why are there so many terrible managers?

If you’re like most people, you’ve had your share of bad bosses – managers who couldn’t delegate well, or were terrible at giving feedback, or were just plain jerks. And you’ve probably wondered why there are so many bad managers out there – why do companies hire them and how do they stay in their jobs?

Here are seven of the most frequent causes of this epidemic of bad management.

1. Managers were promoted into management roles because they were good at something else. People often become managers because they were great at something else – communications or engineering or accounting or whatever else they were doing before the management role came along. Management is often just the next rung on the ladder, but the skills needed to succeed at management are very different from the ones that got them this far. As a result, you often see people who are brilliant and talented independent contributors flounder when it comes time to manage others.

2. They get little or no training in how to manage well. New managers are frequently thrown into the job with nearly no guidance in how to take on their crucial new role and are left to just figure it out as they go along. The luckier among them might get a one or two-day training class, which is hardly enough instruction in something so nuanced and which has such an impact on their teams and their employer’s results.

3. Managing well is hard. Managing well requires understanding some pretty difficult responsibilities: how to set goals that are the right mix of realistic and ambitious, how to give feedback that’s clear, specific, and actionable, how to stay involved without being overly hands-on, how to hold people to high standards without being a tyrant, how to adjust your management style for different types of employees, and much more. It’s not easy, and it’s no surprise that people without training or mentoring in managing well tend to struggle at it.

4. Managers’ incompetence is more visible. One could argue that managers are no more likely to be incompetent than people in other roles are, but incompetence is more visible when it occurs in a manager. When an individual contributor is bad at her job, her coworkers might or might not be aware of it; often her struggles are only visible to her manager, who is in charge of assessing her work. But when a manager is flailing, it impacts the quality of life and success of a whole team of people. So you’re a lot more likely to notice a terrible manager than a bad coworker.

5. The people above bad managers often don’t know how to judge good management – or spot bad management. The workplace is full of confusion about what good management looks like and how to measure it. Organizations with clarity on this know that it’s about building a great team that gets results over the long-term, but it’s common to find employers that just aren’t sure how to tell if they have effective managers in place or not. And when they do figure it out…

6. Many companies are slow to fire managers. Companies that realize that they have a bad manager on staff are often slow to do anything about it. They’re usually inclined to give a manager the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re hearing employee complaints, and it’s common to figure that having a less-than-perfect manager at the helm is better than going through the work of having a senior-level vacancy finding a new manager, training the replacement, and so forth.

7. Managers are often good at something other than managing, and the company focuses on those skills. A manager might be awful at managing a staff of employees but fantastic at strategy or raising money or even just schmoozing with higher-ups. If a company cares more about those other skills than the deficit in management skills, bad managers can end up staying in their roles and making their teams miserable.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader*

    I like this.

    Confession: I used to be a bad manager. I was thrown in with zero training and had only had bad managers myself for my entire career.

    It took unhappy team members, some training, coaching and hard self-examination to realize and correct my errors and redirect my fundamental approach to management.

    I THINK I became a good manager after the hard lessons. Or at least a humble and fair one.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think every good manager started as a bad manager. It really is a job where you have to do it for a while to get good at it. I sure was terrible when I started; I still cringe thinking about it sometimes.

      1. Jessa*

        The issue is though that they finally became good, and it stinks that they pretty much had to do it on their own.

      2. Ruffingit*

        I’d love to hear some of your stories from when you were a bad manager because you’ve certainly come a long way! I’d be interested to know what things you did in the beginning that didn’t work. I think it would make all of us feel a little better about being able to grow in our jobs. :)

    2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      I went from awful to bad to mediocre. I stayed at mediocre for a long time.

      I, honestly, think I am pretty good at this now.

      It only took 20 years.

    3. Vicki*

      What percentage of managers actually do get any training? I ask because it seems, from my pov, that the answer is 0. And it shouldn’t be 0.

