9 Signs You’re a Terrible Manager

It’s such a fact of life that it’s an accepted rule of work: in large organizations, employees rise to the level of their incompetence. Many people are in management roles who have no training or natural inclination to the job. If you’re wondering if that’s you, here are some sure-fire signs that you could level up your management skills.

1. “Did we have a meeting today?”

A good manager respects others’ time.

Scratch that—a good person respects others’ time.

If you’re always late to meetings and expecting that your team will wait around for you to show up, there are two things wrong with this situation:

  1. You’re communicating that you don’t care about the other team members’ time and that yours means more than theirs.
  2. You’re costing your company money, because every person who’s sitting in a room waiting for you to show up isn’t doing something else.

Everyone’s late to a meeting from time to time. People even forget meetings occasionally.

If you’re always 10, 20, or more minutes late to meetings that you’re in charge of, you need to tame your calendar to get things under control. If you routinely miss meetings, you probably need to set up a better calendar process in the first place.

Think about what showing up late says about you as a leader and what it costs your company to have team members waiting idle for you.

2. There’s no plan for what your team is doing beyond the current project

Leading teams is like juggling fish. It’s difficult, prone to slip-ups, and only when you’re really good does it look like it’s no effort at all.

Especially when you’re working on a complicated cross-functional project, it’s challenging to get a team aligned, working on the same project, and delivering on time and under budget.

Believe me, we get that.

But what’s even harder to do is to make sure that everyone is equally 100% busy for every single day of a complete project until the very end of it whereby everyone will magically wrap up tasks at the identical moment and it will all be done and perfect.

When we put it that way, it’s a good deal harder than “hard”, isn’t it?

So a smart manager doesn’t only plan for the project that’s in front of you. No, she makes sure that she knows what the next couple of projects are, and she has them planned out in enough detail that team members can easily move from one project to the next one if they’re finished before other team members.

The pro-level version of this is to create high level objectives that you want your team to hit, equip them with the info they need to succeed at this, and then get out of the way while they help you rock your objectives.

3. No one you manage comes to you with problems

Management is about repetition & problem solving. Be consistent in your message and your goals and communicate them clearly, and then solve your teams’ problems so they can accomplish what they need to.

But if no one comes to you with problems, then what do you do?

If your org doesn’t embrace problems and learn from them, then employees are more likely to try to hide them. Any problem your team members have is an opportunity. A chance to do better, or a chance to make an improvement in your company or for your clients.

If that’s not openly celebrated in your team, then when they have a problem they’ll tend to hide it. Specifically, they’ll try to hide it from you.

So if it’s been a while since you last had a team member open up to you about something that they’re struggling with, think about how you can foster an environment of problem solving in your team to help discover issues while they’re still small.

4. I’M NOT YELLING, YOU’RE YELLING

Outside the limitations of high-noise environments and maybe the military, there’s basically no reason to be shouting at your team. Some managers feel that keeping their team motivated and driven requires that they crack a whip over the team members’ heads and keep them focused by keeping them scared.

That’s a pile of crap.

Being feared by your team creates a corrosive environment where people are afraid to do things for fear of getting their heads bitten off. It means people hide problems because they are afraid. It means people leave to go find somewhere else to work at where they hate their boss less.

While driving a team with force and with fear can result in a discipline and adherence to orders, it’s rare to see such a team solve complex problems or think outside the box. Fear-based leadership doesn’t value independent thinking.

A good manager doesn’t want her team to love her any more than she wants to be feared. In between adoration and fear is respect, and that’s a good situation for a manager to be in.

5. Too busy to help

There’s a difference between the kind of day that the average manager goes through and the kind of day that the average maker (or anyone who’s not a manager but who is in charge of creating) goes through. This is the well-known idea of maker time vs. manager time. A good manager can balance the work load that he has to juggle between those two areas of maker (or helper) vs. manager.

If you don’t have time to help solve problems for your team, to pitch in and deliver when the chips are down, then you’re probably not doing a great job as a manager. When the going gets tough and everyone has to chip in together, it’s valuable if you’re there to make things a little better.

Is important that, busy as you may be with meetings and manager time, you’re still there when your team needs you.

Block out time in your calendar every week to make sure that you’re able to do tactical stuff like, say, writing a blog post about 9 signs you’re a terrible manager. 😛

6. Objective unclear, please try again

Writing is hard.

It’s also risky. It’s an act where you put yourself out there in a manner which is hard to take back. When someone sees your memo or reads your blog post, there’s less wiggle room than if you talked about it.

