How to tell when a good employee becomes a bad manager

Databox on July 29, 2015 • 4 minute read

A lot of people aspire to a role in management. And the most common way to get there is by working your way through the ranks, e.g.: most engineering managers worked as developers at one point; sales managers held jobs as account reps; and so on.

That seems logical at first glance. But of course, managing something isn’t the same as doing it. In fact, as a manager, you need to get things done without doing them yourself. The skills that make for an excellent manager are very different than those that of an all-star individual contributor.

But when you’re used to producing something – whether it’s a business deal, a marketing campaign, or a line of code – NOT producing those things feels suspiciously like not doing your job. Yet that’s what managing involves: setting other people up to do the things you probably used to do. And for some people, that’s not nearly as rewarding as doing the work themselves. They just can’t let go.

That’s the main reason good employees become awful managers. Their damage is subtle: it takes the form of “death by 1,000 paper cuts” rather than a number of big screw ups.

But there are specific behaviors that matter most when it comes to identifying this type of bad manager. Paying attention to these will help you spot them before they can do too much damage.

They sit in on most of the meetings their direct reports are in.

Why? Either they don’t trust their team; they can’t tell direct reports when they don’t need to be there; or they simply don’t understand what their own job is as that person’s manager.
They are involved in every single thing their direct reports are working on. Every. Single. Last. Thing.
A manager is not a human substitute for their team’s to do list. If a manager is spending time micromanaging what their team works on, then they’re not spending enough time thinking about how to make sure their team is set up for success.

Speaking of success: They haven’t – or worse, can’t – articulate to their team what success means.

You can’t enable people to do their job well without communication. The majority of a manager’s role involves effective communication. How will an employee know if they’re doing a good job if their manager doesn’t tell them what that means? And for the record: it’s not enough to excel at verbal or written communication. Good managers need to do both.

They don’t admit when they don’t know something or are wrong.

There’s no pulling punches on this one: not only are they a bad manager, but they’re probably also an asshole.

They assume being a manager means they know more than their direct reports.

Sure, their capacity to learn probably – well, hopefully! – played some role in their career advancement. But knowledge is not static, and no one respects a superiority complex. The know-it-all will never be able to motivate a high performance team.

They can’t fire people.

This warning sign is a little bit different than the others, because it isn’t something that necessarily relates to being a great individual contributor. But it is arguably the hardest part of management so I thought it was important to talk about anyway. Most of the time, firing someone is going to involve telling a person you genuinely care about that they no longer have a job. If that doesn’t bother you, you don’t have a soul. But if your managers can’t do it they shouldn’t be in management. And if you can’t tell them that… well, maybe you shouldn’t either!

On that last point: I suspect a good number of people in the corporate world today – maybe even a majority – actually hate being managers. So if any of this feels uncomfortably familiar to you, it might be time for a career reevaluation. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you factor in practical concerns like having to find a new job or taking a pay cut. But in the long run, I bet you’ll be much happier.

And if nothing else, remember this: Most companies operate as if the management team is supported by the employees working for them. The greatest companies are run by management teams that understand they exist to support the rest of the organization.

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