  2. AMG*

    Now that I am out of these situations, I can say that the bad managers in my life have been gifts to show me what I don’t want to be, and what mistakes I will definitely be avoiding. Some gifts are a bit painful at the time, but others are just good, easy ones, like this blog. Thank you Alison and all of the posters for helping to make me better at my job. I work really hard to be a thoughtful, competent manager and you have helped me to improve in this area.

    1. FD*

      Yeah, I sometimes feel that you learn more from idiots than you do from people who know what they’re doing. It’s a very clear education in “Here’s what not to do.”

  3. Jen*

    So am I the only one that reads the title to the tune of “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”

    In my experience, #1 is the most common – so many people are really good at what they do in their core job. Like in PR they are really good at media relations and writing – and then they get promoted are now having to balance budgets, deal with employees, attend meetings and develop overall strategic plans and it’s not what they’re good at and not what they enjoy doing so they either attempt to do it and muck it up or they ignore all of that completely and micromanage their employees who are doing the tasks that they would rather do.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I’m in PR. I won’t argue that the core roles of doer and manager are different, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t think a particular job type breeds incompetent or unwilling managers. Leaders and non-leaders exist everywhere.

      1. Jen*

        I acknowledge that – just giving a personal view on the past few PR bosses I’ve had who have been brilliant in the day-to-day duties but less eager about the overall directing.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit*

        I don’t think Jen was saying that PR people make bad managers; I think she was just using the PR world as an example of the different skills that are necessary for an individual contributor versus a manager.

        1. Just a Reader*

          Sure. But just because someone has one skill set doesn’t mean they don’t have or can’t cultivate another one. The key word being cultivate–very different from yanking a high-performing individual contributor out of one role and pushing them into the deep end of management.

    2. FD*

      Why are there so many who can’t ever manage?
      Who make teams just wilt and die?
      Managing is difficult,
      But very important.
      If our team will reach for the sky.

      Why won’t they handle
      The issues so urgent?
      If I were them,
      I know what I’d say.

      Some day we’ll find it,
      The managing connection,
      The bosses, the teammates, and me!

  4. redvelvet cheesecake*

    I was not a good manager. It was a temp role, and my interests/career path lay in the technical stuff, but still I was hired as the manager, simply because I had more experience in the technical work. I had absolutely zero relevant experience in management or training, and that was something the person who hired me should have considered but didn’t. I did the best I could but I honestly don’t think I was a good manager.

  5. VintageLydia*

    I was a terrible manager. I had nothing but terrible managers with very rare exception (two were phenominal, one tried really hard but just fell a bit short, and nearly all the rest were eventually fired for incompetence and in some cases abuse) but that’s not really an excuse. The TWO WEEK management training at another store had a lot of info about policies (that I already mostly knew) but nothing about actually managing. I ended up cashiering most of my last week during “training” so it was next to useless (I worked for this company for over 4 years–I knew how to cashier tyvm.)
    I was petty, I played favorites, I actively worked to undermine at least one of my reports, and just was an all around terrible person. I am a different person now and I wish I knew then what I do now. Moreover I just wish I had the maturity and perspective I do now.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Wait. I want to pretend you are one of my old bosses. I love it when things go to a peaceful place. Congrats.

    2. Sweet and Petite*

      The important thing is you learned from that experience and improved yourself. You know, there are terrible people out there who don’t change at all, which is unfortunate. Count yourself lucky.

  6. annonying*

    Because there are a lot resentful people being managed that prefer complaining about management to being flexible and getting things done. Because managers are younger these days. Because we’re all able to conceive of and talk about ideals and perfection and because we’re still all fallible humans. Because Nietzsche.

  7. some1*

    #9: They are applying things learned in business school that aren’t all that practical. Example: my former sup had never supervised anyone before but had just got her MBA. She had five people reporting to her that all held different and unrelated positions, yet insisted on a weekly department meeting that never lasted less than 45 minutes where we all went around the room and told her what we had been doing since the last meeting and we were doing coming up, even though what the other four people were doing had nothing to do with me and vice versa.

    She also included a lot of “icebreaker” type things to start out, where we would have to go around the room and say what we did that weekend or what our holiday plans were.

