can bad employees and bad managers change?

I’m off for the holiday, so here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2015.

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.

{ 122 comments… read them below }

  1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    Unfortunately, nothing spurs change on quite like rock bottom.

    For me, it was walking away from a job I realized I could no longer keep down with no new job lined up, then about 4 months of getting ghosted after interviews or applications. When the next opportunity did finally come down the pike–8 hours away–it wasn’t the same personality that carried those skills in the door that it was that had walked out the door of the previous job.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      And yes, I do realize how fortunate I am. I realized it at the time. Those 4 months could easily have been 4 years.

    2. Boof*

      I hear you but I want to put it out there anyone can define what “rock bottom” is for them. I think in medicine stats are roughly 20-33% of folks can make a major change in their lifestyle when it become clear they have a problem (ie, alcoholics quitting alcohol, etc). I imagine other bad habits (ie bad management) probably have similar statistics. First the person has to want to change, then they have to take steps to enact the change, then they have to maintain it. The only alternatives if the steps are happening are to just live with it or to bail; can’t force someone if they won’t do it themselves. Can’t do it for them either no matter how much handholding and encouragement you offer; can make it a little easier but if the person themself is putting in minimal effort, more effort on someone else’s part isn’t going to do anything.

    3. Despairing of Humanity*

      I’m so sorry you went through that.

      I wanted to say something similar. My previous several jobs, I was a gung ho workaholic. Then we had a truly horrendous 12 month period (health, immigration, family). Now I feel like I’m really phoning it in in my current job (not entirely my own fault, I am very much the outsider on our team). I’ve lost my passion for the work, I very much want to leave work behind when I clock out, and I have safety concerns about my current workplace. The pandemic saved me in a lot of ways but made it infinitely worse in others. My husband and I have been barely keeping our heads above water for the last few years, and this is very much not who we usually are. But I just don’t know if the old me is coming back.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Looking back, I needed it. I was bulletproof before that; it was a real Momento Mori season for me. I came out of it much more aware and cognizant of my mortality, both literally and career wise.

        I definitely came out of it with an eye for programming design in ways that fail gracefully, readily, and safely. Every job could be my last job.

  2. Daisy*

    The life lesson that took me over 50 years to learn is: I am not responsible for other’s behavior and I can’t make them do anything.
    I can definitely point things out in a way they will be able to hear (hint: angry and emotional rarely work) but their actions are up to them.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*


      My way of putting that is:
      “I can trust everyone implicitly… to do what they think, consciously or unconsciously, is in their own best interest. If their interests and mine coincide, that’s great. But if not, no expectation or manipulation on my part will make a difference.”

      Sometimes you have to shrug and walk away because they’re dancing to a different drummer who is out of step.

    2. allathian*

      Mmm yes. I’m so glad that I learned this lesson in my mid-20s when I broke up with my then-boyfriend when I no longer liked the person the dysfunctional relationship had turned me into, and there was nothing I could do to make him treat me better. I’m also very fortunate that I’ve only had one truly toxic manager in my 30+ year career, because I’m not fond of change, and the older I get, the less adventurous I seem to become. I could see myself tolerating bad working conditions because it’s the devil I know all too easily…

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I had a similar experience with an ex where I just got so tired of apologizing for his shitty behavior. Breaking up with him was like no longer having to carry a heavy weight.

        In the other direction, I used to have a really bad attitude towards coworkers. It was a very “mistakes will not be tolerated” environment, and when people in other departments made mistakes that would affect my metrics I would get frustrated and write angry emails. Unfortunately, it took getting fired to really understand that I had to change. Looking back, though, getting fired is the best career move I ever made; it forced me out of that toxic environment and gave me a chance to start over elsewhere.

    3. Here for the Insurance*

      This, all day long.

