the top 6 ways managers demotivate employees

An employee’s relationship with his or her manager is the single most important factor in how happy that employee is at work – which means that managers have a huge amount of sway over the mood on their team. Here are the top six ways that managers mess up and end up demotivating employees who might otherwise be more productive.

1. Fuzzy expectations. One of a manager’s most important jobs is to get employees aligned around clear goals and expectations. When that doesn’t happen, employees don’t have a clear understanding of what success in their jobs would look like – and it’s hard to excel when you’re not even sure what you should be excelling in.

2. Ruling by fear. Managers who rule through rigid control, negativity, and a climate of anxiety and fear generally operate like that because they don’t trust that they can get things done any other way. But it ends up backfiring because fearful employees won’t take risks or bring up new ideas for fear of being attacked and won’t be honest about problems. Moreover, very few great people with options want to work for a fear-based manager, so over time these managers have trouble attracting strong workers.

3. Not recognizing good work. Imagine spending weeks working on a project or working through the weekend to make a client happy and then see no signs that your boss noticed or cared. When that happens, employees often conclude that since great work isn’t recognized, there’s no point in putting in extra effort or doing more than the bare minimum – instant demotivation.

4. Making unreasonable demands. Holding employees to a high standard is a good thing. But some managers cross the line from holding people to a high standard to pushing them to the brink. Managers who insist that people work over the weekend to complete a project that isn’t time-sensitive, enforce truly unreasonable deadlines, or demand that an employee do the truly impossible are signaling to their staff that a reasonable person’s idea of excellence will never be enough for this manager … and as a result, cause a drop in morale and productivity.

5. Constantly moving goalposts. Some managers can’t stick to a decision about the most important ways for employees to spend their time. One week, you’re supposed to drop everything to work on Project A for the next month. Three days later, your boss has an idea for Project B and so Project A is forgotten. The next week, she wants all your energy focused on Project C. As a result, employees stop taking any of the work seriously, knowing from experience that there’s no point in giving it their all when the priorities will change soon anyway.

6. Neglecting to deal with problems. Some managers avoid conflict and tough conversations at all costs. This often takes the form of shying away from addressing performance problems, reluctance to make necessary course corrections to a project for fear of offending someone, or not intervening when another department is creating roadblocks. Ironically, while these managers are usually just trying to be liked, over time the opposite happens: As problems go unresolved and difficult decisions go unmade, staff members grow frustrated and lose motivation to work at a high level (and the best among them usually leave).

{ 93 comments… read them below }

  1. Yup*

    All true.

    A fun intersection of #1 (fuzzy expectations) and #4 (unreasonable demands) is telling employees that something is Very Very Important, when it actually isn’t. I can still remember the sinking feeling when I realized that the solo project on which I’d been killing myself for 9 months was just faint background noise for my managers. Even though they’d made a big production of assigning and launching. So demoralizing. And unnecessary!

    1. Ruffingit*

      Oh man, I am really sorry that happened to you. I know the feeling, totally been there. You’re told something is important, you work on it and work on it and you find that it doesn’t actually matter at all to anyone. I was so happy to be laid off from a job where that sort of thing was going on with my project. It was demoralizing to know that though I was paid well for what I was doing, it didn’t actually matter to anyone that I was doing it.

      1. Yup*

        The bizarre part was how unnecessary it was. They could have just said, “Here’s a thing that needs to be done. You’re the one best positioned to do it. Can you finish it by X?” There was no need to hand me the project plan with breathless wonder like it’s the last known copy of the Magna Carta.

        The final straw was when I listed the project as a major accomplishment during my annual review and my boss said, “Yeah, I don’t think that was a major accomplishment for you this year. You did other stuff that was more important. I’d take that off the list.” Qua?!

    2. Clever Name*

      Yeah, we have a project manager for whom everything is an emergency, and when he asks/tells us he wants us to work on something, he expects us to drop everything and work on his thing. It took me a while to realize that just because he thinks it’s an “emergency” doesn’t really mean it’s an emergency, but he’s very good at arm waving and panicking. Very frustrating.

    3. Mints*

      I really love the Bad Manager articles. I’m not just an entitled millennial, he really sucks! Lol

      Fuzzy expectations: Here’s a very important project that will take a while to finish, but when you’re done, everyone will use it and it will be so very important. A few weeks later… “Hey what are you working on lately?” “That teapots reference you gave me to work on” “Oh right I forgot about that. How’s it going?”

