What’s Good About Bad Managers?

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What’s Good About Bad Managers

My career has been filled with many wonderful experiences working with many wonderful people. I’ve had the benefit of working for many talented, courageous, and knowledgeable managers. Some of these were great leaders who stood as though they were giants, casting the shadow of their skill and expertise across the organizations they served. Teams banded together and looked up, motivated by such leaders to work hard, accomplish much, and enjoy the benefits of a well-respected stalwart in their own reporting line. These managers carried a presence about them, and we enjoyed mutual success. Through the years, I learned many lessons from leaders such as these. But some of the most poignant lessons I’ve learned have been from managers who might better be described as miserable failures than stalwart leaders.

Labeling a manager as a miserable failure may be unfair and, perhaps, highly inflammatory. Context matters, and since I’m setting the arbitrary standards here, I’ll set the context. For our purposes, let’s say that we boil all the things a manager does into a messy definition that won’t perfectly fit every aspect of what we might expect a manager to do. We’ll define a manager as a person who exercises control over certain resources and organizes those resources to accomplish specific tasks or objectives while providing appropriate oversight. With this imperfect definition, we can now argue that a manger could fail in several areas – areas of control, resources, organization, tasks or objectives, or oversight among others.

Why Failure Matters

Perhaps the best-known seafaring tragedy involves the RMS Titanic. We’re undoubtedly familiar with the iceberg collision and subsequent sinking. The failures were myriad, the loss of life tragic, and the entire episode was avoidable. It’s good practice to analyze failures, learn from them, and take action to avoid failing in similar ways in the future. The list of what has been learned from the Titanic tragedy would cover areas including manufacturing, navigation, disaster response, communications, etc. And we are all better off for learning from failure. When the SpaceX Starship SN8 exploded on landing after its first high-altitude flight, Elon Musk claimed it a triumph and said, “Mars, here we come!” Mr. Musk understands the importance of experimentation, failure, and learning. What if we applied this mentality to management failures? No, not just C-Suite management, but down in the trenches where management is often messy and offices are occupied by unproven or untested managers trying to figure out their way in the corporate world. Even outside of the ivory towers, it makes sense to analyze management failures.

There are natural and expected responses to bad management. We often have an intuition that we’re working for a bad manager before we can precisely and objectively define what makes our manager bad. Granted, there are often personality or stylistic issues. But what we sometimes miss is that bad management can usually be linked to one of the failure areas we defined earlier; namely, a manager fails to properly control resources, care for resources, organize resources, accomplish tasks or objectives, or provide adequate and proper oversight. Dealing with these failure areas and giving specific examples, how to recognize them, and how to avoid them are subjects for additional articles.

Failure doesn’t always have to be permanent. Yes, context matters. There are those who will forever be defined by their greatest failures and never seem to press beyond those shortcomings. But one of the greatest managers I ever had was at one time a miserable failure. He learned, listened, and improved. And to this day, I have tremendous respect for him and would trust his judgment without hesitation.

Why Culture and Trust Matter

You’ve recognized that your manager doesn’t walk on water and has a few shortcomings. Perhaps your manager could even be a case study in bad management. Walking up to your manager and telling them they are a miserable failure has the potential to be a career-limiting event. If I’m completely upfront, I’ve worked with many organizations where the culture is more likely to suppress honest but critical feedback than to welcome it. None of those organizations would openly admit to such a stance. To improve an organization, culture matters. Honesty, integrity, and trust must be foundational principles in any organization that really wants to grow and improve despite management failures. While it may seem like a silly test, ask yourself if your manager would thank you or be offended if you told them they needed a breath mint. If trust doesn’t exist, honest feedback will ultimately be suppressed.

Overcoming the cultural barrier is a subject for another article. But even if honest feedback about management failures isn’t welcomed in the organization, you can still analyze management failures and learn from them as an individual. Learning “what not to do” can often be more valuable than learning what to do.

So, I tip my hat to those managers in my life who have been miserable failures. The lessons you have taught me have served me well. And for those of you who have recognized the shortcomings in your leadership style and are making efforts to correct course – I wish you the best success in your endeavors.

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