      OP, yes, people can change if *they* want to change and are willing to do the work to change. Not because you want them to change and not because you’re willing to put in time to get them to change. *They* have to be the one to do it. Because of that, no, there is rarely anything you can do to make them more mature, stronger, kinder, less batshit.

      As a corollary to this, I think it’s important to think about boundaries. Too many people think boundaries are a tool for getting other people to change. They’re not. A boundary is for the person imposing it, to be clear to themselves what they will and won’t put up with. What the other person thinks, feels, does about the boundary is up to them. Getting them to respond in a specific way to the boundary isn’t the goal. Making *yourself* respond in a specific way is the goal.

  3. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    It’s often not just the problem employee/boss, but the culture in which that person operates. The culture may tolerate or actually encourage the problematic behavior, for a great variety of reasons.

    It’s worth considering where the pressure points are. Where is there leverage and where is there none? What factors are holding back improvement? What can influence those factors? Can group action facilitate movement where individual action cannot?

    Tons of factors to consider.

    1. Sara without an H*

      A lot of bullying managers get a pass on their behavior because they’re getting the results their employers want.

    2. mf*

      “It’s often not just the problem employee/boss, but the culture in which that person operates. The culture may tolerate or actually encourage the problematic behavior, for a great variety of reasons.”

      This is so insightful. If an individual is behaving problematically, they can and will change in some cases. But if the culture is incentivizing problematic behavior… well, I think the chances of seeing a positive change are very, very low.

      It’s pretty rare, in my experience, for a workplace to change its culture. That generally only happens very slowly over time or when there’s a major upheaval of some sort.

    3. No way I use a traceable name*

      Absolutely – I work in an organization that is reluctant to move on from problem employees. New employees take a couple months to be able to the basics and even experienced people take 6 months to get truely useful. We had problem employees that managers wanted to get rid of that it took years to move on. Our current managers are doing what they can, but HR is a serious roadblock.

    4. Maglev No Longer to Crazytown*

      Absolutely felt this at a visceral level. I got out of an extremely toxic workplace after a number of years. By the very nature of the place, myself and so many good people I had worked with for many years were beyond the point of burnout, exhausted, unable to ever unwind even during vacations or long holiday weekends outside of work, and it spilled into our personalities and ability to handle things. We were all hair-trigger all the time, because we all either being screamed at by ineffective management, or knew at any second we were about to be screamed at or blamed for something far outside of our control.

      I slept for two weeks solid after I left. I felt like I had some Victorian wasting disease.

      Almost a year out, in a dream job, and I am finally laughing and smiling genuinely again.

    5. Alternative Person*

      The culture is so important.

      Outside looking in, my behaviour at a previous job was not good, but going step by step through how I ended up with those behaviours I can see the pattern of interactions stemming from the very embedded culture that led me to adopting them. Now that I’m in a more reasonable culture, those behaviours have (nearly completely) disappeared.

      1. Maglev No Longer to Crazytown*

        I posted a similar reply to yours… Many toxic culture workplaces force people to adopt to survival strategies outside of their typical personality and way they would interact with people. I got to the point where I was always defensive, and borderline angry, because I was facing harassment and being gaslighted for it, and myself and my team being criticized for everything because the nature of our work made us the automatic enemies by trying to hold to the regulations we had to. I learned to dread interacting with 90% of people, because in the environment I worked it, it was logical to do so based on the previous interactions.

        Just amazing how moving to a healthier workplace can change everything.

    6. EmmaPoet*

      I’m thinking of the LW who bit her coworker, and that not being considered at all bizarre by anyone at that company, including the bitee.

  4. Construction Safety*

    An old safety guy told me, “Most people won’t change until they experience a significant emotional event.”

    1. hbc*

      So true. I’ve definitely had good employees who tell stories of the terrible employees they used to be before someone knocked some sense into them, usually through a couple of firings. I keep that in mind when I have to fire someone–hopefully this is the event that makes them realize that [sneaking in late/dumping work on colleagues/yelling and cursing at people] has consequences that are too big. I’ll probably never know, but I can hope.

