Sometimes “Bad” Managers Rise to the Top

Most of my “Things I’ve Learned as a Manager” posts talk about skills or behaviors that I’ve found to be effective in the workplace, and that generally, reflect the practice of good managers or leaders. You can see a post on what makes a good boss here. Ironically, however, one of the realities of the workplace is that sometimes “bad” managers rise in organizations, sometimes all the way to the top. How is this possible?

First of all, it is less common than it used to be, but it still happens. Most managers were, at one time, highly skilled technicians, who got promoted into management because of their technical skills. Unfortunately, most managers are not promoted into entry-level management positions due to their management skills, which, by definition, haven’t been part of their job descriptions. And of course, not all employees who are great accountants or computer programmers or salespeople are also great managers. Some are and some learn to be, but some really struggle with behaviors and skills that are totally different than what they used as technicians. So, how do folks who are poor managers continue to get promoted?

Sometimes it is simply being in the right place at the right time. Organizations that are growing rapidly inevitably have more inexperienced or ineffective managers because of the need to promote very quickly from within as the operation grows. Sometimes, individuals, though poor managers, can be exceptionally productive in their own right and get results even as their teams suffer. This is more common at lower levels of management where the manager can do much of the work him or herself. Sometimes individuals have strong connections with powerful people in an organization and get promoted or stay in positions despite poor performance as managers because they have political advocates.

Regardless of the reason, it does happen. We have all had a bad manager at some point and wondered how did that guy or gal get his or her position? Fortunately, the days of truly awful managers—those who scream and yell or denigrate their employees; those who manage with conflict and political games; those who are utterly incompetent or dishonest—are mostly gone. While every organization has weak managers, the demands of the modern workplace—fewer people doing more work with fewer resources; matrixed organizations; remote workers, and more open and effective employee relations programs—make it much more difficult for really bad managers to get to senior positions or stay there. It happens, but it’s increasingly rare.

What is more common today is managers who are simply “over their heads” in terms of what is required of them vs. what they are capable of doing. As noted in another post, the complexity of today’s typical organizational environments and leadership jobs have outgrown the skillsets of many managers. As those individuals become more frustrated (or fearful) about the disconnect between their abilities and their responsibilities, they are more prone to act out or make unreasonable demands or blame subordinates, etc. Unfortunately, the default setting is often to double down on what is already not working by doing more of it (working harder rather than smarter), putting more pressure on subordinates, etc. What is different about today’s environment vs. previous generations is that the demands for short-term results are so powerful that ineffective managers and leaders are more likely to be moved out of organizations by those above them than they used to be. In effect, all levels of management feel the same pressures and are more apt to “recycle” those below them more quickly than they used to.

So yes, some bad managers still rise to the top, but the current environment makes it less likely that they will survive long term than used to be the case.

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