      1. Leslie Yep*

        UGH. I just had something similar happen. My manager asked me to work on a project. I pushed back asking if it was really a priority given what else is going on. She insisted, forcefully. Three days before it was due, I mentioned in passing that I would have it to her by the deadline. Her response, “What was that again?”

    4. Bea W*

      DEARGOD! That gave me flashbacks of the days in one job where I wanted to beat myself senseless with my keyboard. The kicker was that I often knew what was really really NOT important, but if I didn’t act like it was life or death I’d get dinged for not prioritizing the work exactly the way she wanted it prioritized. It didn’t matter if it got done either way, just that I dropped everything and did it when she demanded even if the client clearly had other priorities.

      1. Vicki*

        I recall one large department meeting where an engineer had the temerity (or wit) to actually say “So, you’re saying that we have three Priority One projects?” and the manager said “Yes.”

  2. Anonymous*

    The biggest demotivator for me is having manager hovering over my shoulder, or nagging me about sales goals. Go away!

    1. tcookson*

      Me too! When my boss is around, I’m afraid to start anything because I don’t know how involved I’ll be able to get before he wants something else. He travels all the time, and when he’s in the office, he’s constantly calling me in there for one more thing. Or rather, he starts talking to me from inside his office, and because I can’t hear a word he’s saying from in there, I have to get up. And go in there. Multiple times.

      Even if there is a rumor (and by rumor, I mean that he tells me directly) that he will be in the office, I will delay starting work on things because I can’t work with him here. And then he will be an hour or two late, or not come in to the office after all.

      Oh well, that’s life with a whirlwind of a boss. But I do enjoy the stretches when he is definitely out and I can concentrate on my work.

  3. CollegeAdmin*

    One week, you’re supposed to drop everything to work on Project A for the next month. Three days later, your boss has an idea for Project B and so Project A is forgotten. The next week, she wants all your energy focused on Project C.

    This describes my job in a nutshell. I’m getting frustrated.

    1. Kelly O*

      My personal favorite is when you are instructed to drop Project A and focus on B or C. Three months later, someone comes up and wants to know why Project A was never completed, because one day in the elevator he had a discussion with people (non of whom were actually involved in Project A) and decided it needed to be picked up. Two months ago…

      I used to have completion anxiety. Now I have non-completion anxiety, even if I’m unsure if the project is even going forward.

      1. tcookson*

        I came here to say just this — about the three months later when project A is suddenly brought up by someone else to Boss and then I have to do a song-and-dance routine to Boss about why I never finished it. And he never remembers that he’s the one who called it off, because he certainly would never have done such a thing.

          1. Bea W*

            My former Big Boss never put anything in writing herself (because if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen). She would verbally tell my manager who would then pass it on to her employees, and usually in the most fuzzy indirect manner possible.

      2. Mimi*

        You took the words right out of my mouth. Add to it, a mention on your annual evaluation about how you dropped the ball on Project A, and that about sums it up.

    2. Sissa*

      Same here. Except when Project B and Project C come along, Project A is still a priority, and the deadline is unchanged – so I’m forced to run like crazy to do all the work, just to hear that Project B was probably going to be delayed anyway. Oh, and Project A had a design overhaul – those teapots didn’t look human-like enough, so we’re redoing the visuals. And Project C was rushed to completion only to have 3 people sign up or show interest it on the website.

      Sometimes it feels like projects are being assigned around with 0 knowledge of what they will bring or if they will be worth the effort in the end. But hey, keeps me off the street, right?

      1. Jen in RO*

        And then, 2 days before the deadline, you find out that *actually* project B was not delayed, it needs to be done asap, and everyone knew that except you.

  4. Ruffingit*

    Great stuff as always. I’d also add:

    Expecting employees to read your mind. I had a boss once who would have great ideas and expect them to be initiated except she wouldn’t tell anyone about them. She would either think she had said it (she hadn’t) or she would just expect employees to know based on past ideas or projects. It was bizarre. BE CLEAR about what you want, don’t just state it in a meeting. Send a follow-up email so it’s in writing and everyone knows it.

    I would also add that if a boss promises to get you some type of assistance as in give you the time of another worker to help you or get you your own assistant or whatever, then there should be a clear timeline for that too. Same boss as above used to promise help all the time and never delivered. It got to where we just muddled through and didn’t bother to ask her to assign people to help us because we knew she’d nod her head, agree to do it, and then never did it.