  5. Irish Teacher*

    My opinion is that people can change but they have to want to themselves and it is often a heck of a lot of work. For engrained behaviours, even if they really want to change, it’s probably going to take a while. In some cases, this could be a number of years.

    It also depends on what you are trying to change. If it’s something like “I need you to stop leaving twenty minutes early every evening,” then I think most people can change that and most will if they are warned that for example their job is at risk, but for things that are more a part of the person, I think it’s a lot harder. Something like “I need you to stop avoiding confrontation” is something that is likely to change only if the person really wants to change and even then, it’s not likely to be easy and will be something it could take them quite a long time to work on.

    I would distinguish between professionalism and maturity. I don’t think other people can make somebody mature, at least not in most cases. Professionalism on the other hand…it’s possible. But I think it is more likely to work with somebody at the beginning of their career who just hasn’t learnt professional habits yet rather than with somebody who may have had decades to develop bad habits and probably won’t find it easy to change them.

    1. takeachip*

      Yes, surface-level behaviors are the easiest to change, especially when they haven’t become long-term habits. This is why it’s important to address them early on. A lot of managers don’t want too confront things that seem minor. Of course an occasional lapse on the part of an otherwise high performing employee can sometimes be overlooked depending on the impact it has, but too often, managers let things go until they become a problem that can’t be ignored anymore, and by that point it’s a much more difficult conversation and the employee has become more invested in the behavior and the manager has become frustrated. Much better to deal with it when fewer emotions are in play and when it can be a “hey, I’ve noticed . . .” kind of discussion with lower stakes.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Came here to say basically your first point. People can change, but it really only works if they want/have to. If the status quo is generally working for them, there is no real incentive to change. With a boss, there isn’t a lot anyone can do to change the situation so the boss’ behaviour isn’t working for them anymore.

      Totally agree with you that it’s much harder to change someone’s general approach or instincts than basic behaviour.

    3. kiki*

      I agree. In addition to wanting to change, the person will most likely need to be in circumstances that support the change. That can mean having to change organizations, but it could also mean being in the right life circumstances (being in a decent place mentally, having free time for introspection, etc.)

    4. George*

      It also depends on what you are trying to change. If it’s something like “I need you to stop leaving twenty minutes early every evening,” then I think most people can change that and most will if they are warned that for example their job is at risk, but for things that are more a part of the person, I think it’s a lot harder.

      This is true, but I would also add that any actual barriers or other issues also need to be identified and remedied as part of this process. For example, are they leaving twenty minutes early because of unreliable transport? Because they never get to take the hour-long lunch break that they are legally required to be given? Because they can’t drvie after dark? Because they have carer’s responsibilities? Because they have a regular medical appointment they can’t miss?

      Blaming someone for the problem that is causing the symptom without even attempting to fix it or work around it is bad management.

  6. Richard Hershberger*

    I am sympathetic toward the follies of youth. Who of us wants to be judged based on how we were when we were twenty? How this plays out in the work environment depends on the individual. Are they ready and eager to learn how to adult? If so, treat them gently as you coach them. Or are they unwilling to abandon their youthful certainties? You aren’t their parent. They may need to go away for a few years to grow up on someone else’s dime.

    1. Sara without an H*

      I’ve worked with a lot of student assistants. In a lot of cases, what looks like goofiness is just real ignorance of workplace norms. How would they know, after all? By the time I got to my last-library-before-retirement, we developed a fairly detailed onboarding process for new students that included very basic stuff, like call if you’re going to be late, how to answer the telephone in a professional setting, etc.

      I like to think their future managers would thank us if they knew.

      1. Mostly Managing*

        I think a lot of the office-based sitcoms don’t help.

