Let’s start with a basic idea right up front: most people who become managers aren’t actually good at it. Broadly speaking (and realizing that each case is different), this happens for two reasons:
- Management isn’t intuitive: What got you there doesn’t work when you get there
- Work isn’t logical: It’s emotional, even though people (managers) want it to be logical.
We definitely still have some stigmas around job-hopping and the non-linear resume in most hiring circles, but still … people are less and less staying at the same company for their whole career. (And even if they do, their manager might shift a couple times at the same company.) All that adds up to you likely having 10+ bosses in your career, and probably 5 or more of them being pretty bad.
What can differ is how they’re bad, and subsequently how you can deal with it. Let’s take a look.
The ‘Chasing Targets’ Manager
A couple of caveats before we get going:
- Yes, every managerial type on this list is based on a manager I’ve had, seen, or interacted with
- Oftentimes it’s based on a mix of qualities
- All these managerial models have drawbacks, but they also have positive features
The ‘chasing targets’ manager is fairly common. Basically, the name implies the deal: their focus is on chasing targets, which moves them away from any issues related to people or their contentment or understanding of the job. Listen to this Harvard Business Review IdeaCast with Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic. The topic is supposed to be “becoming a more authentic leader,” but instead he spends 50 percent of the time talking about “making your numbers.” This leads me to believe he was a classic ‘chasing targets’ manager back in the day, and now that he’s retired he can talk about a bunch of fluffy concepts that he would get laughed out of a board room about 15 years ago.
I once worked with a guy who had an office and all his direct reports had cubicles right outside. Once a week, he’d walk into the cubicle area and literally say: “You guys chasing targets?” The rank-and-files would nod and smile, and the manager would return to his office, no doubt confident in his leadership abilities. I would go to happy hour with those rank-and-files and ask about that move of his; they’d all say, to a person, “We’re not even sure what targets we’re chasing…”
Here’s a terrifying fact about me: sometimes when I cook dinner and my wife is still at work and no one is home, I randomly say to the air: “Y’all chasing targets?” I’m weird, yes, but to me that’s the funniest crap ever. His employees didn’t even know what they were chasing!
How to deal with a Chasing Targets manager: If you want to be successful at that job/company, make sure you know what targets and goals are important to your boss — or, rather, to his/her boss (because that probably matters more). Don’t think about any of your own ideas or effectiveness measures. Just hit those targets, work late a few times to show how committed you are, and grind away. Then eventually, go find a new job.
The ‘Due Date’ Manager
This is another common one. Typically, this person has worked with consultants, attended ‘leadership seminars,’ or had mentors who told them that all that matters is action items. As a result, they end meetings and assign due dates to all the concepts mentioned in the meeting — but the due dates are completely devoid of context, out of scope with the work, don’t take into account competing priorities, and a host of other things. This type of manager is dangerous because many in the working world are led to believe that what matters above all else is:
By definition, this manager focuses on both. That’s a good thing, right? Of course. But it needs some context — some “Why are we doing this?” or “What is the end goal here, and how will we measure it?” If due dates just happen in a vacuum, they have no meaning.
How to deal with a ‘Due Dates’ manager: Respect the sanctity of the due dates. Follow them. Follow them even if they make no sense. And if you get a chance to influence them — or if you become one — start thinking about how to use meetings and e-mails to actually push strategy forward.
The ‘Ideas? No! Heads Down Work Is What We Need!’ Manager
This is probably my least favorite kind of manager, but it’s fairly common. The basic idea is similar to how adults speak about children — “They should be seen and not heard” — and the flow of logic goes like this:
- Good ideas are a threat
- Organizational breakthroughs and revenue ideas can only come from the top levels
- I don’t need engagement and ideas from my people, I need real damn work! Deliverables! Heads down! Get it!
