How Good Managers Become Lousy Bosses

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Published 8/13/2015

A recent Gallup survey of 7,200 adults found that approximately 50 percent had left a job at some point “to get away from their manager.”

There is no shortage of surveys, polls, and research that point to the number of bad managers out there. How does this happen? Do evil organizations go out of their way to promote and hire bad bosses to punish their employees? Of course not, at least not intentionally.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this over-abundance of bad managers – there’s no single cause. And yes, I think organizations do play a significant part, and here’s how:

1. Promotion practices. It seems that organizations never learn. No matter how much we warn them, they still promote their tops performers, regardless of their leadership potential or desire to manage people. “Rough edges” are often overlooked at the expense of brilliant technical skills.

See “10 Reasons Why Superstar Employees Make Lousy Managers.”

2. No succession planning and leadership development. With no qualified internal candidates in the pipeline, they over-promote or make risky, desperate external hires.

3. Poor selection practices. So when they do have to hire externally, they don’t take the time to thoroughly interview and assess candidates. See “The Cost of a Bad Hire.”

4. Poor roles models. While we certainly can lead valuable leadership lessons from horrible bosses, new managers often learn the wrong lessons.

5. A lack of management training. Organizations throw new managers into the deep end, and expect them to swim. Wouldn’t it be better we they were given swimming lessons?

6. Bad employees. Dealing with poor performers, untrustworthy employees, and lazy employees can turn a manager into a micromanager.

It’s like going through a series of painful relationships – you can develop trust issues, and start to doubt yourself.

7. Bureaucratic human resource policies. Human resources departments often make it so hard to discipline or fire an employee, managers give up. They instead work around the poor performer, often at the expense of the rest of the team.

8. Rewarding results over behaviors. Promoting or paying fat bonuses to managers that deliver the numbers, but leave a trail of bodies.

9. Managing is hard! Managers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They have to make impossible calls that are bound not to make everyone happy. There are millions of leadership and management books that all paint a picture of the perfect leader, which leads to unrealistic expectations.

10. It’s hard to step down. Organizations usually pay managers more and surround them with perks. Even when a manager is miserable in their job, it’s very rare for them to admit it, and be willing to step into a non-management position.

11. It’s hard to fire bad managers. Bad managers often learn how to manage up. Employees are not willing to speak up and when they do, complaints are dismissed. HR and upper management often sides with the manager. When a manager finally does get fired, it’s often for a lack of results or serious offense, not because of poor management skills.

12. Dysfunctional organizations systems and processes. HR isn’t the only function that designs processes that produce the wrong behaviors. Budgeting practices often encourages managers to spend money they shouldn’t, leaving managers to fear their budgets will be cut the next year. Rules and policies become so burdensome that managers learn to ignore rules and make up their own, which can get them into trouble.

There is no excuse for being a lousy manager. Great leaders overcome these organizational barriers. Organizations would be better preparing, selecting, developing, and rewarding managers for leadership skills and behaviors, rather than making it so hard for them. If they did, those survey scores would start going up, employees would be more engaged, and performance would skyrocket. 

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