can bad employees and bad managers change?

A reader writes:

I am a passionate fan of AAM and often try to guess what you would advise for my own dysfunctional job. Boiled down, my boss needs to stop avoiding confrontation and rein in his apathetic and lazy children before the rest of us give up in disgust. I was scheming how to make this happen and I realized that you would probably say that my boss is never going to mature in that way, at least within the time I’m going to work for him, and there is no way I can goad him into correcting years of indulgent parenting.

This led me to a meta-question for you: Do you think people can change? Can other people instigate professionalism and maturity in a person? As a reader of AAM, I’ve observed that your advice in dealing with bad bosses, bad coworkers, and bad employees seems to be either set up firm boundaries to keep their dysfunction from spilling onto you or terminate the relationship. It’s really tempting to imagine telling an employee that placing hexes on their coworkers is inappropriate and she would say, “You’re right, I’ve been acting completely out of line. I won’t do it again” rather than stomping off in a huff and taking down her voodoo dolls because “the boss is making me.” When dealing with a crazy person, a weak manager, or a wildly immature coworker, can another person instigate growth or are you best just doing damage control?

I think people can change — but in workplace situations, the more relevant question is whether they will change, and how well-positioned you are to get them to change.

When you’re a manager and the problematic person is your employee, you have a lot of leverage. You can say directly, “I need you to do X differently” and you can hold them to that, coach them as long as it’s appropriate, and replace them if they don’t. And some people in that situation do successfully change their behavior.

When the problem is your manager, you don’t have a ton of leverage. You can point out the impact their behavior is having, and ask for things to be done differently. But whether or not it will actually happen will depend on how much your manager cares, whether she sees the situation the same way you do or not, how ingrained the behavior is, and what her overall inclinations, tendencies, and strengths and weaknesses are. And all of those factors will matter; you can have a boss who agrees with you that yes, she really should do a better job of holding people to deadlines (or giving you advance notice of projects or not calling you at midnight or whatever it is), but if ultimately she’s too weak/lazy/disorganized/inconsiderate, it’s likely that she won’t follow through. Or she might improve for a while, but then backslide because she’s doing those things for a reason and no one with authority over her is forcing her not to.

On the other hand, there are managers who hear input from staff members, take it seriously, and make changes. So it’s not impossible — but you need to be clear-eyed about who you’re dealing with and what evidence you’ve seen that the person is or isn’t open to feedback and self-reflection.

What you really don’t want to do is to continue to see evidence that the person isn’t going to change and stick around waiting for them to anyway. At that point, you need to either accept that this is part of the deal with working with them and find a way to live with that reasonably happily, or decide that it’s not for you and start making plans to leave.

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. Allison*

    “Bad” employees are more likely to change if their behavior is caught and corrected early. If someone gets away with bad behavior for months, or years, the behavior is tough to change and they may be grumpy about someone suddenly demanding a quick change after they’ve gotten used to behaving a certain way. If they can’t change at their current job, getting fired might be a wake-up call, as they’ll try to be more conservative about their behavior in their next job, but then start to test the waters after they’ve been around for a little while.

    And it does depend on the approach. “I’ve noticed you doing the thing, I don’t like it because of reasons, and I need you to cut it out. We will need to have a more serious discussion if it continues” (or “if I don’t see an improvement” if you’ll accept gradual change rather than a hard stop) is going to get a better response than “You need to stop doing the thing right now or there will be consequences,” which prompts someone to think “what the hell? no one’s ever said anything, and suddenly I’m in danger of being fired? what changed?”

    1. Nom d' Pixel*

      We are in a situation with a new employee who is having problems that we are trying to correct. Somehow, he has gotten away with never being held accountable for anything in his previous positions, so he is carrying a ton of bad habits with an attitude to match. I am trying to nip it in the bud and am being very direct with him, but he is slow, disorganized, never admits he made a mistake, and his mood swings would give someone whiplash. His mood swings are predictable, though. As the day goes on, he gets angrier and more belligerent, then he comes in the next morning and apologizes for the previous day before ramping up again. He usually goes through some sort of phase in the afternoon where he tries to be nice. After being in the position for less than two months, he is in danger of being fired as much for his attitude as his incompetence.

        1. Nom d' Pixel*

          Oh, it is a blast. But it is Friday, we have friends coming over, and I have a well-stocked bar.

      1. BizzieLizzie*

        It’s really hard when it is ‘attitude’ or subjective opinions. I know I know I know we are meant to break down the ‘attitude’ into hard concrete behaviour issues, but sometimes this is easier said than done

        1. phillist*

          Amen to that. I recently had to let an employee go because of combination of attitude and not progressing in their training, but I feel like the former was so, so much harder. What, am I supposed to document every time they cry for no reason? How do I prove it’s for no reason? How do you document “attempting to throw other team members under the bus”?