        For young people who have no experience of office norms, but have watched The Office, Brooklyn 99, Parks and Rec, the IT crowd, etc – all they know is what they see on tv, and they have no idea how extremely unprofessional most of it is!
        (Let’s face it – a truly professional office would be a really boring tv show)

        Telling new hires, especially people in their first jobs, what is involved is a kindness to everyone in the company.

        1. Sara without an H*

          I think you’re on to something. If you watch office-based sitcoms, you never actually see anybody doing any work. They just sit around, trade one-liners, and meddle in each other’s private lives.

        2. AcademiaNut*

          There’s also the transition from school environment to work, as there are very different rules governing the two.

          University instructors can have very little power when it comes to controlling things outside of how a student does on exams and assignments. A student who comes to class disheveled and wearing lounging pyjamas, or has a terrible attitude, or frequently skips class, or leaves work to the last minute and stays up for 48 hours cramming – you still have to give them an A if they do well on the exam. And if a student is a solid C student, they will still pass courses and graduate – you can’t put them on a PIP for mediocre performance. It’s worse for adjuncts than tenured professors – the former is dependent on student evaluations for continued employment.

          So sometimes when they hit the workforce, the idea that their employer can dictate what they wear, when they show up, how they perform their day to day work, and that they can do their work well and still be fired for being a jerk or an arrogant know-it-all is a novel concept.

    2. Rhymetime*

      Thanks for this perspective and providing wiggle room for young employees still figuring out workplace norms. In my 20s, I was once counseled on my lack of professionalism. I heard the feedback and shaped up. When I eventually quit that position to attend graduate school, my manager shared how pleased she was that I’d improved my performance and said she was sorry to see me go.

    3. AcademiaNut*

      Yes, most people do mature out of problems due to inexperience and/or immaturity. Being matter of fact, lightly sympathetic, clearly state what the problem is, why it’s a problem if relevant, and how they need to change. At the same time, there’s a type of willful naivete that’s incredibly difficult to deal with as an employer. When they’re completely wrong, convinced they’re right, and bull-headedly charging forth, let someone else give them the life lessons they need. Some people do need to learn things the hard way.

      There’s another type of ‘bad’ that has a lot of hope of changing – someone who is miserably unhappy because the job itself is a bad fit. They don’t like the culture, they’re struggling with the work, they dislike the work itself, they hate the location, they hate managing. If they move on to a job that suits them better they can go from a problem employee to a competent one.

      1. kiki*

        100% agree on your second type of bad. I think there’s this idea in American society that a good worker will be a good worker in any context and a person who is performing poorly would have been a bad worker in any context. It’s just not true. People need different types of environments and structure to thrive. Also, some types of work just aren’t for some people.

  7. Falling Diphthong*

    Heck, I think people do sometimes change because someone told them what they were doing wrong, and what they should do instead. It can even be someone they don’t know well–sometimes the lack of any history makes it easier to take in constructive criticism.

    What I don’t think it is is common. Usually if the advice comes from someone without much power over you–they can’t fire you, cut you from the team, etc–then people dismiss this as a busy body who doesn’t grasp the full situation.

    I doubt anyone reading the specifics here thought this boss was going to completely alter his dysfunctional parenting/managing style based on a subordinate pointing out that he should.

  8. Failed manager*

    Alison, why did you change the LW manager’s pronouns from “he” to “she?” Why not use a more gender neutral term such as “they”? Although I believe bad management should never be tolerated, I sometimes believe that we give men more of an allowance to be bad at management than women. Could you please consider rephrasing “ the managers …they could be lazy/weak/ ect…?” These can be men women gender non binary.

    Also could you define what do you mean by weak? My manager always used that term in me. I always felt like a failure when he used it and it came across that I was loser. and I believe that it is a loaded term. But I would like further clarification on what you mean.

    Can we call individual contributors “weak” or “lazy”? Are these terms have not so positive connotations to some marginalized groups? Are there more informed ways of say these terms?


