Bad Manager or Flawed Human?

Last week, I ran into someone I hadn`t seen in quite a while. After getting caught up on what he`s doing, this is how the conversation went:

Him: So what are you doing now?

Me: I`m an executive coach. (I always wait for a reaction after that statement, secretly enjoying the all-too- frequent blank stares and then the question – “so what does an executive coach do?”).

Him: Oh, so you work with bad managers. Let me tell you about mine?€¦..blah blah blah.

And so he goes on about his manager with the poor behavior, how it`s driving him crazy, and why did “they” put her in a management position anyway?.

I`m not shocked because I hear it all the time. Sometimes I`m even approached by a client`s direct reports who hope I`ll pass along their complaints to my client (I won`t, and tactfully suggest that they speak to the manager themselves).

Aren`t we all flawed?

There are some really terrible managers out there. Luckily, they are a minority (although all of the bad boss stories would make us believe otherwise). More often than not, the people complaining about their “bad manager” are talking about some less than stellar behaviors exhibited by a decent person who is not very self aware. More often than not, these poor behaviors aren`t serious derailers. These are the behaviors of a human being who is flawed, like you and I.

None of us is perfect, so why should we expect our managers and leaders to be?

Do poor behaviors mean “bad manager”? Can “poor behaviors” change?

Managers and leaders are being observed and judged more than others. Our expectations are understandably different for people in those positions. So when those unsavory behaviors show up in managers, we notice them more and we tend to be more critical of the individuals exhibiting them (especially when they are our manager).

Instead of complaining to me, here is what you can do

The best thing you can do for your manager with poor behaviors is (a) to believe that they can change and (b) give them feedback about what you’re observing. By labeling them as “bad managers” or “bad leaders”, you’ve effectively withdrawn your support and lost hope for any change in their behavior. This doesn`t serve you or your organization well.

So the next time you want to tell me about your “bad manager”, please just tell me that you have a (good) manager with some poor behaviors. Then we can have a conversation about what you can do to help them correct those behaviors. If you are willing to step into that dialog with your manager, there is hope that they can become a better ?€“ maybe even great – manager.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

30 comments on “Bad Manager or Flawed Human?

  1. MJ, Hate the behavior, respect the manager? Sounds like the high road and a variation on Gandhi.

    There are managers who practice bad management. Rather than calling them bad managers, I’ll call them sick managers. By sick I mean to connote that there are management diseases that can be diagnosed and treated.

    The healthier the organization, the less the practice of sick management. The sicker the organization, the more the practice of sick management.

    Can sick managers change? Yes, but the transformation will be much more difficult if the sick manager remains in a sick organization. These managers need lots of support.

    I’m glad you are there to doctor and nurse sick managers and to health. Best regards, Steve

  2. Hi Mary Jo, I really like the line you draw between behaviors and identity.
    You remind us of the most essential rule in human relationships. It can be in big international corporations, in very small businesses,in any kind of social interaction,in families, between parents and children, between spouses.

    We are NOT what we do.
    We can learn from our mistakes and misbehaviours.
    Provided that someone “sees” us (like in AVATAR :),
    Believes in us,
    And cares enough to give us contructive feedback.
    Thank you, Mary-Jo for reminding us this lesson of humanity in Leadership.

  3. I agree–always come from a place of what your responsibility is in dealing with bad boss behaviors, instead of just complaining about them. However, I also think there are some bad bosses out there who are not going to change no matter what you proactively do. Sure, there are managers who have not been trained properly–they can certainly learn more effective behaviors. However, there are others who lead with blinders on and only think of their own agenda. It’s much harder to reach these folks, and the only proactive option you may have is looking for another job. The real key is discerning the difference.

    Thanks for giving us food for thought and a good basis for discussion.

  4. Steve,

    I think sometimes followers don’t give any “mercy” to their leaders, and they do have some responsibility for a leader’s behavior. “Sick manager” may even be a bit harsh for what I’m describing – but I appreciate your viewpoint and it’s made me think. Thanks.


    I would call it the “difference between behavior and the person”. As coaches, we have to see the person and not judge based on behavior. If we didn’t, we couldn’t be effective. I think the possibility for followers to do the same is HUGE and would go a long way toward solving some of our organizational dysfunctions. Thnks also for your kind words.


    So often I’ve seen the effects of 360 impact on those we don’t think will change – work miracles. There is something about seeing anonymous consolidated feedback that, with a good interpretator (i.e., someone outside the company) can work miracles in changing those we don’t think will change. There is always hope.

  5. Great post MJ. I think half the battle is in defining what ‘good’ management is and then sharing that definition with all the managers in the business. I’ve worked with hundreds of managers who have never had a conversation with their own manager about what effective management looks like in practice and I’ve rarely met a manager who has ‘effective people management’ defined as an agreed performance standard or objective. In short, how can we expect managers to demonstrate ‘good’management when they don’t have real clarity about what that means?