          I managed to succeed, but it wasn’t easy. And I felt like, if it was only the strict performance stuff, that would have been fine; I can teach anyone a job, but you can’t teach initiative, personal responsibility or emotional stability.

          1. Nom d' Pixel*

            So apparently this is common. This guy attempted to throw a couple people under the bus, too. One of them has been in the department for several years, and the accusation was so out of character that the new guy just sounded crazy. I have been documenting the disrespect and arguments and filling my boss in, so if this guy doesn’t turn things around quickly, he will be out of a job.

            He has demonstrated some obvious attempts to manipulate people, and I think that somehow that has worked for him elsewhere.

            1. Effective Immediately*

              Oh man, if mine hadn’t been the opposite gender, I would think we had the same employee. That is uncanny.

              Ultimately, I relied on verbiage like, “reactions wildly disproportionate to the situation” and “broad, negative impact on the team.” I couldn’t document each thing, because there was just no objective way to do it.

              Good luck, I feel for you!

      2. MissDisplaced*

        Wow. What happens with the afternoon thing? Is this him being more of a morning person or does he procrastinate all morning and then get overloaded? It seems like this can be corrected.

        1. Nom d' Pixel*

          I think that at some point in the afternoon he realizes that he is being a jerk. He does procrastinate, and like I said, he is incredibly disorganized. This results in a lot of unnecessary pressure. It has also become obvious that he lied about how much work he actually did at his last job as opposed to delegating to other people (working with people who have a skill set is not the same as having the skill set). As the day progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that he isn’t going complete something despite being given a ton of time and coaching, so he gets crankier and crankier. There have been a couple times when I have had to pull him aside and explain that he can’t talk to people like that, so I think he catches himself and tones it down for an hour or two before getting back to his diva self.

          He is difficult enough to work with that his first trainer, who has successfully trained other people, gave up. Then he was transferred to me. Yay.

          Hmm. This is starting to feel like maybe I should have put it on the Friday free for all.

      3. YaH*

        It sort of sounds like he might be having blood sugar issues?

        Or he could just be a rotten employee. But the weird predictable pattern makes me suspect there might be a health component.

        1. Hiding on the Internet Today*

          This is what caught my attention, honestly.

          He could also suck, but so much of being a civil human and being able to make good choices is actually glucose and proper sleep. I don’t know if “eats a piece of fruit at 2 pm” is an appropriate performance goal, but if there is a pattern and he has some periods of time of acceptable behavior, “how can we get your 10 am self all day?” Might be a decent discussion.

          1. Three Thousand*

            “so much of being a civil human and being able to make good choices is actually glucose and proper sleep.”

            That’s fantastic. I will remember it.

  2. fposte*

    I think “Do you think people can change?” is an interestingly different question from “Can other people instigate professionalism and maturity in a person?” Yes, absolutely people can change–but most of the time people change because they want to. So the question to me is whether people who aren’t already eager to grow and improve can find other people’s influence enough to make them want to.

    And my answer there would be “Yes, sometimes, but even when it happens that doesn’t mean it’s immediate.” Sometimes what happens is a sloppy worker moves to a department with a culture of diligent precision and “catches” diligence from her co-workers after a while. Sometimes a boss only grudgingly sends the agenda before the meeting after being asked three times, but it still means you finally get the agenda.

    I’d say that there’s a distribution curve of possibility–on one end are people who don’t want to change and won’t; on the other end are AAM-reader types who want to keep improving and are eager to learn. In the middle are people who may be close to one end or another or who may range from one end to another depending on how they’re approached. People who can influence that middle group have a very valuable skill indeed.

    1. danr*

      Then there are people who would like to change but need more details about what is wrong and what the desired behavior is than “You’re doing this wrong! Fix it!”. It’s a struggle for both, but worth it for the company.

    2. Lanya*

      I agree totally. I think lifestyle and personality changes are far more difficult, and they absolutely have to be desired by the person in order for a change to be made. The development of professionalism and maturity can sometimes come on their own with enough time and experience, and without the person consciously recognizing it.

      Sometimes you can become more professional at work just by being a regular reader of AAM! I did!

    3. BRR*

      Yes to everything. People can change but they need to want to. It also can be a situation where a manager is letting an employee know their expectations so a person might change their actions but might not change what’s guiding their actions.

      And definitely agree about not immediate. A hard aspect of being on a PIP is changing so significantly right away and sustaining that change (which is partially difficult because others are slower to recognize that you changed).