    1. JulieInOhio*

      Totally been there on the reading your mind thing. Either I was expected to read the boss’, or she insisted she already knew what I was thinking and I was wrong. I don’t want to be in your messed up head, and please get out of mine!

      1. voluptuousfire*

        Or on this particular tack, never mentioning a particular factor which is critical to your job and then reaming you for not knowing about this factor. I had a temp job where I was a recruitment assistant and one of the recruiters was a real piece of work. Turns out a glaringly important piece of info that was required for me to do my job properly was never brought to my attention by him and when I was accused of wasting his time by inviting in a candidate to interview with him (which he had asked me to do, btw) . I checked all my notes and there was no mention of it. Overall it was a massive hot mess of a job and I was thankful to have been let go for bad fit.

        You know a job is bad when you think sitting at home collecting unemployment is a more constructive use of your time than actually working a horrible job.

    2. Clever Name*

      Yeah, a project manager told me he was frustrated that I didn’t come up with a creative solution to something he never told me was a problem.

  5. Carrie in Scotland*

    All true…at my job we have “flexi” time but recently our new manager (not the office manager but the 2 line mamagers) have decided that even if we want to leave an hr before we have to let them know earlier on that day like in the morning. Before we would just check if others were staying until close and then leave.

  6. Kevin*

    Ugh I was fired for number one and I guess you could add in number six to that.

    We’re going to have to let you go for not meeting goals we never communicated and that we never told you you weren’t meeting. Sorry about only giving you positive feedback.

  7. De Minimis*

    #1 is especially difficult for new employees. They’re told they need to do something, but are given no real guidance on how to go about it or on which things are most important and need to be prioritized.
    Puts them in a tough position and can really start things off on the wrong foot.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      Ah, yes.

      Manager: “Make things better.”
      Employee: “Um, better as in X, Y, Z or some combination?”
      Manager: “I don’t know–you’re the content expert here.”
      Employee: “Given current resources, we could do this or this, but not both. Which one do you want?”
      Manager: “Neither. Make it better.”

      Put conversation on infinite loop….

      1. Leslie Yep*

        YES. This happens with the ever-nebulous “managing up” in my org as well.

        Manager: I need you to manage things up to me.
        Employee: Can you be specific?
        Manager: Like, the things I need to know.
        Employee: Could you give some examples?
        Manager: THINGS.

      2. Jane Doe*

        Ugh. I know this too well.

        Boss: “Make marketing go fast!”
        Me: “We can do A, B, or C. Here are the costs and benefits associated with each and the resources required.”
        Boss: Ignores email, completely forgets project in follow-up conversation.

        1. Poppyseed*

          Why does this entire thread sound like my current boss? Actually, he exhibits points #1 to 5, and I’m not exaggerating.

          5th week on the job in new industry. He berates me about not using industry language. Says I should be content expert, responds to questions like: no, you figure it out.

          Well, can I have some time to actually LEARN the industry language? Can I feel as though I can ask you questions about things I don’t yet understand without you looking at me as though I’m stupid?

          We only managed to get past that phase after I decided to have a confrontational meeting with him, couched in asking for feedback, of course. I knew this, but hadn’t realized to what extent success expectations were NOT set for the first 2 months, and how I was essentially tiptoeing around him, unsure of his priorities, preferences, etc.

          Never again will I start a job without understanding my deliverables clearly.

  8. Sascha*

    Something that demotivates me is having a manager who won’t say no to bullies and overly demanding clients. We have a few users on campus who are definitely bullies. They treat our support staff like crap and harass them about insignificant things. The staff will tell the manager about a person, and the manager sends an overly polite, sugary email to them to the effect of “So could you sorta not do that again, maybe?” More often than not, this (or group of people) gets put higher on the priority list than other constituents who are kind and respectful to us, just to appease them. Nothing kills my desire to help more than that.

  9. Name changed to protect the innocent*

    You got this list from watching my old boss, right? He (or she) exhibited ALL of these characteristics at one time or another. There was always an implied “or else” with his (or her) directions. One time I was pulled off of a task that supported a few dozen people to do a specific report for “the boss”. I was told it had to be in his (or her) office by 4 pm. During this time, I was unable to help other folks (which was the majority of my job) and so their productivity suffered. Anyway, I worked and worked and around 3:55 pm went to the boss’s office to deliver the report. Boss wasn’t there, so I asked his secretary when he’d be back. “He’s gone for the day,” she said.