  6. MJ, The more mercy you show as a leader, the more mercy you will (eventually) receive. If, as a leader, you view things in the short-term, it will be hard for you to invest in mercy because its return is rarely immediate. Note, my definition of leadership doesn’t preclude someone without hierarchical power from exhibiting this type of leadership.

    I can understand why you may find the term “sick manager” a bit harsh. But is it? Are these people infected? Was it their fault the system they live in rewarded them for poor management and thus poor behavior? No, I think not.

    System Scientist Kenneth Boulding said, “Things are the way they are BECAUSE they got that way.” Sick managers get the way are because they are influenced to be that way. Change the influences and you change the behavior. You, as a coach, become a key influencer. And by changing the things that influence the sick manager, you are treating the disease that is sickening their behavior. Best regards, Steve

  7. I enjoyed this re-framing of the “bad boss” paradigm and the mental shift that this entails. So much hinges on viewpoint and perception really is in the mind. This re-directing of the mind’s energy from the person of the “bad manager” to the behavior serves well to re-focus, otherwise, unproductive energy toward more utility, toward an opening of the door to positive and concrete results.

  8. Joan, it’s so sad that the discussion you describe doesn’t occur. I see my clients and their manager’s discomfort every time we get together to discuss my clients action plan or progress. These should be regular, comfortable conversations that occur.

    Steve, while you can’t sway me to change my mind with the “sick manager” analogy, I appreciate your bringing more of your passion about the subject here with additional thoughts.

    Brett, if I re-framed in such a way as to cause a mental shift, I’ve done my job. Thanks, I’m very happy and you’ve made my day complete. You’ve captured what I enjoy creating very well.

  9. when people complain to an outside party about their boss’s bad behaviour I sometimes wonder what their agenda might be. Okay, this sounds cynical and perhaps it is. But, I can’t help but think that there are people who consider their boss to have bad behaviour on the occasions when he or she does not meet their personal “wants”. It’s easy to complain. It’s easier to blame your boss if things aren’t going well for you.
    Sometimes, we have to look at our own behaviour first to determine what part we might be playing in what’s going on. After all, the leader/follower dynamic is not a one-way proposition. Bad behaviour is possible in both leader and follower and so to your point, perhaps a wise perspective is that we all have something we need to work on.

    Giving feedback to your boss about his/her behaviour may not be the most comfortable thing to do but it is the most honest and possibly most productive thing to do. Telling someone else is simply complaining.

    Another great post, Mary Jo. Thanks.

  10. Mary Jo, thanks for the post. I can see the utility of assuming that the manager’s motives are basically good and focusing on providing direct behavior-based feedback instead of destructively triangulating or outright condemning. However, you indicated that followers should assume some responsibility for their leader’s behavior.I think that responsibility is very limited. Managerial styles–like parenting skills–are often passed down the generational line. In some organizations poor leadership is a systemic norm. In such an environment, the feedback of an individual subordinate can have very little impact. More likely, the expectations that person has of their leader are perceived as deviant. However, in the majority of cases where true leadership is valued, I think your insight is spot-on and a good reminder that I have a RESPONSIBILITY to give a manager the benefit of the doubt…until there is no doubt. 😉

    Thanks again.

  11. Curious about this as you are so right, we all have faults – some little, some glaring. When looking at human interaction and dealing with ER issues, I frequently ask – how much of the problem are you willing to own? If the employee says none, well that’s a problem too. Takes two in the tango. And there are things that I can do to work more effectively and collaboratively.

    If however, the boss/manager is a tyrannical, egotistical, maniacal saboteur, which I have seen too, sadly the only answer is to get out.

  12. Gwyn,as usual you’ve provided great insight. Certainly, someone who is complaining about their manager may have a hidden agenda! Thanks.

    Stephanie, what do you think of Gwyn’s comments? Might they address, at least partially, “assuming responsibility” on the part of the follower? Thanks.

    Deirdre, I love the question you ask. My favorite is “what’s your responsibility in that?” – trying to get at the “two to tango” issue. We all have a responsibility in relationships that are less than good. If we think otherwise, then things are likely to stay as they are. Thanks.

  13. So interesting, isn’t it, how issues that are “clear” in the moment become muddy when you step away from them?

    By which I mean, here we have a great diversity of opinions being expressed, the whole of which shows the subtlety of the “bad manager/imperfect human” issue, yet in the moment, we?€”and here I include us along with our clients and everyone else who’s human, too?€”are likely to be blinded by our emotions and rush to write our managers off as “bad,” or otherwise wash our hands of it.