      1. fposte*

        I think that’s an excellent point about the perception/PIP thing–that there can be a difference between somebody changing and you *realizing* they’ve changed. So it’s worth, when you’re the one looking for somebody to change, trying to look at their work and behavior with fresh eyes rather than making it part of a previous narrative.

        1. BRR*

          Thanks for rescuing my point haha. An example I’m thinking in my head of is of an addict and they say they’re going to stop drinking/smoking/gambling. And so you go out and they get water to drink and they are given a hard time or someone says, “Oh we know you’ll switch to whiskey soon.”

          The person not only has to change but you have to allow them to change.

          1. fposte*

            Or somebody who had a tardiness problem last year has been on time all this year except for the day she gets in a fender bender, and the co-workers say “Oh, there’s that Jane, late again.”

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Ha! At Old Job, I did X just one time. I found out that is not the way to do it and never did it again. However, three years later, my boss still had it in his head that NSNR does X all the time. The boss could not let go of it. Even my coworkers were giving him an eye roll for that one.

              Sadly, it is just showed how disconnected he was from what was happening in his work place. I changed but he could not.

        2. Nom d' Pixel*

          That can be tough. It is hard to walk the line between recognizing someone for changing and letting them get away with slipping back into bad habits.

        3. A-non4-this*

          And give them the space to change. Our job requires working independently, setting one’s own priorities and workflows. We have one woman who’s just not wired that way, though she’s improving. Unfortunately, the supervisor says, “You’re not working well independently”, then when said employee doesn’t do it the way the supervisor would, he jumps in and micromanages for a while. Rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat and …

          1. Kathlynn*

            I don’t think that what you are describing is a bad employee. I think it’s more of a ‘bad fit’ for the workplace culture. Lots of people have problems like this. Does/can your company have anything resembling a shift duty sheet (list of tasks that need to be done daily)? I found those really helped me. I cannot keep every single task in my head all the time. Because, that and time are probably the only way the coworker will get better at self-management.

      2. Jaydee*

        Yes. Think about a PIP as similar to starting a new diet and exercise plan. You will not make massive, permanent behavioral and attitudinal changes on day 1, see amazing results by day 5, and then sustain that forever. But the small, incremental changes have a big impact over time. And you will see results faster than others. So be prepared to share with your manager the changes you have made and the progress you are seeing in yourself if she doesn’t always recognize it right away on her own. And managers, watch for that incremental progress. Wakeen isn’t going to go from making 50 teapots a week to making 100 teapots a week overnight. But over the course of a few months, you’ll probably see his weekly average increase until he hits the goal.

        1. BRR*

          I think with a lot of PIPs though you need to see pretty significant results relatively quickly, which is part of the reason a lot don’t end well. There’s often not tons of time to make enough progress.

          1. Effective Immediately*

            I think this is true, but I also think it depends on how the PIP is structured. Does it allow for a few concrete, short term goals that can be fairly easily changed and measured? So, in addition to the ultimate goal (or as steps toward it), you build in some quick fixes that (a) help their performance overall and (b) show willingness to make the changes. In the early stages of a PIP, that is really what I’m looking for: the employee hears me, takes responsibility for the problem and shows me they are willing to improve. And those small things also serve as “wins” for the employee; it’s easier to shift into long term change if your confidence is rebuilt at increments along the way, rather than feeling like an awful employee because you haven’t changed everything RIGHT NOW.

            I hope (though I know it’s not true…I read AAM after all) there aren’t managers out there who expect seriously dramatic overhauls in a week or two.

            1. BRR*

              True. PIPs can be structured in many ways. I feel like I’ve become reluctant to answer certain questions now because I always want to just say it depends and am too lazy to list the possibilities.

  3. Chriama*

    I’m surprised there aren’t any more comments about this. I do think it’s really important to consider whether you’re in a position of enforcing change (either getting the person to change or being able to work around the problem behavior). I know someone who has an employee who is solidly mediocre. He’s always complaining about her work quality, but he never does anything about it. He’s mentioned potential workarounds and I’ve contributed a few suggestions of my own (hire someone else! move her to part time! fire her), but he isn’t willing to actually change anything. So now when he brings her up I stop the conversation — I don’t like listening to pointless venting by someone who’s empowered to actually change their situation. Anyway, when you’re in a frustrating situation, it’s important to objectively assess your options. And while change is possible, it’s usually easily implemented.

    1. BRR*

      I think friday afternoon is a typical lull period for commenting.

      And I completely agree about complaining but not actually doing something and I’m happy you shut it down. I’ve been working with my spouse on this and this week I complained about the requirements in a job description and he responded with, “If you don’t want to do that then don’t apply to it.” Should have never taught him that ;).

