in repetitive industrial work, these efforts almost always fail: It isn't possible to control people who have to think to do their jobs, but certain managers never stop trying.
Indifference and lack of empathy
"Just put yourself in my place." The bad manager's response to this plea is, "Why should I? I'm the boss." The behaviors associated with indifference and lack of empathy are typical of those who view their position as property rather than a set of functions and responsibilities. They also include those who are prone to say that they would rather be respected than liked. The typical reality is that they are neither liked nor respected; they are feared or avoided. They also tend to view the people who work for them as infinitely replaceable parts rather than human beings and assets to the organization.
Just get through each day
For these managers, the world is entirely static. They do not focus on change or results, and when they get up in the morning and arrive at work, their goal is to just get through the day. They avoid decisions, avoid conflicts and avoid problems. Little if any learning goes on in their units. Although many of them are "nice people," they are essentially useless to those they manage, most of whom adopt similar survival strategies and become bearers of the message that "nothing ever changes here." In fact, things are changing, because in most organizations and units, to stand still is to slowly slide backward.
Sources of ambiguity
A primary role of the manager is to clarify. What are we doing? Who is doing what? What do we need? What actions will we take and in what order? The bad manager produces ambiguity rather than clarity. Decisions, assignments and timetables are all unclear. People leave meetings not knowing what was decided, and over time they assume that nothing was. Again, the manager has unwittingly convinced people that "nothing ever changes here."
Lack of emotional control
There are a lot of excellent managers who are not great intellectual geniuses but who know how to manage their emotions. On the other side are the bad managers who may be smart but lack emotional control. Their variety is almost limitless. They believe they can justify outbursts by saying "I'm just having a bad day." They are the blamers and the blame shifters, the non-communicators and the non-stop talkers, who don't understand that a manager's words are supposed to mean something. They are the robotic and the over-socializers, who don't understand that there is something called professional distance. They can raise stress levels or create an aura of depression by simply walking into a room. Most of all, they are impulsive and often act without thinking through the consequences of their words and actions.
The good news about these negative behaviors is that – with the probable exception of trustworthiness – they all involve trainable skills. It is very difficult for adults who are not trustworthy to change their behaviors, but in the other cases, the starting point is self-awareness and a desire and willingness to learn and change. In addition to being more effective, the big reward is that the manager also becomes a happier and more fulfilled person, as do those workers who report to him or her.
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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