Often, when we’re trying to move fast, we end up talking through an action plan and never documenting what it is we wanted to achieve. This is a big management fail for 3 reasons:

  • In a year’s time—or even a month’s time—how do you know what you wanted to do and whether you did it?
  • If a mistake happens, was it clear what should have happened instead?
  • When you need to add someone else to the project, how do you do that? How do they get up to speed?

Time spent writing also forces you to think. You need to be clear, because you can’t read the expression of your reader, and you need to make sure that your intent gets across anyway.

Time spent writing can feel like wasted time—meetings, for managers, are where the rubber meets the road—but by writing, setting goals, and documenting what you want to achieve and why, you have made it easier for anyone to learn from your project, and given your whole team a guide to work from.

There’s a caveat here: as we said, writing is risky because you put yourself out there.

You can “weaponize” someone else’s writing against them by insisting that because they wrote something three weeks ago, they can’t do something different now. Deadlines slip, mistakes happen, and projects pivot scope.

Don’t be the kind of person who uses someone’s writing as a bludgeon to make them regret trying to communicate clearly, or you’ll be back at sign #3.

7. Never having the hard talk

When someone makes a mistake once, it’s a chance to learn something. If they keep making the same mistake, there’s probably a bigger topic that needs to be addressed. If someone keeps making the same mistake and they’re not motivated and they’re dragging the team down (and so on), you definitely need to have a broader talk.

Often, we don’t address problems critically when they’re small and more controllable. The quarterly or (heaven help you) annual performance review is an awful feedback mechanism simply because it provides guidance long after a correctable event.

Weekly, or at the most monthly, talk to each team member about overall performance. If something has gone wrong, talk to the team member as soon as possible—the same day if you can—about what went wrong and how to address it next time.

Make sure you give criticism in a constructive way, but keep that feedback loop as short as possible between problem and discussion while still respecting that just after something has gone wrong, your team member probably is super stressed out because something just went wrong.

If you avoid hard talks because they’re not fun, you’ll end up having more even harder talks—the kind where you let someone go—because you didn’t fix problems before they grew too big.

8. Meet the new guy, same as the old guy

When’s the last time someone quit your team?

The old truism is you don’t quit your job, you quit your boss. Studies actually suggest that’s only half the story, though. From this article in the Harvard Business Review:

…[W]e learned something interesting about [employees] who eventually stayed. They found their work enjoyable 31% more often, used their strengths 33% more often, and expressed 37% more confidence that they were gaining the skills and experiences they need to develop their careers.

So when someone quits your team, it’s because they don’t enjoy their work—which is usually the boss factor—but they’re more likely to be driven by believing that their work uses their strengths and that they’re getting skills and experience which will help them develop their careers.

If you’re bleeding staff, it’s because you’re not managing your team’s career trajectory. Take a little time and talk to them about what they want to achieve professionally. Tailor your work—as much as you can—to what they want to do and how they want to grow.

A good manager wants to see his or her team members thrive and grow; if they feel like they can’t do that, they’ll start looking for new opportunities pretty fast.

9. You only solve the problem in front of you

This last one is a pernicious problem. It strikes good managers and bad ones alike.

It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily work and focus on tactical problems that need to be solved: write that email, plan this meeting, scope the next project. It’s easy to forget that a good leader’s job is to look ahead and see what other problems need solving after the one that everyone is working on.

If you only worry about how to solve the next problem on your plate, you’ll never develop yourself as a manager and a leader. The more senior you are, the larger a problem you can tackle with less guidance and assistance. One sure way to improve your own capabilities as a manager and a leader is to position your team to do work that doesn’t solve just one problem, it sets them up make solving the next one a little easier.

Each project your team completes is a chance to test new ways to run your team, create new processes, improve how you communicate together. It’s on you, the manager, to tune the machine of your team and make it work as well as it can.

So look beyond “How do we ship the next project” and think about “How do we get better at doing more things” as well as “What’s the next most important thing for us to tackle after we have finished with this one? How could I set things up so that we’re aligning several problems together?”

Playing chess requires you look several moves ahead if you’re gonna win. Managing teams is infinitely harder than chess, but the same idea applies.

Oh no, I realized I do some of these things. What’s next?

Just because you may be guilty of a few of these traits doesn’t make you a terrible manager–even great managers do these sometimes–but if these sound like something you do all the time, we’d recommend some serious introspection.

Breaking bad habits is hard, but the first step is understanding that you’ve formed a bad habit. Get yourself a habit tracker, (we’re a big fan of bullet journaling in general) figure out what corrective steps you should take, and then get to work applying them.

If you’re leading a team, you owe it to yourself and to them to be the best you can and drive them to the same.

What are your sure-fire signs of a terrible manager? Maybe you wanna forward this to a terrible manager in your life?

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