  4. The RO-Cat*

    I’m one manager who changed. In my first position managing people (sales supervisor) I was a hot mess. The only job where I was in fact fired – which here is a Big Thing. The firing was a wake-up call – painful, but (in retrospect) welcome. I was forced to take a long, hard look at what I did wrong (tons, actually) and correct. The next position supervising and managing people I got praised (in fact, when the company went down in the economic turmoil of 1998 in Europe, the General Manager twisted himself into pretzels to make sure I found another job – but he was like that).

    I was lucky I got a kick where I needed it in time. But some people… they seem oblivious to the bell tolling.

    1. yuzaprut*

      This is a great, honest comment. It seems like in your case, not only did your firing come early in your career, but you also have a great deal of self awareness. I know someone who changes jobs every year or two (decade after decade) to get away from the idiots and jerks. I often wonder why she is consistently unable to see the common denominator in her work-place misery.

      1. The RO-Cat*

        Self-awareness doesn’t come cheap. Lots of pain usually does it. I guess some people don’t ever change just because they have a very high pain threshold. For them, the whole Universe is wrong the whole life.

      2. Effective Immediately*

        We must have the same friend. She has lost stellar jobs in spectacular ways and seemingly lacks the ability to see it as a *her* problem rather than a *them* problem.

  5. TheBeetsMotel*

    It’s very difficult to get employees to change unless you catch it early. Bringing up an issue months down the line, after you’re already seething with resentment, will likely result in a response tantamount to “Well, it wasn’t an issue X weeks ago, why is it an issue now?”

  6. Argh!*

    >When dealing with a crazy person, a weak manager, or a wildly immature coworker, can another person instigate growth or are you best just doing damage control?

    I prefer not to characterize the person but rather the behaviors. I have an “immature” report and I don’t really care if he chooses to be a Peter Pan forever. I do care if he does unprofessional things at work, doesn’t meet deadlines, makes too many errors, violates policy, etc.

    Also, I don’t have to like him, and he doesn’t have to like me.

    Likewise, my boss who has done some crappy things, though in general does things right. I don’t really like her (I don’t hate her either), and we’d be only nodding acquaintances if I didn’t report to her. She’s rather cold and aloof in general, so she probably wouldn’t want to be pals with me (or the rest of her reports) either. She doesn’t like confrontation, but she does seem to care about getting things “right” so I have stood up for myself and my views. I always stick to the topic and never start a fight. She can take it, as it turns out. Whether exchanges with me help her get over her reluctance to have disagreements at work (not “confrontations” in a negative sense), at least I’m working with and around her proclivities. She probably thinks the same about me.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      And this is what I think of as the middle ground, a more or less peaceful place, where two very different people find a way to work with each other in spite of their differences.
      Sometimes you can get lucky and find one strong characteristic in the other person. That might be enough to carry you through. I’ve mentioned a coworker before that was my exact opposite. If she said day, I’d say night, if she said dark, I’d say light. We had absolutely nothing in common that we could chat about. But she was a heck of a worker. We both ended up respecting each other’s work ethic. And that was the only thing that we could extract from the situation. It was enough, though. The two of us did the work of four people. And the boss even commented to that effect, also.

      1. Argh!*

        I once hired someone specifically because she was my opposite. Why would I want a clone? I’d have to assign them to do the things that I love to do! We did have some conflict because she was judgmental about me, but I just took it as proof that I’d chosen the right person for the job. She wanted me to love something it was her job to love, so her heart was in the right place.

  7. Alli525*

    I had a TERRIBLE boss not too long ago, and under normal circumstances I probably would have been the one let go, but my CEO really values me and so he transferred me to someone else with a warning. 6 months later, the person they hired into my old position under Terrible Boss quit because he was terrible, and the CEO started getting wise. (He actually looked me in the eyes and said I had been right!) Terrible Boss is now on his third employee, and from what I hear is trying very hard to turn over a new leaf and treat people better. I still hate his guts and doubt his commitment to change, but I barely ever have to work with him anymore, so my opinion doesn’t matter anymore. As long as his newest employee stays happy, I’ll be happy.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      It’s a tough situation. Most people do not find forgiveness is an instant thing. Forgiveness comes out over a period of time. And this is under ideal circumstances. It presumes the offender apologies and does better. In your setting, the boss probably feels that he cannot back-track and apologize hard enough. OR it could be that the boss still has no idea the magnitude of what is wrong. (Most likely, the latter.)

      The combination of forgiveness taking time and the boss not getting the full picture, does not bode well here, at all.
      I am sorry you went through this and I am glad that the CEO opened his eyes finally.