    1. Windchime*

      Arrrgggh, that would happen to me when I was on call. I was a programmer for an application that our end users (doctors) used daily. I would get a call from Dr. X that [urgent thing]. I would log in, research, fix it, call Dr. X back only to get his office. “Oh, yes, he finished up and went home. He said it could wait till tomorrow.”

      Ummmmm……grrrrrrrr. Don’t call me at home at 10 PM if it can wait till tomorrow!

  10. Elkay*

    I’d like to add in – not understanding your product/your team’s capabilities. We had a manager who would promise customers the earth and would not understand that our product did not do what he’d just told the customer it did and we could not deliver what he had just promised. End result – unhappy, demoralised staff busting a gut to deliver something that the customer probably won’t accept.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Arrgh, that happened a LOT at Exjob. I would communicate often on what sample and literature inventory we had available (a heads-up if we were running out of something), but no one paid any attention. I would send an email–“Hi all, we only have one box of 100 X catalogs left. Please be frugal with customer orders until we get more; it will be a couple of weeks.”

      Then right after that, I’d get an email from somebody. “Send Bob 200 of X catalog.” I’d reply, “We only have one box; is it okay if he gets some now and some later?” Cue squalling–“WHAAAAA???? HE NEEDS IT SEND IT NOW!


    2. Ruffingit*

      Yeah, been there too. Amazing how many people (even owners of companies) don’t understand their own product(s) and what can/can’t be done in a particular time frame. They promise the moon and several planets and you say “Well, we could reasonably deliver the stars and possibly two planets, but no way can we do [promised thing].” All of a sudden you’re the problem because you can’t deliver promised thing and they go on continuing to promise the universe to customers. UGH. So frustrating.

  11. Clever Name*

    Hmm. One of the project managers at my job does 1, 3, and, 4. Oh, and he treats people like tools to further himself. That’s pretty much why I told my manager I’m not doing any new work for this PM.

  12. Jeanne*

    My last boss did all of those and more. Add in that he got to leave every day at 4 pm exactly but I had to stay late for whatever urgent project he gave me at 3:30.

  13. Anon*

    Honestly I can handle a lot of stuff like fuzzy expectations and even unreasonably high standards.

    What REALLY demotivates me is getting nickle and dimed in my time or pocket. Employers who expect you to get in early and leave late are the type of employers who end up with a lot of workers on Facebook, unwilling to stay extra late as needed.

    Not reimbursing my expenses like crazy mileage to work at a remote office or travel meals for multi-day conferences (and we’ve heard a lot of stories like this on this blog) makes me me feel like I might as well nickle and dime the company where I can to make up for it.

    1. Anon*

      I wanted to add: it’s not so bad when these types of policies are clearly outlined during the interview phase so the candidate can decide if it’s worth it. But when time requirements or reimbursement policies are outside the norm (not just barley legal), it can feel like a big bait and switch to a new employee.

    2. Ruffingit*

      That is exactly what ends up happening. People who are nickled and dimed to death will find ways to retaliate, subtle though they may be. Might be that they refuse to stay one minute longer than necessary, might be that they steal the company pens, or pad their expense reports or whatever. Not saying that is acceptable or fair or good. But it happens.

  14. Mishsmom*

    i had a boss who ruled by Animal Farm (George Orwell’s book) rules: all animals are equal, but she and her two cronies were more equal than others. that, and she would always assume one was trying to get out of working, or trying to pull one over on her, or trying to cheat somehow. very strange…

    1. Ruffingit*

      I know someone like this. He assumes that everyone has the most negative motivation for their actions. Can’t possibly be that people are just living their lives and doing their best. Nope, they are consistently plotting against him and others.

  15. Anonymous*

    Numbers four and six are what caused me to throw in the towel, alongside a refusal to employ empathy in his managerial approach. If I could add anything to that list, it’s a refusal to reflect or grow on one’s approach to managing.

    My favourite moment with this fellow happened after a buyout, when he was the only on-site person trained to the new procedures, and refused to train front-facing staff during the first week of the transition. The transition was hard on everyone, but made harder without support.

  16. Anonymous*

    Clock watching, and lack of flexibility. In my previous job, the logistics of getting my children to day care and myself to the office meant that it was pretty much impossible to get there by 9:00. I could get there quite reliably by 9:10, but 9:00 just wasn’t feasible most days.

