The high cost of a bad manager

Date: May 13, 2020
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Photo of a woman with her hand over her face in frustration

There are good managers and there are bad managers. People working for managers know perfectly well which type of manager they are working for, usually within the first couple of days. Too many people end up putting up with the bad manager, for too long, for what seem like good reasons. But bad managers take their toll on individuals, departments, companies, and frankly, the world at large. Bad managers are bad for the world. 

Are good managers born that way? Can a bad manager become a good manager? Yes and no. Yes, if that person:

  • Is basically kind, and enjoys helping others
  • Wants to become a good manager, and is always working on it
  • Is humble and patient enough to become a good manager
  • Has the right agenda to become a good manager
  • Is tough enough to become a good manager; doing good takes courage

The absolute, most important characteristic of a good manager is that he wants to make life easier for others. This characteristic forms early in life; if it isn’t there, no amount of training will convert that person into a good manager. 

The most dominant characteristic of a bad manager is that his behavior makes life (and work, obviously) more difficult for others. If you are looking for warning signs of a bad manager, this is the biggest one. 

It doesn’t matter why they’re that way, or even what they do and how they do it (although we will talk about that in a minute). It only matters that when you try to get something done for that boss, it’s more difficult because of their behavior. 

What are the qualities of a bad manager, and what does that manager do to make things more difficult? 

As I answer this question, I’m going to alternate between “he” and “she,” because your boss could be either one.

Here we go.

Bad managers are driven by bad agendas

We are all driven by what we think we need. Our needs can be driven by a positive desire to help or make the world a better place; our needs can also be driven by something we think we lack. The needs of the bad managers tend to fall into the second category. 

If he is insecure, he will seek approval by others, and will be jealous of those who succeed. 

If she is only happy with herself when she is “winning,” she will always have to be right, and she will avoid giving others credit. 

If he impresses himself by being free-wheeling and creative, living and speaking off-the-cuff, he will resist creating processes. 

If she can only be satisfied if she is making a lot of money, she will be greedy and selfish with employees and customers. 

If you are dealing with a difficult boss, figuring out your boss’ main driver will help you navigate those frustrating waters. And accommodating your boss’ needs will make life easier for you. 

If your boss is insecure, you can make sure you say positive things when he does something right. Don’t go overboard; just acknowledge it. 

If your boss always has to be right, and seldom gives credit, be the one who does give credit to others. 

If he is a free-wheeling spirit, someone will need to keep focusing on processes and making them better. A company without processes is sure to fail. 

If she is greedy and selfish, look for another job. Companies run by greedy people only succeed in the movies or when they have a lot of outside investment from other greedy people.

Understanding what your boss needs and finding ways to satisfy those needs in an un-obvious way will keep your boss calmer and more reasonable. 

A bad boss whose needs aren’t met can become a horrible boss. Nothing will satisfy her. Everything will become disorganized. She will change her mind every few minutes or hours or days. Things that you thought were under control will resurface, and things that are super important will be ignored and put off. 

Bad agendas lead to bad decisions 

You probably noticed that all of those agendas have one thing in common: They are all about “me.” 

Good managers also have agendas, but their agendas are all about others—employees, customers, partners, and the world in general. They want to help their employees to do their best work; they want their customers to be delighted; they want their partners to find it easy to do business with them; and they want to help make the world a better place.

And because their agendas are so positive, cooperative, and contributory, they make really good decisions. 

Bad managers, on the other hand, make decisions based on their self-centered agendas. 

“What will make me look the best?” is one of the questions the insecure, competitive, and greedy bosses will subconsciously ask themselves when making a decision. Of course, they won’t reveal this reality to anyone around them (although the more perceptive types will figure it out). 

Then, out loud, they will come up with justifications for why they want to do the thing that will make them look the best. They will speak for long periods of time. They will use many words but say very little of substance. If you try to pin them down, they will get irritated and play the “I’m the CEO, do what I say” card. They will be super picky about things that don’t matter much, and almost dismissive about the things that matter a lot. 

Obviously, this is frustrating for everyone working for the CEO. It causes confusion and wasted effort. And nothing demoralizes hard-working people as much as wasted effort. People who are motivated enough to work hard want their work to matter. 

Which is why, over time, bad managers end up with teams consisting of demoralized, tired workers who are always thinking they should leave, and workers who put up with it because they think they won’t find anything better. 

Which means, of course, that the company is no match for a company run by a good manager, whose teams are happy to come to work, happy to work hard, and happy to give more than 100% every day. 

A high-spirited, give-it-all horse will outrun a dispirited, demoralized horse any day of the week. 

The company with the bad manager will have to spend a lot more money to attract and retain customers; create products and services that customers will like; and be the kind of company that other companies want to work for. His or her own people will be unable to make the company superior, because their own boss has made them feel inferior. 

Obviously, this applies to marketing because marketing is competitive. Customers now have numerous options when looking for a solution; the next possibility is only a search and a click away. A bad manager will make the company much less able to compete. 

If you work for one, do your best to adjust, but keep your eyes open for a job where you can work for a good manager. 

If managers report to you, and you’re not sure which one might be a bad manager (it’s tough to tell from your position), ask all your workers to answer one question for you, anonymously: “Does your manager make it easier or harder for you to do your job effectively?” If you find that you do have a bad one in the ranks, replace him or her with a good one, as fast as you can. You will be amazed at the difference it will make.

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