  8. AdAgencyChick*

    I am a manager who changed — not so much my management style, which I didn’t have complaints about, but my style interacting with peers. I guess in trying to protect my direct reports from unreasonable requests I was seen as abrasive by peers. When I was put through a management training program (which I initially thought was going to be so much psychobabble that wouldn’t really help me do my job), my mentor really hit me over the head with the need to change my communication style. Leaving aside whether a man would be given the same criticism for how I acted before (I go back and forth on that), I will say that I learned some simple shifts in the way I speak that cause people to respond a lot better, even if it’s exactly the same request or pushback I would have offered otherwise.

    The key was that I was receptive. People don’t change unless a) they want to and b) they have the diligence to watch themselves carefully to break bad habits. (They also have to know what to do instead, which isn’t always obvious!) So I think the old therapist’s saw that you can’t change other people, only how you react to them, is 100% true. You can give feedback in a review or other setting and *hope* that it leads to change, but you can also be prepared that it won’t — and then know that it’s on you to decide how you’re going to deal with the situation not changing.

    1. Gene*

      Do you mind me asking what the change was?

      I’m sometimes accused of being too brief, sometimes terse. I firmly believe if I can answer a question with two words, why use three? Trying to soften that without going full chit-chat, as I still have to look at myself in the mirror. :-)

      When I’m busy, I revert back to normal.

      1. misspiggy*

        You might want to search for Hildi’s excellent analyses of task oriented and relationship oriented people on this site.

  9. Sammie*

    “On the other hand, there are managers who hear input from staff members, take it seriously, and make changes.”

    Where are these glorious, magical creatures? I’ve yet to encounter one.

    1. the gold digger*

      I have a great boss right now. I have had great bosses in the past. It was not until my awful boss (actually, the CEO) in my last job and the incompetent boss (“Slovakia? Slovenia? What’s the difference?”) before that that I realized how lucky I had been before and know how lucky I am now.

      It can happen. But it seems to be rare.

  10. Mollyg*

    I have found that bad managers rarely exist in isolation. Commonly their manager is bad and the whole way up. That is why bad managers stay at their job. Under ideal conditions, a bad manager would be recognized as one by their manager and let go, but that rarely happens.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I believe this, also. I put in a complaint about a manager to the higher ups. I waited for feedback. And waited…. Finally, the answer came. “We have bigger fish to fry.” No doubt in my mind that was true. However, it let me know that the status quo would remain intact. I made plans accordingly.

    2. misspiggy*

      True. Particularly the variation that senior managers undermine good managers, because they value flattery and yes-ing over integrity and honesty, so good managers leave. Similar people get the message that there’s no point going for those positions. Only bad managers are then available.

  11. Jeanne*

    I think that most people are not interested in changing. You will be able to modify some behaviors but not most. But ask yourself what is important to you and what you can live with and you will know what to do.

  12. KittenLittle*

    I so wish I had read information like this twenty years ago. It would have saved so much heartache dealing with my parents!

  13. Weekday Warrior*

    Judging from the other posts about crazy/dumb/horrible things we did early in our careers, most of us do change over time and for the better. And I have seen several mid to late career people take feedback on board and make positive changes so I like to stay optimistic…but realistic.

  14. Cath in Canada*

    I once witnessed a single rockstar employee turn an entire unprofessional group around. It was glorious.

    This group were notoriously prone to coming in late, having long lunches, and leaving early. They were also disorganised, showed up late and unprepared for lab meetings, and often left shared areas and equipment in a mess. I was friends with the former lab manager, and they drove her to distraction (she ended up quitting before the transformation happened). And then…

    …they hired a new postdoc who was courteous and respectful, worked hard, and was meticulous with his methods and with tidying up shared areas. He almost immediately started getting very high impact publications, winning awards, getting his own funding, and getting to travel to all the best conferences. The combination of someone setting a great example and visible, tangible rewards for that person’s behaviour seemed to flip a switch – they all started to emulate the new guy within a few months. The new lab manager was so much happier than the old one!

    1. Artemesia*

      I think sometimes bosses don’t fully realize how rewarding one employee can actually incentivize another. People do what they see rewarded not just what they are rewarded for.

    2. Kathlynn*

      I second this. I used to be a really high performer, then I switched shifts. The difference in when things need or can be done makes things hard. But my biggest issue is when I have coworkers who won’t work. That’s the main reason my performance ever drops. If my boss won’t do anything about a lazy employee, why should I work my button off. (the company doesn’t give raises, or anything else.)