    Now, this was a professional office job, with no requirement for anyone to cover for me if I wasn’t there. There was no reason that I had to be there at 9:00:00, except that she said so. And no matter how many times I offered to make up the time at lunch or at the end of the day, she just kept saying no. 9:00 is the start time, so 9:00 is the start time, end of discussion.

    It was very demotivating. All I really learned from that experience was that having my bum in my seat at a particular time was more important than the quality of work I did.

    1. Sascha*

      I can’t stand clock watching! My last manager did that. She told us we had to be in our chairs, with the computer on and ready to go by 8am, no exceptions. And we were not to go by our computer clocks – it had to be the “official wall clock.” She didn’t want us “sneaking out” at 4:58pm. She was very bothered by the fact that none of us wanted to stay past 5pm – we weren’t required to, and no overtime was paid (salaried/exempt), and she had told us before that our business wanted to avoid comp time at all costs. She was just upset that none of us wanted to work for free.

      1. Anonymous*

        I used to work in a call centre where the managers were weird about what clock to use, too. Because setting them all to the right time would just be illogical.

        1. Sascha*

          This manager was paranoid that we were purposefully setting our computer clocks to be faster than the wall clock, so using the computer clock was forbidden. Isn’t awesome to be treated like a child? :)

          1. Marie*

            Playing devil’s advocate, I have an employee now who plays games with the time so she doesn’t have to work as much. Setting specific expectations makes sense to me so that those employees who can’t seem to manage 40 hours a week can’t claim they didn’t know any better.

            1. Esra*

              I’d argue the issue there isn’t which clock she’s using, it’s that she’s fooling around playing games with the time rather than doing her X hours of work. It’s addressing the wrong issue.

              1. Clever Name*

                Yes. At my last job, I really didn’t have enough to do, and repeatedly begged for work. When it was obvious none was forthcoming, I’d surf the web when I had nothing to do. Of course I got dinged for being online in my performance review.

      2. J*

        Agreed that clock watching managers suck. But FYI if you’re exempt, you aren’t working for free if you stay past 5.

        1. Jessa*

          That really isn’t the point. If the office makes a stink about comp time hours and the manager is nasty about the clock why would anyone WANT to stay. I mean part of the point of being exempt is you’re supposed to be mostly trusted to do your work on your own. Yes there are some places where it’s expected and reasonable to expect an exempt person to be there for X hours all the time no exceptions unless they’re ill or something (medical staff, call centre management, things where there are customer facing hours.) However, if management is going to treat such staff as children saying well it’s one minute too why are you not at your desk you can’t leave or start leaving yet, I can’t imagine any employee that’s going to stay til 2 minutes AFTER.

          1. Judy*

            At one job, there was a cafeteria on site, that served the engineering offices and the production employees. Someone got a bright idea that the cafeteria couldn’t even serve coffee after 7:30 (the official start time for the offices), because that would be taking everyone away from their work. So for a few months, the cafeteria closed at 7:30, opened at 8:30 for the production employee breaks, closed again at 9 and opened at 10:45 for lunch. And most of the engineers were at their desks at 7:30, and left when they had their 8 hours in. It changed soon after.

            If there’s a problem with one person abusing something, fix that, don’t make everyone else grumpy by withholding coffee.

            1. Lora*

              They withheld coffee…from engineers?
              Those facility engineers get calls at 2am to fix the broken thingamajig and figure out what went wrong with the whozywhatsis, and they withheld coffee?

              I mean, your production facility doesn’t HAVE to run. By and large, if the engineers tell someone it has to wait till the sun is up because the material handling system runs on bird calls and onion bagels, nobody’s going to know the difference really. I know that if someone calls me to say, “the cooling water loop just exploded and all our systems are overheating dangerously! what button do we press first???” if I am undercaffeinated my response will be, “um. Hmm. What?” With caffeine, it’s more like, “Let me remote my fancy computer into the automation system and shut everything down for you from 2000 miles away. Do not worry, everything is under control, mama’s gonna take care of you.”