    1. Lucy*

      YES!

      IMO an MBA is only valuable when combined with several years of real world experience. I had a co-worker (thankfully not a manager) with a MBA but zero industry experience and it was such a struggle to get through to her that her theories were great but weren’t going to work for our org.

      1. some1*

        The sad thing is that the sup in question did have a lot of relevant, specific industry experience and knowledge (just as a non-manager)! But her odd management procedures seemed to over-shadow that.

    2. Just a Reader*

      Ugh, icebreakers. To a degree I think team building should happen naturally. Who really likes forced sharing with the objective of team building? And when is it ever effective?

      1. some1*

        Icebreakers can make sense in certain contexts, like when my dad was a Sales Manager he would do them with his Junior Staff to get them used to thinking on their feet. Also, my best friend used to do door-to-door canvassing for a non-profit, and they did icebreakers for the same reason. But none of us had customer or client-facing positions.

      2. ChristineSW*

        I think I’m the only human who doesn’t mind ice breakers. lol. I actually like getting to know a bit about people. (But I do respect that many people aren’t comfortable with it).

  8. MrsG*

    I think another good category is jobs that include management from people who aren’t trained to manage like attorneys and doctors. These jobs require team leadership, conflict resolution, project delegation, and performance reviews to large and small teams of support staff. Most of the time, as legal support staff, I would go to the manager with a problem and they would say talk to the attorney, but this doesn’t solve my problem if the person who has management skill doesn’t know my problem, and the person who does know, has no management skill.

    1. Collarbone High*

      True, and often the skill sets that are prized in those types of jobs don’t translate well to management. “Never backs down” is great if you’re negotiating a settlement, not so great when you’re managing a team.

      I’m flashing back now to “ER,” where Dr. Romano was a brilliant surgeon but a horrible manager.

  9. Lora*

    Wow, I feel very lucky then. Both teaching in grad school and my first industry job thereafter, I jumped at every management training course and anything that might be remotely related, since I was constantly promised more responsibility that somehow always went to the butt-kissers and shameless self-promoters instead. I learned a lot about conflict resolution, consensus building, how to train adult learners, motivating people and engaging them (they didn’t call it that, they called it “collaborative employee devlopment”). My first real manager job came after years of supervising temps and interns and filling in for temporary vacancies in management–sometimes for years. I sort of got to learn gradually, with lots of coaching from good managers. i had assumed that, like most corporate beehives I’ve worked in, there was a more intensive manager training program that I was somehow missing out on, and the crummy ones were just lousy students. Not so much, huh?

    1. IronMaiden*

      Yeah, never underestimate the influence of butt kissers and self promoters. Oh and bullies often get a ralis run to management because higher management seems to see it as a way of moving the problem.

  10. Allison*

    The problem I had with my last manager is that he seemed really far removed from the work I was doing; he wasn’t doing it, and I didn’t get the sense he had any experience with the sort of work I had to do, so he had these crazy expectations and I didn’t know how to explain that they weren’t realistic.

    Maybe AAM could do an article on that in the near future?

    1. Jennifer*

      I had a manager like that. He wasn’t a bad dude, but he got hired as a tech-consultant-ish kind of job and then my boss decided to leave and they promoted him because he was the next highest up on the project. I don’t think he’d ever been a manager before and was still trying to figure things out. He didn’t really get my job either–I’d tell him what we needed to fix or work on and he would (a) okay it at first, then (b) renege on that, (c) have me explain it to him all over again, and then (d) tell me not to do it because “we can automate it in a year.” Which never happened. He also clearly thought I was a slacker because I didn’t have enough work I was allowed to do (because he was taking away my potential workload by saying it could be automated in a year). He ended up leaving the job after about a year and change and I was the only one he barely said goodbye to compared to everyone else.

      But oh well, I got a transfer and last I heard, he’s been through several jobs in the last few years.