        1. Yaaaas*

          +1000000000 This is me right now. I busted my butt my first year, only to be told that my work was worth the same amount (monetarily and otherwise) as those who were doing (poorly) half the work I was doing. The words from a senior manager: “we’ve lost good people before, and we’ll lose them again.” I stopped volunteering for anything and now they question why I changed. Need to get out asap because nothing is changing here.

  15. Workfromhome*

    I think one needs to look at the rule and not the exceptions to the rule. My rule of thumb is that if someone is a manager and have been a manager for a considerable amount of time they won’t change. If someone in power put them in that position at some point they either noticed what they did wrong, someone has complained about it or someone has left because of it.

    Either the people in power can’t be bothered to correct the behavior, they feel the benefit of the person outweighs the behavior or they just can’t be bothered to go through the hassle of firing them.
    Best thing to do is assume that they won’t change and either accept it or leave (most likely the latter).

    1. Kathlynn*

      I wouldn’t assume management has received complaints. Or noticed a pattern with staff turn over. Employees can be afraid to complain. Jobs can have naturally high turnover, or mangers make excuses or just be bad at hiring. [deletes bad management rant]

      1. NicoleK*

        Yes. I feel like I’m the only one providing negative feedback about a coworker. So I’m looking like the problem child.

  16. Ad Astra*

    Yes to all of this, and I’d like to add that employees who are new to the workforce or new to management are some of the most malleable employees. As long as you can identify some eagerness to improve, there’s hope for that employee.

  17. Regina*

    How does a lowly employee let it be known a manager is bad? There has to be some awareness on part of senior management, and frankly, I don’t know that most care. So it seems it’s always the on-the-ground folks that have to change. That’s fine. But I wish there were ways for the on-the-ground people to let higher-ups know when the manager is the problem.

    1. snuck*

      I’ve generally worked in very large corporates (over 10,000 employees) and these have various reporting systems… Whistleblower lines, external consultant satisfaction surveys, 360 degree reviews with washed data, large offsite HR departments as well as local HR reps etc. Even with all of that it’s rarely private or confidential, and virtually every time it’s got out as to who said what where when… In a number of different companies.

      I am an advocate of saying something yourself – work out how that manager thinks and ticks and tocks and approach them within their own language and framework… at a time that is not going to be unhelpful (4pm on Friday never works!) and keep it simple, to the point, with an example, and don’t bother if the person is the type that’s going to get vindictive… if you have a mean minded vindictive boss who is micro managing, aggressive in their approach and acts in a way that is generally punitive then don’t bother – find a new job somewhere else and let the employee attrition be that manager’s biggest issue.

    2. misspiggy*

      Debriefing when you leave, if you’re feeling brave. I’ve experienced it working but it involved taking on the risk that bridges will be burned.

  18. Anonymous for this*

    Good question. It is definitely tough to get people to change. A lot of people can change temporarily, but most backslide into their old ways after a while.

    I have a manager who was a rockstar employee in two different non-management positions. When she became a manager, she made all these proclamations about how things will be different now, she’ll be much better than our previous manager, she won’t micromanage us, she’ll be more positive/less critical, and make this a great place to work! Fast-forward a year and she’s a tyrant — much worse than our previous manager.

    For a while, I naively thought that, since she has a great track record in her previous roles, she actually cares about doing a good job, and if anyone had the guts to let her know that she’s an awful manager, she would want to change her ways. Well, my company has an ombudsman to whom employees can make anonymous complaints, and several people made very detailed anonymous complaints about her. One day, she called a meeting and read aloud a handful of the anonymous complaints and opened the floor for discussion. I thought surely she would change now that she knew how miserably she was failing at how she said she wanted to manage, but guess what? Nothing changed. She cherry-picked a couple of softball complaints to address (e.g., she didn’t tell us in advance about a schedule change, so next time she’ll tell us in advance) and completely ignored the parts about how she treats us like children/prison inmates and her micromanaging makes it difficult to do our jobs.

    I guess her boss thinks she’s doing a good job (because her boss gets most of the information directly from her), so she doesn’t care what her subordinates think.

  19. HR Caligula*

    Fortunately I’ve worked for many a great manager, only 1 off the top of my head I found not respect for.

    My HR mentor was great in many way however he did alienate many people that still haven’t forgiven or forgotten. He was very aggressive, ruthless really but smarter than most. I once told him he was a verbal bully, he would debate people to the ground no matter how strong their point. The brought in a new CFO, a position he pursued, that provided him mentoring. It actually made a strong difference for the better. Unfortunately by this point he’d done so much damage that few recognized or had faith of the positive changes.