Again, in some ways this isn’t bad: a job, at base, is a series of tasks in exchange for compensation — although even that premise confuses a lot of people. The problem is that a ‘heads down’ approach is super dehumanizing after a while; if your only job is to put your head down and hit a bunch of tasks, well, that’s broadly akin to a farm animal. You’re about to screech: “Farm animals don’t get paid!” They do, actually. They get fed and generally taken care of. Please not I didn’t say ‘slave.’ Heads-down managerial style essentially turns you into a farm animal with opposable thumbs and some sense about Excel. It’s not awesome.
How to deal with a ‘Heads Down’ manager: Put your head down and go to work. For a portion of each day when your head is down? Look at other jobs. Heads-down managers don’t change, even when they themselves get new bosses and tasks.
The ‘Fire Setter’ Manager
Truth be told, everyone wants to be seen as relevant at work — although in reality, that probably makes little to no sense. Middle managers are more guilty of this than anyone. They’re beholden to those they manage (although they probably wish they weren’t), but they really want to manage up better. To prove their relevance and worth to the top dogs, they need to be seen as problem-solvers. The easiest way to be seen as a problem-solver is to essentially create a problem (i.e. set a fire), let everyone run around chasing their tails, and then swoop in to “solve” the problem. Many people think this displays their worth, when in reality it just rips all semblance of strategy, cohesion, and communication from a team. Oh well — so long as that bonus is fat, amirite?
How to deal with a ‘Fire Setter’ Manager: If you have some real stones on you, immediately put out the fire the manager just set. You just undercut his/her end goal — and quickly. If you just want to keep getting your paycheck, rush into his/her office and talk about how dramatic everything is and how the world is against y’all’s team. Literally light your own hair on fire for effect.
The ‘Invented Deliverables’ Manager
This manager cannot set their own priorities, is broadly unclear on organizational priorities, and believes access to the power vortex is all about playing politics. As a result, because they legitimately have no clue about anything including how the company makes money (which is ironically the purpose of most companies), they create work — invent deliverables — for their employees that have no context or tie to what the organization is really focused on. I’ve been in these situations a dozen times. This is where you get told to update a six-year old PowerPoint, and if you ask “Why?” or “For whom?” Well, you probably get shrugged at. This kind of manager often arises from people who screech about how busy they are and demand new headcount, but probably didn’t need that headcount in the first place — so now they have to invent work for the new people on their team.
How to deal with an ‘Invented Deliverables’ Manager: Use the down-time to learn and make yourself a better person and employee for the next opportunity. When you have to update PowerPoints or do other meaningless work, use it as a chance to experiment with best practices and really ‘wow’ someone — although that someone likely isn’t your actual manager.
The ‘OK, Let’s Call A Meeting!’ Manager
Lacks the basic understanding of this fact: meetings aren’t actually work; they’re a way to talk about work. If all you do is have meetings, well, no actual work is getting done. Most managers will call a meeting at the drop of a hat, and then rip every iota of context from it so that it has no value back to the teams, people, or organization involved. This frequently leads to people doing their actual work while at home — or at least claiming to do so — which leads to ‘The Temple Of Busy,’ which is the most all-powerful force in most offices.
How to deal with an ‘OK, Let’s Call A Meeting!’ Manager: Get really good at (a) tuning out of discussions and (b) doing stuff on/with your phone under tables, including looking for jobs.
The ‘If I Talk To Them, That Means We’re Friends’ Manager
Most bosses are legitimately terrified of being seen as ‘friends’ with employees, because that removes some degree of fear or whatever. I’m not sure. Admittedly I’ve been burned on this before at a few jobs, like Facebook friending bosses and whatnot; you never really want your boss to fully have a picture of your life outside of a cubicle, simply because confirmation bias is very powerful work-wise. That all said, bosses and managers often confuse ‘being friends’ with ‘I have no real time to show respect to this person,’ which is sad because ultimately what most employees want is to be treated with respect. This whole ‘No friendship!’ attitude also leads managers to hole up in their offices as opposed to walking around and talking to people, which means they miss real opportunities to learn about work, projects, and organizational health. These types of managers also very commonly hide behind the once-a-year performance review, which is about as outdated as people dying from Polio.