    2. jesicka309*

      OMG I just went from a job where I got dinged in my performance review for being in my chair at 8.32-8.35 every other day instead of 8.30 am. If I was going to be late (8.32 late even!) I had to let them know beforehand. It was incredibly demoralising, especially because I had very little work to do, and I’d be rushing to work only to stare into space for an hour!
      I’m now in an amazing job with the best boss. The traffic this morning was awful (no one can drive in the rain?) and it tripled my travel time. My old paranoia took hold and I texted her while at traffic lights to let her know.
      I got the biggest lecture when I got to work because she was concerned I texted her and the most important thing to her is my safety and please be careful! She also reminds me when it’s past 5pm and nags me to go home!
      I love my job now. :)

  17. Anon This Time*

    #1 Fuzzy Expectations is particularly germane for me right now, as I’m expected to generate “SMART” MBOs (specific, measureable, attainable, blah blah) for 2014. The problem? Boss hasn’t explained what next year’s projects even are…

    1. The Deliverator*

      Depending on the type of work you do, it’s quite possible to find SMART goals even without knowledge of the exact projects you’ll be working on. For example:

      For each of my projects:

      – complete my work products on time (as defined by with a maximum delay of 2 days from the agreed upon deadline, which will have my input to ensure realistic estimates);

      – produce quality work products (free from defects as defined by the criteria in table XYZ).

  18. Erik*

    I would add:
    #7 – not being engaged with their employees, in which the manager is simply “checked out”, doesn’t care and only looks out for him/herself.

    #8 – spending more time kissing ass to senior management than working with their team, resulting in a group that lacks leadership and fails to work well together.

  19. Brett*

    We had a big (projected $11M+) construction project going out for bid, and procurement informed us at the last minute that we could not put the project out for design and build. We had to have a design first, but did not have time to put the design out for bid separately, and our budget was only $10M.

    I got volunteered to design the system (and I am not an engineer). I worked hundreds of extra hours. I read dozens of journal articles. I interviewed experts in the field. And in 8 weeks I cranked out a design that brought the project cost down to $7.5M and exceeded industry standard performance measures.

    On the bright side, I revolutionized design for these kinds of projects, leading to lots of recognition in my industry and the industry the project was for. On the negative side, my boss did not acknowledge my work on the project, much less put in for a bonus (we give out two competitive bonuses per year out of 4k+ employees) or even commendation for me. The procurement officer in charge of the project received one of those two bonuses (for overseeing the largest cost savings in the organization that year). That was the most deflating instance of #3 I ever ran into (and the project itself was generous portions of #6, #1, and #4).

    I think I can honestly say that my job satisfaction has never been the same since then.

  20. Job Hunter*

    I have a few to add from my last job:

    Manager who does no work himself. My last boss spent all his type either playing games or shopping online. It was really obvious to just about everyone. He put in minimum effort himself and would not help those who reported to him. It is really hard to care and work hard when you see your boss not working all day long and know he makes the big bucks.

    Manager who obviously plays favorites. Also hard to stay motivated when you can see the boss giving special treatment to his “friends”, especially in a very small company. And it was pretty much a boys’ club.

    Even though I’m unemployed right now, I’m still glad I’m no longer at that company. It really does a number on your motivation/morale.

    1. LizNYC*

      +1 to this. At OldJob, my manager just delegated every single piece of work to one of us underlings — we were never quite sure what SHE did, other than shop online, pretend to look busy and check in with us daily about “status,” which wasted time we could have been spending on all of the projects she gave us.

      Oh, and when I left, she told me that because the company was too financially strapped to give bonuses, flex time, etc., my true “reward” all those years had been all that extra work had been doing. Never been SO happy to leave a place ever!

    2. Mints*


      I’d rather Boss just stay home rather then listen to personal calls through the open office door for literally hours. Or hours of laughing at videos (speakers on, of course)

    3. Windchime*

      We have a boss like that at my work. Fortunately, he’s not my boss. As far as we can tell, his “work” is to watch videos on YouTube and to walk around and distract people by chatting authoritatively with them about all kinds of non-work-related topics. He doesn’t seem to have any actual work that’s related to what we do.

  21. BN*

    My first job out of school and I see all of these characteristics in my job. It is frustrating and I feel incompetent.

  22. Sarah*

    I left my last job because of #6. The manager would not manage. It was impacting my work, especially meeting my fundraising goals. From my old coworkers, I hear it’s gotten worse. One other person has put in for retirement and another is talking about leaving at the same time if things don’t change.