    Me? I was an effective young manager but a jerk at times. My 1st big learning experience was when I managed a unionized production facility, rules were in place I could not ignore. The 2nd big learning opportunity was when I went into HR, a strong understanding of employment law, policies & procedures, along with the actual costs when not followed has been a great assist.

  20. Kathlynn*

    I think all companies need an HR or omnibus person, who doesn’t manage others (outside of other HR people, and they’d need a separate person), to ensure management is treating all employees fairly. I’ve been written up too often when others haven’t been, and should have. Like getting written up for not working, when I do more then the person who spends all day on their cellphone (who only got written up for cellphone use) and does nothing. Or when a manager was out to fire me, I was already doing more work then anyone, but they wanted me to complete 7-8 hours of work in 4. And no one else was expected to do even half as much I was already doing. This person would be protecting the company’s own/best interest because this is where employment law violations woul/could pip up. Like, in BC Canada you cannot be required to work more then 5 hours straight. After 5 hours you are entitled to a 30min break. My manager frequently made me work 6-8 hours with no break. And got mad if I tried to eat out side of my break. (like I’d taken one bite and was told to go do [something] )

  21. snuck*

    I know that workplace culture can bring about change in people… I remember working for a new manager who was awesome, myself and another very professional and passionate employee declared we were in love with him (it was a running joke that wasn’t bandied about inappropriately) and went out of our way to do wonderful, professional, high quality work for him. He inspired the extra mile. Then when he slid into the workplace culture of awful boss types we gave up and stopped being anywhere near as passionate.

    It was hard to sit in a review meeting with him and take him seriously after a while… discussing goals and performance when it was clear he didn’t care (anymore) and he didn’t even care if you didn’t perform (where he had before).

    I think just as they can go backwards, they can go forwards. In another workplace I had a team of people who were on the exit path, they were a team of all the people who had failed part of training, who had an attitude problem etc – I was called in to bring this specific and highly customer focussed call centre up to technical specifications (in their product knowledge) … and was given the team that wasn’t going to make it… well… we had a meeting, set clear goals, I worked with every individual on that team on their individual goals and only one of fourteen washed out, the rest were slowly taken from me to fill gaps in other teams and considered assets to those other teams for their fantastic systems and network knowledge afterwards, and their rough edges had been smoothed. I used some unconventional methods, but each and every employee was happy to sit down with me each fortnight (they were all on PIPs) and to work out a next step, none of them were planning to stick a tack on my chair or harrass me in the street. All except one, who was removed from the site after a nasty incident with a customer, after support, coaching, all manner of retraining she continued to be nasty to customers, in a call centre that just HAD to be about being nice to them.

    Manager wise I had one that was awful. She really was… she would attack personally, took things personally (so no surprise she attacked personally), didn’t give clear feedback, she’s the only manager that regularly reduced me to tears (and I’m not a crier). One day I stood up and told her outright that I wasn’t going to tolerate personal sledges anymore, that if she had a problem with my performance she could talk to me about the problem in specifics, and if it was a people person problem (ie my personal behaviour/communication style etc) then it still had a specific example at the end of it. She looked surprised… later we talked about how it’s hard to change behaviour when there’s no specific, and by not giving a specific it meant that people can’t change. I also told her that when personally attacked I would just ignore everything after, that this was normal for people to do – that their brains aren’t wired to listen to stuff after a fight/flight response. She was still a nightmare in many respects but she did stop sledging, and she stopped with others too, not just me.

    So yes. You can improve the behaviour of people, but it comes from work and motivation… if there’s no effort and no reason to change why would you/they?

  22. AM*

    I have a follow up question to this topic: what is the line between bad management and manipulation?

    I try to give my boss the benefit of the doubt and know that as a worker bee I don’t need to be in on strategy discussions, etc. but over the past year there are times when I feel like I am being set up to fail. Nothing definite, but just a nagging feeling that something is up.

    1. NicoleK*

      The line between bad management and manipulation; does the boss exhibit the same behaviors with everyone else? If it’s just you that is on the receiving end of said behavior, then something is up. Also, if you are an individual with good instincts, can read people well, have a good sense about things… your instincts.

    2. Vet Tech Gal*

      Unfortunately, there may not be a line—being manipulated is an example of why your management is bad. I’m with NicoleK, if you feel like something is just not adding up, you most likely are correct. Just like any other bad management situation, I would encourage you to think about what your long term strategy is.

