For as long as men and women have worked in offices, there has been this cliché portrayed in the media about the middle-manager. It’s generally an older guy who bullies his staff and makes them work late and through holidays. He’s portrayed as an unemphatic monster. We have movies like Horrible Bosses and Office Space, which depict this “typical” bad manager. One’s a psychopath and the other is a helicopter manager who is concerned with minor bureaucratic details.
These are funny archetypes, but probably not totally relevant to your personal experiences with bad managers. What’s more common for the everyday office worker, is the lack-lustre, unskilled manager, who’s not bullying you or anything — they're just an extension of upper management and pretty useless when it comes to the actual work. According to a Gallup study, these uninspiring leaders are the number one reason why employees quit. Over 50% of the people said they left their job to “get away from their manger to improve their overall life.”
Warning signs of a bad manager
Everyone is aware of the obvious signs that someone is a bad leader, for example, they are bullying, micromanaging, unorganised, etc. Since that’s common knowledge, let’s move past the obvious flaws and, instead, dig into the more nuanced behaviours that are harder to spot and might fall into the grey areas of business. We’re talking about traits that might be easily justified on a macro level and harder to spot as a direct report. Here are a dozen signs you’ve got a ‘bad’ manager.
1. Doesn’t have your back
It’s important that a manager stands behind the decisions that individual contributors make. Internally, or as a team, that conversation can look very different, but to the rest of the company or department, managers should be standing up for their direct reports. There are two specific instances I’m thinking of in which most managers fold. These are creative decisions and salary.
Anyone who’s been charged with initiating the growth of a specific business asset understands that innovation is the way forward. You’ve got to experiment and figure what works and what doesn’t because what’s been done in the past isn’t applicable. And if you’re out there taking creative risks, you need the backing of your manager. Unfortunately, many mangers will ‘have your back’ as soon as everything is going smoothly, but when something backfires or fails, they turn on you and throw you under the bus. Your manager is a coward and that will stifle company growth as well as personal growth.
The other issue I mentioned was salary. When you ask for a salary increase, you tell your manager, who then makes a case to HR or the upper management. They are the deal broker in this scenario. If they don’t sell the idea to upper management, you won’t get a pay raise. You won’t always get a pay rise, obviously, but you’ll be able to tell if your manager fought for you or folded at the first exchange. If you’ve done an impressive job, and you’ve got a good case for a raise, and your manager gives you some HR excuse, and you have to send them back over and over to fight for you, you’ve got a bad manager.
2. Takes credit for your work
It’s common in the workplace for a manager to take credit for work their team has done. A lot of the time, that’s just how it works. Your manager implements a plan, you see that plan through, it’s a success, and your manager or department-head is congratulated on the success. If it was the managers' idea or plan, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t take the credit. But what is not okay, and happens a lot, is that you’ll be tasked with resolving a problem without any plan or guidance. You won’t be backed up through your failures, but as soon as you figure out the solution, your manager wants to step in and frame it as a team effort. That’s frustrating to say the least — but a common example of a bad leader.
This behaviour is the sign of a manager who is either lazy or out of their depth. They don’t want to be involved until the final hour. A lot of the time, unskilled managers don’t have a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t, so they can’t support you in any meaningful way. You’ll hear a lot of abstract advice that sounds nice, but is just a cover for the lack of specialised knowledge and wisdom. It’s important to be aware of this because it might seem like your manager has your back, but the truth is, they don’t know anything and therefore will cautiously go along with your idea until the moment things start going south, at which point, they’ll jump ship and assume a defensive posture.
3. Caves under pressure
As a manager, you are responsible for people and outcomes. In periods of growth or regression, there’s a lot more important decisions to make, which can be stressful. It goes without saying, the ideal person for this position would be someone who can deal with the stress and make rational, clear-headed decisions. When we say ‘caving under pressure’ you might be thinking of some guy freaking out in the shower. There are more subtle signs, though.
Someone who can’t deal with the pressure will be hyper-defensive to criticism and change. For example, a manager might come up with a strategy and present it to their team, when they ask for feedback, they become defensive to the concerns raised. This is a telling sign that the manager struggles to deal with uncertainty and pressure. You can be sure they are probably not making the best decisions, and they’ll be sticking to the status quo because it seems the safest route.