    2. Jen in RO*

      This is the main reason I left my last job. My manager did have experience with the work I did… but his experience was ~10 years old, and most processes in the company had changed since then. He was operating based on very old assumptions, and he wouldn’t listen even if we explained the new procedures at length. At some point I just got tired and found a new job.

    3. Leslie Yep*

      I manage people in administrative support roles, where this problem is huge. There is really very little sense, for people who haven’t been administrative assistants, what goes into all of those things that seem to appear like magic (your flight reservations, your daily slate of meetings, your budget…). It’s very hard to understand why something where the action itself takes 5 minutes to do may actually take days to get done because you need additional input, sign off, documentation, etc., or that you’ve got 50 of that same request right now and other things are a higher priority.

      One of the biggest “managing up” tricks I’ve learned is to repeat back to my manager things like, “okay, I think that will take me about 2 hours to complete. I can get it done by Thursday, after x,y,z priorities, and if I deprioritize a, b, c. Does that make sense?”

      Both the amount of time needed (no, those analyses do not appear out of nowhere!) and the articulation of where this fits in my weekly to-dos really helps my manager understand the implications of the request for my time and helps avoid those situations where she asks for something that she thinks would be really great, but hasn’t actually thought through what it will take to deliver it. Totally reasonable when you’re not the one doing the work, but definitely the job of the direct report to help put things in perspective.

  11. anon*

    I’m dealing with one that got promoted to leading a division after years of doing mediocre at best in his lower level job. He goes through the motions of good mgt, but none of us are over his ‘do as I say not as I do’ mentality so he is not effective. Mgrs should bring some extra value or experience to the position

  12. RubyJackson*

    But, numbers 2 and 6 contradict each other. If they don’t train managers, then there is no cost to train a replacement.

    The thing that bugs me about incompetent mangers that are promoted because they are good at something else, is the lack of self-motivation to learn some management skills when the organization leaves them to figure it out. There are plenty of on-line courses that could provide even a modest amount of insight, but they are too lazy to put in any extra effort to improve themselves. But, that’s because they usually know that they won’t be fired, so why should they?

    1. VintageLydia*

      I think it’s a case of “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Especially if they’ve had primarily bad managers in the past, they don’t know what good management looks like. I know I didn’t, and from what I understand, a lot of those online courses arent great, either. I think AAM is the exception rather than the rule.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep, people don’t know what they don’t know. And there are an awful lot of terrible management classes out there that don’t focus on what really matters. (An exception are these by The Management Center. Which happen to be based around the book I co-authored, so I have reason to be biased, but they’re really great.)

        Also, when I say that companies don’t want to train a new manager, I don’t mean train them in how to manage. I mean they’re wary of the time it will take to find the right person and get them acclimated to all the background about the dept’s work and how it fits into the rest of the organization, which is often a long undertaking.

        1. Leslie Yep*

          I went to a Management Center training about a month ago and can vouch from a dispassionate position of its greatness!

    2. Lucy*

      I agree with Lydia. Additionally, I think #2 and #6 are talking about different types of training.

      Training a new employee (especially at the management level) is a lot about organization specific policies, procedures, who the key players are as far as vendors/clients/consultants, etc.
      That is different than receiving training in good management practices.

      1. Windchime*

        Exactly. I think that at many places, “training a manager” means teaching the person how to do the time cards, how to enforce dress code, etc. Nothing to do with the training of good management practices (as Lucy mentions), nor how to develop the people skills which are essential to being a good manager.

  13. Elizabeth West*

    My only experience with managing was running the day shift at a restaurant I worked at while my boss was on vacation. I hated it. I have no desire to ever be a manager. That sort of traps me in administrative work, but I can’t do the payroll or hours, so whatever. I don’t really care that much. I think some employers expect you to want to move up, so they look on someone who doesn’t with suspicion.

    1. Jen in RO*

      For me, the interpersonal aspects of managing are the worst. I suck at conflict and I know I would not sleep well at night knowing that I need to have difficult conversations with employees… so I would probably just become one of those managers who don’t manage.