  23. Anonymous*

    A manager for a past part time job would frequently tell me what a great job I was doing, and then complain about how horrible the person who came in on the days I wasn’t there was doing (not getting much work done, not doing the work they were doing well, constantly texting, coming in late, taking long lunch breaks, etc). After over a year of listening this, it started getting demoralizing: I wasn’t getting rewarded for being a good employee, and the other person wasn’t getting punished for being a bad employee (they were the daughter of a relative of the boss, so I guess keeping her employed was a favor or something). I eventually started working less hard (I still got a lot done, but didn’t kill myself to keep going “above and beyond” because why bother?). The manager had a meeting with me to essentially tell me I needed to go back to doing “above and beyond.” Ended up quitting a few months later.

    1. Anonymous*

      Funny, I was doing a kick-ass job for a long time and all my boss could do was shake his head, say it just wasn’t “happening,” and hire a young blond bubblehead for the promotion I wanted and basically go “Lol isn’t she cute” every time she screwed up. So I did what you did and stopped giving anything extra. Next thing I know we have this conversation:

      Him: What’s happening with you? Things aren’t getting done.
      Me: I don’t understand. I was supposed to get X, Y, and Z done by Friday and I got it done by Wednesday.
      Him: Yeah, but you used to be done by Monday and get A, B, and C done on the side.
      Me: …Then why did you tell me I was barely staying afloat and get Bubblehead in here from outside? Bubblehead can’t even do one of those things, much less all of them.
      Him: …

  24. Elizabeth West*

    A manager who talks smack about the person you just replaced; you know that when you leave, she’ll do the same thing about you. She made me so nervous that I made silly mistakes I’ve never made anywhere else.

    Also, using my computer to illegally rip DVDs.

    1. tcookson*

      My previous boss (with whom I ended up having a great relationship) made me nervous, when I first started working with him, by making a negative comment about my predecessor. I didn’t know him well yet, and it made me think that he might be the kind to talk smack about me, too.

      It turned out that that was one of the only times he ever said anything bad about her, but I heard from others that he and she had not gotten along very well in their boss/assistant relationship. I guess their work styles were too different and they just aggravated one another.

  25. Wubbie*

    Three that my manager is guilty of that were not mentioned but are HUGE demoralizers:

    1: DOUBLE STANDARDS!!! There was once a project I was admittedly behind on (though the deadline was arbitrary, and there were no actual business repercussions for being late on it) when I took a vacation day (my first in months because there’s never a “good” time for me to be away). When I returned, my boss gave me a 20 minute lecture and said if he had realized where I was on the project he would have cancelled the vacation day. At the moment he was saying this, his golden boy, who was 3 times as far behind on an identical project, was out on his vacation day that miraculously was not rescinded even though boss man knew exactly what his status was. Just one example. I could write a book on all the double standards on our team.

    2: Amnesia. My manager cannot remember from month to month, week to week, day to day or moment to moment what he asks us to do. He’ll give us instructions, we do it the way we’re asked, and he’ll say it’s wrong and ask why we did it that way. When we respond with “Because you told us to?” he’ll say “I would never have said that!” uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…. ok. There was another time I showed him something I completed and again it was “This is completely wrong!! Why did you do it like that??” This time my answer was “Because that’s how I’ve been doing it for the last SEVEN YEARS!!” and showed him plenty of examples. So he says “well you’ve been doing it wrong for 7 years.” Thanks dude. And you’ve been approving incorrect things for 7 years too, I guess.

    3: Finding fault with EVERYTHING because all he does is look for mistakes. If there are two ways I can do something (Option A & Option B), it does not matter which one I choose. If I do Option A he’ll say I shoulda gone with Option B. If I choose Option B he’ll say I shoulda gone with Option A. It is really hard to try to do my best work when I am going to be told it’s wrong no matter what. And to those who say “Why don’t you ask ahead of time?” please refer to demoralizer #2 above, lol.

    The worst thing is, things were great there until about 3 years ago (In January I’ll have been there for 11 years). Then he had some personal issues and just went crazy.

    Yes, I’m looking.

    1. Jessa*

      Yeh all you can do with those kind of bosses is email “okay you said project y, style b, option n.” and if you don’t get back a “style c option z.” You do it and point to the email when they kvetch at you.