4. Feel threatened by you
The truth is, it can be intimidating to work with high-performing people. Why? Because they’ll overshadow you and hold the team to a higher standard. They’ll also be the preference for promotions and salary increases. This sounds bad if you’re insecure, but it’s actually excellent on a team level and individual level. Put a bunch of high performers in a group and the whole team becomes motivated and hardworking. High performers aren’t usually intimated by people that are better than them, they, in fact, seek out their superiors to spur growth in themselves.
If you’re a bad manager and have‘feelings’ of self-doubt due to a lack of experience or skill, you’re most certainly going to be intimidated by competent team members. They are going to question you and hold you to a higher standard than you hold yourself, and you’ll feel as though your authority is undermined. If those individuals spot weakness or serious character flaws, you’ll just be seen as a bureaucratic hurdle and not a serious decision maker. This is why a bad manager can become threatened by you. If a report is making great team decisions without the manager, people will start to favour that individual’s opinion over the manager. A threaten manager can retaliate in a number of ways. They’ll put your work under a microscope, they’ll highlight any mistake you ever make, and they’ll look for any excuse to punish you.
5. Struggle to delegate tasks
This is generally a trait of an inexperienced manager. They struggle to delegate tasks and end up doing a lot of the work themselves. There are three likely reasons for this, which are all equally bad on a team level. Number one, a manager doesn’t trust their team and therefore gets involved in every aspect of the work process. They want to make every decision, however big or small. This is incredibly frustrating for most people who value ownership.
The second reason, is ego. They are so afraid that someone else might take more credit than them for an important task or project, and so they hoard all the information and, again, refuse to relinquish ownership to individual contributors. The final reason is, insecurity around delegation. The manager is intimidated about assigning tasks and so, out of that fear, they end up assuming all the responsibilities to give the appearance of being a good manager and not bothering others. It doesn’t matter how noble the reason is, people in the team will quickly become annoyed of this bad manager or damaging behaviour.
6. Personal decisions over company outcomes
There exists a burden of responsibility on every manager to show progressive results. The sales team sold 25% more units this quarter. Everyone is happy. The website received an increase in monthly visitors due to our marketing outreach. A raging success. These are examples of what upper management wants to hear from their management team. But what happens when a company or team is struggling? No manager wants to be a bearer of bad news — it reflects on their performance. So, what do they do? They turn to vanity metrics.
A vanity metric is usually a data point that is a significant number and seems impressive to the layman, but really has no business impact whatsoever. A common sited vanity metric in marketing is website impressions. You might only get 10,000 visitors to your site, but the stated impressions are 1 million. The bigger number seems impressive to people, but on a ground level, it holds no value. Getting back to the point, a bad manager is going to rely on out these vanity metrics as an indicator of success, which in turn, encourages the team to follow suit. This cycle spells disaster for any team. The vanity projects are taking time away from real work that affects the bottom line.
7. You don’t know what your manager does…
What exactly does your manager do? The appearance of being busy (a packed calendar) doesn’t actually mean that your manager is doing anything. Sitting in meetings all day is not equivalent to real work. Sometimes it’s a cover for someone who is trying to coast through a job. How this usually looks is that a manager will delegate and give partial ownership to the individuals in their team — completely removing themselves from all decision-making.
This is not terrible, since many employees actually prefer this management style, given most managers are pretty useless anyway. The less involvement, the better. But this also means there will be a lack of strategic coordination, which encourages individual contributors to silo. And it also means you, not your manager, will assume all responsibility for decision-making. Every mistake is on you. What makes this arrangement less than ideal, is that individual contributors are essentially (on a micro-level) doing the job of the manager. So, what’s the point in having a manager who isn’t making any meaningful contributions but is still indulging in the successes? If you don’t know what your manager is doing (outside of being physically present) than that’s a bad sign.
We’ve tried to stick with the common signs of a bad leader that haven’t been widely addressed. These are traits that surface over a longer period of time. Similar to gaslighting — you might feel like something's wrong, but it’s very hard to pinpoint the issue and there’s a lot of doubt involved. For example, you might be super happy that no one is micromanaging you, but over time realise you’ve got no guidance because your manager is completely absent and removed. You’ve had a bad manager the whole time, but it’s taken you six months to arrive at that conclusion. So, we hope to accelerate that process by pointing to a few issues that might be relevant in your workplace.
If you’ve been experiencing bad leadership at your company or team, we encourage you to leave a review on Joberty to let others know (there's a specific section Advice to Management that you can leave within Culture & Team review type). By sharing your experience, you bring wider attention to the issues, encourage leaders in your company to implement changes, and alert jobseekers, so they can have a better understanding of cultural dynamics before accepting a role.