  23. RR*

    I think people can change, but honestly I’d prefer to change the situation by moving out. I notice that employees are most empowered to make change by leaving the team. Especially when you’re a hardworking and non-problematic employee. You leave, all the difficult and lazy people are left, and they need to deal with a mess. Many of the teams I’ve left have crumbled after I left – managers left or got demoted, other staff left. I’ve dealt with bad managers and tried everything to make them change – adapt myself, escalate to them or to their managers – and really the fallout is not worth it. I agree that upper management has to care enough to hold them accountable, and rarely they do, as otherwise the weird behaviour wouldn’t be happening in the first place. I’m on an awesome team right now and it’s due to the amazing leadership. Leave and find a better place as they are out there.

    1. NicoleK*

      Yes, bad employees and manager can change. But sometimes the relationship been damaged beyond repair and the trust is gone.

  24. Rainbows and Bunnies*

    People change on their terms and when they want to change.

    I recently moved out from under the thumb of an extremely unorganized, insecure manager and into a position that is parallel. I manage no one but hold a crucial license for our office – a license which hinges on everyone doing their job effectively and following government laws and regs.

    I have been charged with ensuring that the 3 managers that are parellel to my position(but whose good work or lack thereof has a direct effect on my license and livelihood) implement highly detailed databases and utilize them in the processing of files. The problem is, one manager is always so very far behind (and not for having too much work, just highly disorganized) that this person will not hesitate to cut corners. This person has been permitted to slack off and underperform for years because her personality does not lend well to guidance or constructive criticism. When she takes a day off, it takes 2 to 3 people working all day to put out the fires that resulted from her procrastination and mistakes.

    Now this is affecting me adversely. If I don’t ensure that she is following procedure, I could be held responsible even though I am cautious and by-the-book, consistently receive excellent reviews and am well regarded by virtually everyone and considered a hardworking and efficient employee. I could potentially lose my license if there are egregious errors. Yet I am not in a position of authority over anyone, partly because I have been there the least amount of time yet chose to study, pay for classes, and sit for the exam mostly on my dime and time where the managers who had been there for years didn’t bother.

    I want to go to my CEO, who supervises all of us, and tell him my concerns. I love my job and leaving is not an option but this situation has gone on way too long. He bought the company 1.5 years ago and is very perceptive. He is at our corporate office far away and does not see what goes on but I think he has an idea. I trust him but I would feel like a snitch…even though I also feel like it shouldn’t be my problem if a manager like this isn’t self-aware enough to know what’s going on. If I was her superior it would be easier but I’m not, so I really don’t know what to do.

    1. NicoleK*

      If the CEO is not on site, does not see what’s going on, and doesn’t have a solid understanding of the tasks and responsibilities of his managers, he may not know what’s going on. The advice on AAM has always been to just bring it to the attention of your superior once or twice.

      1. Rainbows and Bunnies*

        Thank you for the advice, NicoleK. I know I will feel so relieved once I objectively point out what is happening and I feel that he will address it. The previous owner never would have.

  25. Spice for this*

    Thank you for this post. I really find the AAM answer helpful.
    I often wondered about what it would take for a bad manager or employee to change. I currently work for a bad boss (he is a good person, but lacks the tools for a good boss). Most people in the company have lost all respect for him. My co-workers (senior staff) make fun of him behind his back. The senior staff are not held accountable for any of their work (they are friends with the boss/knew him at a different company and came to current company with him)!
    The senior staff will:
    -leave the office in the middle of the day to take care of personal errands, and return after 1-2 hours and take a 2 hour lunch later
    -pretend they are busy when other employees stop by to ask questions (while they read books on their ipads and check personal email on their phones)
    -take 2 hour lunch breaks (when the boss is on business travel)
    -sit at their desks and make fun of other co-workers (choice of clothing, etc.)
    I am looking for another job! I know things are not going to change at current company.

    1. NicoleK*

      Other posters have already mentioned: incentive, consequences, motivation, self awareness, expectations. My boss reports to the board of directors who have limited involvement with the organization. There’s no real consequences for her as no one will dare to go behind her back to the board. New coworker reports to our boss. Our boss doesn’t have a solid understanding of new coworker’s role, responsibilities, and tasks. Boss is also disorganized, absent from the office most days, doesn’t have clear expectations, a lousy communicator, has an aversion to conflict, and is terrible at following through. So there’s no consequences or incentive for new coworker to change. Boss lets her do whatever she wants.

    2. Cucumberzucchini*

      Is this a large company? How does any work get done? How does the company stay afloat with so much poor performance?

      If anything it doesn’t sound sustainable.

  26. No name*

    My supervisor was let go this week. Everyday I wished she would turn over a new leaf, but I guess she had been getting away with her poor behavior for so long that it couldn’t be ignored any longer.

    While I feel bad for her, ultimately I know that she is the one responsible for her firing. Even though it’s only been a few days and we are short handed, work has been wonderful since she left.

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