How to deal with ‘I Can’t Be Friends With Them!’ Manager: Definitely don’t add them on social media. Keep it light and keep it tights. Heads down and do your work. Don’t laugh or smile unless something they said is 100 percent for sure intended to be funny. If one of their kids or spouse comes to work, even more heads down. Make friends with your co-workers and talk to them about how ridiculous it is. When you get a new job, show your old boss this concept about social capital at work.
The ‘Merry Go Round’ Manager
Essentially, this is a manager who puts themselves in the center of everything — if they go away for two weeks, their honest belief is that no work could possibly ever get done. As a result, this person never goes away, except for maybe those two weeks around Christmas when everyone is pretending to work but really just drinking at 2pm with their real friends and periodically answering e-mails from their phone. (Ah, the holidays!)
How to deal with a ‘Merry Go Round’ Manager: Feed their ego as much as possible. (“I would never have known how to do that without your help, sir.”) Constantly reference their value to the team, company, and the world as a whole. Deify them. All the while, look for avenues out the door or onto another team.
The ‘Formal Power Is Everything’ Manager
Assumes that because they got to a certain rung of an organization (formal power), they automatically know everything. This recently became extremely dangerous as digital products, services, and revenue models emerged. By and large, Baby Boomers don’t understand those — and want to cling to their power positions until they can retire, so they tend to scoff at or laugh off those ideas. (It’s easier to do that than to learn something new.) These managers also hide behind hierarchy to an almost desperate degree. That’s a shame, because no matter what you think of millennials and their needs, hierarchy will probably never truly die out.
How to deal with a ‘Formal Power Is Everything!’ Manager: Roll over and play dead as much as possible. Run with and execute all their ideas, no matter how ridiculous and/or not tied to org priorities they are. Inflate their ego whenever possible. Look for secret pipes career-wise as if you’re playing Super Mario Brothers.
The ‘My Way Is THE Way’ Manager
This overlaps with virtually every type mentioned above, but basically it’s describing micro-managers. As opposed to telling you what needs to be done (the ultimate goal), they focus on how it must be done — and the how is usually the exact way they would do it. This completely removes any form of learning, growth, development, or curiosity from most work teams. Again, if you hide behind hierarchy and formal organizational power, this can be effective.
How to deal with the ‘My Way Is THE Way’ Manager: If you want to keep getting paid, just follow the process exactly as they lined up. If you have the courage to try and manage up, try a ‘What-If’ approach.
The ‘Pass Go And Collect A Paycheck’ Manager
Old, tired, doesn’t want to put effort into a new job search, wants to hold on until retirement, could care less about learning new things, embracing new concepts, or understanding new revenue streams. Essentially, you could be managed by a chair and it would be more emotionally pleasant, because at least the chair wouldn’t shit on you for having original thought. See also: a large percentage of older Baby Boomers.
How To Deal With A ‘Pass Go And Collect A Paycheck’ Manager: Try to get on another team, or hope someone in their family leaves them a bunch of money and/or their mutual fund does a 15 percent year-over-year and they decide the office park isn’t for them anymore. People don’t like to change, so this type of manager is nearly intractable.
The ‘Feedback Is A Fluffy Concept’ Manager
Feedback is a hugely important, often ignored, competitive business advantage: see here, here, and here for examples. As mentioned above, it’s much easier for most managers to hide behind once-a-year reviews — thus completely shutting out any organic chances to have conversations, give ideas, or correct behaviors and trends. This is all in the name of feedback being a ‘fluffy’ or ‘soft’ skill — i.e. something you cannot immediately place on a balance sheet and breathlessly analyze at an off-site meeting. As a result, managers don’t prioritize it; as a result of that, they lose good people and sacrifice a business advantage.
How to deal with a ‘Feedback Is Fluffy’ Manager: Ask for feedback. You’ll likely get deflected 10 times, but on the 11th time, a legitimate conversation might arise. Keep doing it and using it to grow. They might notice. If they clearly don’t and instead run from meeting to meeting and e-mail to e-mail, find a way to get out.
This only scratches the surface — and admittedly several of these types overlap. What other types have you seen or dealt with? Let me know.
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.