      I was also afraid that my lack of interest in the management track would disqualify me, but it looks like it might be a “pro” in my chosen career. Most places who are hiring my positions don’t have a department (just one person), so there is no one to manage… When I was interviewing and said I am not interested in management, most of the replies were along the lines of “phew, we didn’t have any sort of future management role for you anyway!”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For what it’s worth, lots of management jobs have nothing to do with payroll or hours — they’re really about setting goals, monitoring progress against those goals, delegating work, giving feedback, developing people, addressing problems, etc.

      You still might have no interest in that, but wanted to clarify. Payroll and hours come into it more with food service, retail, etc.

  14. Ann Furthermore*

    I also was not a good manager. I just don’t have the personality for it. I enjoyed the mentoring side of it, where I could help people learn how to do something new, or how to do something more efficiently — basically, help people learn how to add value in some way or another.

    What I had no patience for was the daycare center aspect of it, with people tattling on others for coming back from lunch a few minutes late, or leaving early for their break. And the political maneuvering…where you’re dealing with other managers or directors trying to make themselves look good by making you look bad.

  15. Windchime*

    I had my annual performance review a few days before I left for medical leave recently. Everything was great, but then my manager started talking in a way that made it clear that he was getting ready to tell me that I was being promoted. I was fearful that he was going to say something like, “Assistant Manager!” or “Supervisor!”….thank goodness it was a non-managerial promotion. Managing people is not my idea of fun; it sounds scary and difficult and complicated.

    1. Jen in RO*

      The first time my ex-boss talked about “increased responsibility” I pretty much told him “I don’t want to manage!”. He had his faults, but he got this from the start and only pushed me to develop my technical skills.

  16. Jes*

    I’ve been fortunate to have had amazing managers in my career. I’ve also almost always been in a supervising role in some capacity (even in my very first jobs as a teen) and I like doing it. I do find that it’s harder and harder to get feedback on how I am doing the more I progress in my career though. Inaccessible career development courses, feedback from smaller pools of supervisors, and higher workload leave me feeling clueless-am I doing a good job? Am I a good manager?

    Thank heavens for AAM! It’s my daily management course!

  17. ChristineSW*

    The fear of #1 happening to me is probably why I’ve (subconsciously?) held myself back career-wise. The paragraph references people who are excellent “individual contributors”–that is how I see myself. I have zero interest in management as I don’t have the personality for it. Sure, I’ve led or chaired meetings, but the ones I’ve felt relatively comfortable with were ones where the group was small, and all people I knew well. Plus, these were all volunteer positions. Frankly, the responsibilities of managing people scare me.

    Maybe this should be a separate post, but how do I convey to others–network contacts, interviewers, etc–that while I want a career that fits well with my education, skills and interests, I’m not at all interested in management without harming peoples’ perception of me?

    1. JMegan*

      I would love a post like this. I am definitely interested in “advancing” my career, in terms of facing new challenges, learning new skills, etc. But I have no interest at all in being a manager.

      People often look at me like I have three heads when I say this. Partly because it sounds like I don’t want earn more money, and partly because the only way to advance my career (and many others, I expect) is to move into management. There just doesn’t seem to be a way for people to move up, without moving into management in some fashion.

      So yes, a post on how to have this conversation would be great! How do I tell people that yes, I am ambitious and interested in challenges, but no, I am not interested in the challenge of managing people and budgets and so on?

  18. Jake*

    My favorite point is that there aren’t any more bad managers than employees, they just stick out more. In my limited experience, that is 100% true. I’d also add though that part of the reason they stick out more is not just because they are more visible, but because we all have higher expectations of them.

    A lot of people have the attitude that if you get paid more, you have to be more competent. That is not really the case though, you get paid on the value to add to the organization (in a good organization anyway), of which competence only accounts for a fraction of your value.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      You also get paid more for you willingness to endure the punches. The punches can come from subordinates or higher ups. I have seen middle management positions created solely for the purpose of having someone to yell at.

