I’ve worked with many inspiring leaders, but I’ve also had my fair share of poor managers who just seem to lack the leadership qualities and people skills that the position demands. I used to believe as my career progressed that these bad bosses would be consigned to history, but it still amazes me that they appear at all levels of even the best organisations.

I can characterise some of these management misfits from my own experience as follows (no inference in using the male gender!)

The “Headmaster”—instils fear, doesn’t seek consensus or buy-in, just issues orders and is always ready to criticise.

The “Prima Donna”—seeks adulation, always wants to be correct and makes everything about him and not his team.

The “Eagle”—rarely wants to associate with those lower down the food chain, but is always looking to ruthlessly swoop in and steal the credit for any success.

The “Scientist”—quick to show how smart he is but gets lost in the details, not concerned with building morale and doesn’t engage with a wider group.

The “Grafter”—has got where he is by working hard, wants to do everything himself, doesn’t seek cooperation and doesn’t delegate well.

There are many more, of course, but the common problem with these management styles is not necessarily their hard skills, rather it’s their lack of soft skills. In any organisation, it is not difficult to see how these stereotypes will demotivate their teams and create disengaged employees.

The old saying of “people leave managers, not companies” holds true.


So why do bad bosses get hired?


An internal managerial promotion often comes about as the obvious next step-up for an employee who has performed well. However, understanding the business, the customers, the technologies or the financials are not relevant factors in being a good manager of people.

Even prior success supervising small teams may not be transferable to a new situation with a larger number of direct reports. Including remote workers in this new group can further complicate the task.

In the external recruitment process, more attention is usually paid to the technical skills, industry experience or qualifications of a candidate. However, it would make more sense to pay equally close attention to the people-management skills of these wannabe leaders.

We could perhaps expect small to medium companies to get their hiring wrong, after all they may not have a robust HR process and often don’t have access to a large talent pool. However, we see bad managers all the time in multinational blue-chip organisations with extensive resources and substantial HR functions.

Whether with a brand-new team or supervising former peers, one of the primary challenges of a new managerial role is to build an environment where morale is high and people are motivated to outperform. Vital attributes for this new manager are communication and interpersonal skills as well as emotional intelligence.

For some managers, this is an easy transition. Others may need to adopt positive habits by setting up new communication tactics and techniques. However, it’s questionable whether poor interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are so deeply-rooted that training and practice will only have a limited effect.


Why Don’t Bad Bosses Get Fired?


In the sporting world, if the morale of the team is poor and results are disappointing, then the coach or manager usually gets fired. Not only are the employees powerful, any dressing-room discontent is quickly communicated to the fans and stakeholders, meaning that decisive action can be taken, for better or worse. In the business world, this uncompromising approach is rare.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. There could be a desire to avoid conflict or even legal action with the manager. There may be temporary external factors which need to be considered. Bad bosses may be reporting to leaders who prefer the status quo and instead just keep up the pressure to deliver results quickly at any cost. Perhaps the manager is well-respected by customers and there is a fear of losing business if they are removed or demoted.

One problem is with how managers’ performance is measured. Management scorecards are typically geared around financial performance indicators. Clearly, these results are vital to the health of the business and are rightly the priority. However, employee satisfaction and engagement are critically important factors if a manager is to build a team which outperforms expectations.

The trouble is that these metrics are not usually seen as objective and are not easily measurable.


How to make bad bosses accountable


Using a one-off survey to measure employee satisfaction is of limited value as it will only reveal a snapshot of the sentiment within the organisation. Negative feedback may not be an unprejudiced review of managers’ performance as people can be easily effected by various short-term impacts such as industry downturns, business restructuring, layoffs, etc.

Far more valuable is a program to measure and track employee engagement through surveys, reporting and follow-up action plans. This will baseline and trend levels of employee satisfaction and commitment across the organisation, ultimately revealing those managers who are responsible for a poor work environment.

This subjective feedback allows a constructive dialogue to develop and corrective actions to be implemented such as training, mentoring and even re-positioning the manager elsewhere in the organisation. Ultimately it also supports the justification for the removal of any managers with inherently poor people management skills.


Employees don’t normally make unrealistic demands of the companies where they work. They want to be paid reasonably and they want to work in a harmonious, collaborative environment where they can feel included and recognised. Ideally, they want to be inspired and empowered.

Bad bosses contaminate the workplace with their toxic culture. Employees in this environment suffer from low morale and poor job satisfaction, which leaves them disengaged. Staff turnover is higher, productivity and performance is lower, thereby affecting both top-line and bottom-line performance.

Where leadership development coaching or training has failed, quick action is essential to protect the business. A robust program of measuring and analysing employee engagement will help to reveal the worst offenders. Leaders need to recognise that no one is too valuable to be removed for the greater good of the organisation.

As Dan Jacobs nicely puts it:
“It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team!”

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