Before anyone gets the wrong idea, this is not directed toward anyone in my organization. The column idea came from a reader—many thanks to her.
When you have an illness, the road to recovery starts with identifying the problem. One of the most serious and insidious illnesses an organization can have is poor management. Poor management starts with one bad manager and spreads like an infection throughout the organization. If the infection is allowed to fester, the entire group becomes sickly and eventually dies. It’s a gruesome experience.
While the malady of poor management can be cleared up, there’s always the threat of a relapse. The key is to recognize the signs of poor management early, engage the issue quickly, treat it when possible, and return the overall organization to health. Sometimes the damage is too great and the infection is too entrenched. In that case, the sad choice is to distance yourself and allow the group to die.
I much prefer to focus on the positive. I’ve written 18 columns about being a good manager, from I can manage to A manager’s manager, and more than 100 other columns on transforming noxious practices into beneficial ones. However, poor management is a serious condition. Recognizing the sickness and treating it early is essential. Let’s start with diagnosis.
Being a bad manager doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, many people who struggle with aspects of management are marvelous engineers with valuable insights and contributions. I talk more about having a balanced view of people in You’re no bargain either.
How can you tell when your manager is deficient? There are several symptoms. All are troubling, but the first stands out as the most serious.
- Mistreatment. Harassment of any kind, put-downs, and intimidation are inappropriate inside and outside the workplace. Managers who act in this most egregious manner have no place at Microsoft—they must admit their misconduct and correct it or leave the company.
- Unnecessary secrecy. Some information is sensitive and needs to be guarded to protect people’s privacy or avoid premature release of half-baked or confidential competitive plans. Otherwise, transparency should be the rule. Managers who hoard information are exhibiting insecurity and a lack of trust—both are trouble.
- Intrateam competition and infighting. Motivating people to bring their best is great, but doing so at the expense of others is not. Managers who pit team members against each other or are constantly comparing employees don’t appreciate their people as unique individuals and discourage collaboration—pathways to failure in the modern workplace.
- Hiding or withholding bad news. Avoiding bad news is a dead giveaway of dysfunction. Managers who hide failures and chastise those who report trouble do not trust their teams, and their teams should not trust them—they are on a freight train headed off a cliff.
- Micromanagement. Individuals and teams need autonomy to master their area and do their best work. Managers who must be part of every decision and be privy to every detail crush creativity, paralyze productivity, and impede improvement—they and their teams soon fall behind.
- Lack of alignment. Not everyone may agree, but everyone should be pulling in the same direction. Managers who fail to align their own group within the large organization are ignorant of our business plans or incapable of achieving them—either way, the business will suffer.
- Playing favorites. Preferring some employees’ friendship, opinions, or results is demoralizing for those out of favor and stressful for those who know they are one false step from disgrace. Managers who play favorites show a lack of fairness and respect for their employees—unsurprisingly, their personnel despise them.
- Hoarding opportunities. While opportunities abound, employees don’t always have the contacts or context to take advantage of them. Managers who withhold opportunities, perhaps even keeping the best opportunities for themselves, stifle the growth of their teams—utterly and fundamentally failing in their roles.
- Lack of empathy. Thoughtless treatment of team members hurts more than morale. Managers who are out of touch with their people, treating them like chattel, receive little love or loyalty—their staff will abandon them at the first sign of trouble.
If you see multiple signs of disfunction in your manager, act quickly before the trouble spreads.
For more on avoiding comparisons and favorites in our competitive business, read Beyond comparison—Dysfunctional teams.
When poor management is permitted to establish itself, it spreads throughout an organization like an infection. Bad managers set bad examples, hire bad people, break trust within teams and across teams, and push quality people away. Before long, cross-group collaboration drops, talent is diminished, and the group is filled with folks who prop up their awful leader to save themselves.
If bad managers keep their jobs for multiple review cycles, they reward those who publicly agree with them and dismiss those who don’t, further cementing their position. Peers of the bad managers see that good management isn’t valued and leave, granting more influence to the bad managers regarding replacements and expanding the number of bad managers on the team. While I’ve painted a nightmare scenario, sometimes even bad dreams become reality.
It’s particularly horrible when poor management infects the head of an organization (a VP, director, or group manager), but there is hope. Great managers underneath the poor leader can shield their teams from much of the harm. They can hire great people, provide a clear vision and mission, energize their team with trust and empowerment, and drive strong results by listening to customers, iterating quickly based on feedback, and removing obstacles their team encounters.
Poor org leaders make life difficult for their management team by withholding information, causing infighting, inhibiting or overturning decisions, and treating people heartlessly. However, great managers beneath poor leaders can get information from other sources, treat their peers with respect, steer clear of conflicts, be inclusive in decision making, and truly care for the members of their teams.
When micromanaging leaders require excessive details, great managers can collect the information necessary without troubling their teams so that their team members can stay productive and feel trusted. It’s extra work, but sometimes that’s what it takes to serve your people well and make them and you successful in difficult situations.
Even though you can work around poor management, it’s better to treat the problem directly. Your instruments are archived email, HR, and your manager’s manager. Forward troubling email to your HR person and/or your manager’s manager. Stick to the facts when describing the issue, and then discuss how it made you feel. Remember, HR and upper management serve the company as well as you and your peers. That’s why it’s important to stay objective and leave out the emotional adjectives.
If your HR person and/or manager’s manager wish to talk to you about the situation, do so if you feel comfortable. If the situation involves inappropriate business conduct, I encourage you to also report it here immediately, even if you have no documented proof.
Bad behavior may continue after you report it, even if your concerns were heard and appreciated. Sometimes it can take a while for issues to be addressed, depending upon the seriousness of the situation. Continue to report inappropriate behavior objectively, sticking to facts and leaving out commentary. Doing so will provide clear examples that help drive corrective action.
While this column is focused primarily on mundane poor management, incidents of harassment and other serious, intolerable conduct do happen. Don’t wait to collect email. Reach out to HR, your manager’s manager, and/or report it here immediately.
Poor management can improve with treatment and deserves that chance, just like you do. The key steps are to identify the problems early, deal with them constructively, report them objectively, and be part of the solution.
If the situation is unbearable, or it’s clear that rectifying it will take longer than you can reasonably tolerate, it’s time to let go and move on to another role. Never run away hastily from a bad situation—that’s how history repeats. Instead, run toward a great new opportunity, and put the past behind you. Speak well of your old team—it included great people you’ll probably work with again. Staying positive will serve you well.
I hope you always have terrific managers that care about you, your partners, and your customers. Perhaps you’ll become a great manager yourself someday, and run a happy and healthy team. In the meantime, if you do encounter some management malady, I hope you’ll welcome the opportunity to help Microsoft mend for you and your peers. It’s not easy, and you don’t always succeed, but taking the high road is how you get to new heights.
For more on switching teams, read A change would do you good.
I’d just add that, when leaving a bad situation as Eric discusses in the Recovery section, it’s important to not feel like you’re running away from the problem or abandoning former teammates to their fate. Like Eric implies, you’ve got to know how much you can take, and if you need to put it all behind you and never look back once you’ve reached that point, no one should think less of you.
I will note, however, that I’ve involved with a couple cases where the unhappy person has reached the limits of what they are willing to take stress-wise, has left the team, but has still provided good (fair & actionable) feedback afterward to the higher-level managers of their previous team which really helped solve the problem, making the company that much better. If you can stomach it (and again, no pressure if you’re still to emotionally close to it), it’s great because you are (presumably) in a safer and lower-stress place, you can therefore start to dissociate emotionally from the experience, you can take a little more time to consider the problem from all angles, and you are (again presumably) protected from backlash as well.