    MJ, you do a great job here reminding us of the single most important thing we need to do as followers, which is to maintain an open mind *in the moment*. Without that, there is no hope of us taking personal responsibility, and no hope of change for either the manager or the subordinate.


  14. Jason, and of course that open mind in the moment goes both ways. For some reason, though, the vitriol and spewing of “bad boss” stories goes only one way. Hmmm……perhaps we need some “bad follower” stories too? Thanks for stopping over with your thoughts.

  15. Mary Jo,

    What a lively conversation we`re having. Jason hits it on the head with his observation about how you posted a specific issue and we`ve been observing and commenting on it from such diverse viewpoints.

    Would you please provide a clarification? When you advocate “giving feedback” to your boss, what was on your mind: 1-1 feedback or anonymous feedback via 360? I agree with Diedre and Kim that depending upon the team leader/follower dynamics, no amount of 1-1 feedback that will help the situation. On the other hand, you mention that you`ve seen 360 feedback work wonders. So have I, but that`s an entirely different type of feedback.

    It seems to me that the variety of responses to your blog are driven by the definition of “feedback” your commentors have in mind. In a perfect world, employees will own their portion of the dynamic and will respectfully engage the team leader with specific, helpful feedback. In this same perfect world, team leaders will own their portion of the dynamic and listen without defensiveness.

    Too bad we don`t live in that perfect world.

  16. Jennifer,

    If we believe that having a conversation with our manager about their poor behavior won’t do any good, is that a reason not to have it? Could it be, that by courageously stepping into that conversation with our manager (or our peers, or our employees) that we could make the organization a more perfect place to work in? I choose the latter belief.

    We all have a responsibility for creating our organizations; why should we believe that we are powerless to change things?

    More in tomorrow’s post.

  17. Two issues:
    1. While as employee it is our responsibilities to always try and push feedback up the ladder it is the responsibility of manger to recognize that Toxic Tandem they are in and Pull feedback from “the ranks”.
    2. It is so sad to see that we lost some of the basic concepts of being human beings when it comes to the world of management – empathy, connection, socialization and a true sense of achievement… isn’t it time we stop being cogs (managers and employees alike) and start bringing some humanity into the workplace?
    Thanks for this post… it made think a lot…

  18. A great post on a compelling topic triggers a great conversation here Mary Jo.

    A very interesting point that the prevalence of bad boss stories out there is not necessarily evidence of a predominance of bad managers in the world. People have very high expectations of their managers because they are after all “the boss” – they get paid more than “me”, someone chose them to be in charge of “me” so they should be held to higher standards than “I” am. I think the bad boss stories often represent a personal view based on the individuals own expectations (and wants as Gwyn so eloquently points out). People are not very objective about their view of their boss although they expect their boss to be 100% objective.

    Yet we can never underestimate the affect of the fact that a boss has power over an individual in the form of their performance review and compensation in the dynamic involved here. I think sometimes stories about bad bosses are simply one way to express a sense of feeling powerless. Because the “boss” clearly must have more power than us, why don’t they fix the problems I cannot? And I have seen countless times when an assessment of “meets expectations” in a review has been met with serious disappointment and push back leaving everyone involved unsettled. What often follows is a lot of negative assessments of the boss.

    As Steven points out we can’t overlook the impact of the system, but not just on behavior of the boss. It drives the context of the relationship people have with anyone who is a “boss” as well as how those perceptions are handled. With all this going on it is easy to forget the boss is human. And until we can give anyone, boss or not, room for their own humanity and believe anyone can change we will be complaining about the same people and issues for a long time to come.

  19. Beautifully said, Susan!

    This discussion has me caught in the cross hairs: my philosophical self (in line with Mary Jo) is warring with my practical self.

    In my view, people have more pressing realities (making rent, feeding kids) than the need to help their boss “grow”. I agree that all workers regardless of their role should take ownership in making the workplace a productive and relationally sound gig.

    I also believe that for many people, taking that stepping up and giving 1-1 feedback is a risk that most likely will not pay off for them– UNLESS they have an already established, positive, open relationship with their boss.

    At any rate, it feels like we’ve gotten away from the central theme of your post which is acknowledging that “the boss” is human, is prone to mistakes and can’t improve unless they are given feedback to help him/her do so. And this is a theme I completely support.

    You say “more” tomorrow….so I look forward to the continued discussion!

  20. Elad, perhaps we should question the belief that it is always the manager’s the manager’s responsibility to seek out feedback? I too am an advocate of managers asking for such feedback, but isn’t it the right thing for employees to provide it even if they aren’t asked?

    I also believe that there are plenty of managers and leaders out there who are in touch with their humanity, through empathy, compassion and other very wonderful human qualities. Sadly, they don’t make the news. But they are more plentiful than the latter, I have no doubt. I work with them and run into them every day. Thanks for stopping over and adding your thoughts to the conversation.