  19. Not So NewReader*

    I think that the pace we go at now impacts the whole question, too. More and more I am seeing managers who do not have the full story on a given situation. Why. There is not enough time to explain all the relevant pieces. Or suddenly there is a bigger and more pressing matter that trumps the previous matter. Or relevant pieces are just plain missing and there is no time to reconstruct what happened.

    To be fair, I do see a lot of complaining that might not be necessary or fair. I think that sometimes employees could take that energy used in complaining and use it in a positive manner to just do some little thing that would be supportive of the manager’s endeavors. Over time it might make a difference in their setting. Or not, no way to know without trying.

    Of all the good bosses I have had none of them were good at EVERYTHING. I think this is important, too. It’s trade offs. Boss A was great at listening to new ideas. Boss B was super at coaching through mistakes as opposed to yelling through mistakes. People were willing to go the extra mile for these bosses because of their consistency in key areas like these examples here.

  20. AB*

    Confession: since starting to read AAM, I slowly gained confidence, and now I’m getting ready to get into management after many years of saying no to invitations to this type of role (!).

    I’ve always prided myself on being a great individual contributor, and had serious doubts that I could be a good manager. The fact that we learn what NOT to do from bad managers doesn’t mean we are prepared to take the role ourselves.

    But! After reading many of AAM’s articles and excerpts from her book, and listening to manager-tools.com podcasts, I finally feel confident that I can be an above average manager. I still think I’d be happier with a great manager who let me be his/her great adviser (a position I excel at). But considering the RARITY that is a good manager, I’ve come to terms with the fact that if I want the companies I work for to have better leadership, I need to contribute to this goal more directly.

    The last step for me was reading Alison’s “Are You Cut Out to Be a Boss” (http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2013/03/20/are-you-cut-out-to-be-a-boss) and being able to answer “yes” to all questions. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m determined to NEVER having a subordinate write to AAM to ask what to do to escape an incompetent boss ;-).

  21. Greg*

    I would add one more point that’s somewhat implicit in your other points: Many companies do not prioritize good management. In my career, I’ve worked mostly at startups/small businesses, and my one experience at a Fortune 500 company was a mixed bag at best, but the one thing I liked the best was that managers were judged not just on whether they hit their goals, but also on whether their direct reports liked them, and whether those people grew within the company and got promoted into new roles. I think it’s incredibly important (and self-reinforcing) to have that be part of your culture.

    Consider a scenario in which, for example, a manager sandbags her direct report’s bid for a promotion because she doesn’t want to lose him from her team. The lesson the DR takes away is not just that the company is uninterested in his development, but also that management is something negative and antagonistic that he shouldn’t aspire to be a part of. On the other hand, if an employee sees that her manager is thinking of her long-term career and happy for her when she gets promoted, that builds stronger relationships throughout the organization.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Totally agree! Employers should explicitly prioritize good management in their cultures — by talking about what it looks like, addressing it when it’s not happening, training in it, and evaluating managers on it. Not for management’s sake, but because it will get them better long-term results.

      1. Greg*

        I actually think there are a lot of parallels between managing existing employees and hiring new ones. Both are seen as something that should just be intuitive for senior employees, rather than something they should be trained to do properly. It’s common for employees to admit they have weak spots — “I’m not a natural salesperson”, “I’m more the vision guy than the details guy”, etc — but you’ll rarely hear anyone admit that they’re bad at managing/hiring. That would be like admitting you’re bad at working. You’re just supposed to be able to roll out of bed and do it.

  22. Joe Schmoe*

    Read the book “The Peter Principle” (you can also find it on wikipedia, but the book goes into much greater detail)

    Basically it says that a person is promoted up to their level of incompetence, and then – basically – they are stuck there – not fired – they stay in the role they are incompetent at.

    It was written in the 60’s and still applicable today.

  23. Working Girl*

    100% agree with the entire list, thank you. I have to also add “ego”. Some managers can’t get past their own ego to be right all the time even when they are wrong. Get over it and admit you are human like the rest of us.My manager doesn’t know how our department is run but insists on blaming us for doing things wrong when we are not.

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