  26. Erica B*

    I posted this on the intuit blog, but here is my response:

    My boss consistently only shows up for work 15 mins a day. He walks in, checks in with a couple people and then walks out, and if you’re not there for that 15 mins you lose your chance to talk with him face-to-face. Then when he talks with us about our work he always says, “.. but we don’t to anything.” But we do, because I’m often very busy, but my workload varies by day and how close I am to deadline on the 15th. Granted the work we do is less than the amount we used to do, but “staffing” has decreased (I work at a research University where ‘staff’ were most commonly graduate students) and I have absorbed all of the work that was on the people who are no longer with us of the last few years.

    The most demotivating thing he does is criticize me for going on the internet when I need breaks (we don’t have a no internet rule) once in a while in an off comment fashion and THEN has the balls to tell me, “but we don’t do anything”… Well buddy just because YOU don’t do anything doesn’t mean WE don’t do things!! It’s irritating. the salt in the wound is that I make peanuts compared to him, and am the cheapest person in my place of employment and I will have been here 10 years in Jan. (I’m cheap b/c I dont’ have a masters or pH D like all the others, and I don’t complain about this). But man I wish I could earn 3x what I do (as he does) and only work 15 mins a day…

  27. Jake*

    #5 (moving goalposts) is the most frustrating one to me if it is coming from my direct manager. My very first manager was, and still is, like that. The running joke in the office is that all his employees should juggle all 3 or 4 of their projects at once, no matter what he tells them because in the end it could easily be any of them that need to be done yesterday.

    #6 (failing to deal with problems) is the most frustrating one to me if it is coming from upper management. We have huge issues with this, and it demoralizes the entire project. It results in good people leaving because they know their concerns won’t be heard, and mediocre people staying because they are just happy to be drawing a check, even if the environment is awful.

  28. mirror*

    I have a boss who is great except for one thing: she hired me because I know X, and she only loosely understands X. She fully admits she is not good at X, has been unsuccessfully trying to achieve X by herself, and hired me because she wants to do a lot better. But…

    In the middle of working on X, she will critique things she does not like, what she wants changed, etc. She will not ask for an explanation of why I chose to design X a certain way, and will instead fall back on her loose understanding of X. And every time a new project comes up, we will go the full circle: her admitting she has no idea how to do X, me starting a design, then redoing a design in the middle based on her loose (and outdated) understanding. Then comment on the completed X with “Yeah, much better! Dont you like this now?”

    Drives me bonkers! She also once implied that I have no knowledge of a certain market and should not choose designs based on my personal taste– and good thing she was there to stop me! *looks at wall of poorly chosen items based on her personal tastes that have been sitting there for months, unsold*

  29. Vicki*

    I had a “fuzzy expectations”manager.

    It got worse after I left that job and mistakenly used him as a reference for another position. I didn’t get the new job because Mr Fuzzy Expectations apparently told the hiring manager that I “needed direction”.

    Well, yes. Everyone needs to at least be told “head north”.

  30. Vicki*

    5. Constantly moving goalposts

    I see this as a corollary to something I call Manager’s ADD. Some managers simply cannot remember what they prioritized, assigned, requested, or said they would do, 10 minutes after the meeting ends. I had a manager who was all attention in our 1:1s but then forgot nearly everything during the intervening week. He had a notebook with colored tabs for the section for each employee. If he didn’t have that notebook handy and open he had No Idea what you were working on.

    It was… difficult, at best. Nice guy in every other way, but difficult.

  31. Working Girl*

    oh my, my manager qualifies for all 6 ways !- next I need an article on how to deal with this type of manager, please.

  32. OolonColuphid*

    Wow! My previous manager hit all six of those. I’m glad someone in upper management finally recognized it and persuaded him to step down.

  33. Rachti Aggarwal*


    The biggest motivator for me is the constant instant scrutinizing and asking for status updates at very short intervals.

    Also, i heard my manager saying that he is helping the employees to quit the company…

  34. Mimi*

    I never knew there was such a thing as an “angel’s advocate”, but my boss plays that for five minutes, then switches to “devil’s advocate” for the next five minutes and so forth. For the past two years, I’ve been told “we simply must get rid of Product A, everyone hates it! I don’t care what you have to do, just get rid of it.” And of course, since Product A runs its tentacles throughout our entire organization (including payroll, benefits, accounts payable, etc.), it’s impossible to just “get rid of it.” So finally, today, I brought forth my life’s work, the “Plan To Get Rid Of Product A”. I was told, “hmmm, good luck getting this pushed through. This is a political morass. What makes you think we can get rid of Product A?”

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