    Susan, thanks. The problem comes in, I believe, when we do not take responsibility for change – in the boss or in the system. We should always be asking ourselves “what can I do”? and sometimes that means being courageous even when we feel powerless.

    Jennifer, thanks for stopping back and adding some additional thoughts to this rich conversation!

  21. Mary Jo,
    Most people have had their share of “bad” managers or “good managers” with flaws. Where do you draw the line at calling a manager good or bad? What if they are unqualified or don’t like/ignore feedback, is there a good way to approach that situation even though deep down you know nothing you say will change anything? Are they still just a good manager with flaws? I experienced seeing a manager at a company in CA who used to laugh when he fired someone. People overheard his laughter and discussions directed at the facial expression of the fired employee. I really felt he was a “bad manager” or “bad person” and no other way to describe it. He had no direct effect on me but at the time I did judge. Is it really ok to call him a good manager with flaws?

  22. Eric, the first step is to believe that your manager can change. Leave your judgment behind, and understand that what you have to say to him or her might make a difference. And then read my next post, entitled “Dialog With Your Manager”.

  23. Mary Jo,

    I love your positive perspective. When I was younger, I worked a lot of jobs and had a lot of “bad” bosses. I couldn’t help but hate going to work. My attitude was always negative and usually resulted in an outward appearance…people knew I did not want to be there! The reason I love your perspective because it takes the negative out. When one changes their outlook from the beginning it changes their appearance and their eventual actions. Thank you for your outlook!

  24. I had a bad boss once. He took me to a chineese restaraunt and yelled at me for an hour in front of all those people in the resteraunt. Thank God the rest of the company was a good company and one day, quite unexpectedly, the bad boss was fired. If you wait long enough, good things will happen.

    David R.

  25. The reality is that there are BAD managers out there. It is not all goodness and light. Even when confronting them and working through HR gets no change in behavior. They continue their bad habits and it does nothing to improve the atittude of their employees. When that bad behavior is noticed by numerous people at all levels of the company and that person is left in place and allowed to continue to poision a department and undermine the people that work for them – it contributes to those “bad boss” stories.

    Then HR says “most people that leave a company do so becasue of their manager”. Nice. That comment really gives the employees that work for the bad boss a warm fuzzy feeling about their place in the overall organization. As luck would have it it looks like that boss may finally be seeing the light. Not becasue that “flawed human” is changing but the company is and now they’re scared and have no alliances or freinds on their side to turn to.

  26. Kelsey, I was waiting for you (or someone with your point of view) to show up at this post! Of course there are bad managers. But my point is really that we all have to take some responsibility for that situation.

    Oh, and there are lots of good managers too. We just don’t seem to get as emotionally worked up about them, and they don’t often make the press.

  27. Mary Jo,

    It seems from your opening post and comments that the redemption of bad managers is a higher pre-requisite than the redemption of bad employees. Why does it seem that bad managers are allowed to get away with much more, often, catastrophic! practices than bad employees. Yes we are all flawed human beings and we can all have had things go wrong in our lives from childhood up that can influence things right down to how we work. But! what about the place of personal responsibility? I have been looking at blogs for hours now about how to work with bad bosses and the majority seem to be about helping your boss to change and playing some kind of mental game with them.

    Why does a boss or manager as is probably more the appropriate term as boss to me signifies owner of the company, why should more excuses and understanding bee given to them over lesser forms of employee? In fact the more I think about it the more ludicrous it seems that those under bad bosses should work towards their redemption. Yes, help a new boss/manager be encouraging, work diligently under them, but hey! a time must come when enough is enough! just as it will for managers over subordinates. You know I read on a blog that managerial consultants are still trying to figure out how bad managers retain their jobs. My answer is simple…because there is too much emphasis on trying to redeem them and change them instead of firing them. The problem is that people who hired them made a mistake and now they don’t know what to do and given the chance they, without recrimination they would fire them in a heartbeat.


    P.s While everyone was trying to understand my manager and work with them people suffered…and badly.

  28. Greg, I’m so sorry to hear about the suffering you and others endured. That shouldn’t happen, ever.

    Frankly, I think whether managers or employees get more breaks depends on the culture or the particular situation; I’ve seen a lot of employees get fired who didn’t deserve it and a lot of managers get fired who didn’t deserve it. There is often so much more going on than poor behavior (like politics)to determine whether someone stays or goes.

    The point I was making (not well, apparently) is that we all have a role to play when someone isn’t performing as they should – even managers. I’ve risked my job to tell a manager (and a manager’s manager) about issues when nobody else would – because it’s the right thing to do even if I understand that others would rather tell everyone else how bad their manager is.

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