    1. I should really pick a name*

      The response is about a theoretical manager, not the LW’s manager.
      As to why she instead of he when the gender is unknown, there’s an article about that. I’ve replied to this comment with it, so it may take some time to come out of moderation.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      Don’t call employees weak or lazy.
      Address their behaviour, not their character.

      You can talk about they aren’t getting enough done in a day.
      You can talk about how work isn’t being done up to the required standards.
      Talk about the concrete ways that their performance improve.

      1. Willow Pillow*

        Yes, let’s ditch the habit of calling anyone weak or lazy. I’ll post an excellent article on that issue in a separate comment.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Agreed. Unless the job description states “lift XXX lbs repeatedly,” weak has no place in a description of anyone.

          Now, if I’m hired to carry pallets of roofing shingles onto a roof and I can’t physically lift them, then it’s fair to point out I’m weak and reassess my fit in the role.

      2. Failed manager*

        So can a senior manager call a first line manager weak or lazy? Or do the same rules apply to the relationship as a first line manager and the individual contributor ?

        1. I should really pick a name*

          They shouldn’t do it. They’re just less likely to face consequences.
          No one should be calling anyone weak or lazy in the workplace.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          To parse this:
          • It is usually rude to call someone weak or lazy to their face.

          • That doesn’t mean it’s not allowed in some sort of legal sense, or evoking punishment from above.

          • If managers are discussing an employee not to their face, it is very common to use blunt, straightforward language about what is not working. Maybe Stu blows off his work and can be seen doodling on his phone and that’s why he’s behind–Manager A can call him lazy and Manager B unmotivated and Manager C the weakest team member. All have observed that a) work is not getting done; b) some obvious choices contribute to that.
          Managers might also use these terms completely unfairly to complain that Steve seems unable to do the work of three people; they might tell Steve to his face that he’s weak because they think that’s how you motivate people to do what you want. In this whole scenario, calling Steve “weak” either in private or to his face is not the main issue.

          1. Failed manager*

            Sorry every so often something in this blog hits a nerve with me. I don’t think it’s okay to use these terms (weak or lazy) per se. But the use of them in Alison’s did hit a nerve. I had a big failure in my career and I am still trying to get over it.

            As for managers talking about employees amongst themselves and using the tens lazy and weak to describe people, I think that using these term can promote a toxic environment where you are not looking at people with the lens of they are not meeting expectations.( and accurately discuss the problem ) . I know managers are blowing off steam but I believe it is not promoting professionalism that we want in leadership.

        3. Emmy Noether*

          No-one should call anyone weak or lazy, especially at work. It’s completely unproductive, in addition to being mean and rude.

          The way I interpreted Alison was that she proposes calling out the behaviour (holding people to deadlines, giving advance notice), not call people weak/lazy.

          The adjectives (weak/lazy…) are more like guessing afterwards at the possible causes of being unable to change. You can think, in your mind, that your boss is too weak and will never change (though it may be better to just think “boss is unable to change for unknown reasons”). But don’t say that out loud! Ever! To anybody!

          1. fhqwhgads*

            Yeah there’s a big difference between calling a person weak – as a description of them as a person, and calling their ability to do a thing weak. Like my piano playing skills are weak. Reasonable sort of criticism, were playing piano a part of my job.

        4. Willow Pillow*

          IMO, the weak or lazy people are the ones who resort to such labels instead of making the effort to unpack why people are having issues (I still don’t find those terms to be productive though).

        5. Boof*

          Honestly it’s just a generally good principle to comment on people’s behaviors rather than their intrinsic characteristics 1) seldom do we really know someone’s true soul/being, no matter how much we might want to guess 2) behaviors are a lot easier to discuss addressing/changing; changing someone’s innate characteristics, while probably possible (cognitive behavioral therapy!) tends to imply a level of permanence and invite more debate/defensiveness rather than actionable changes that can be agreed upon.

        6. Boof*

          Probably the only context it makes sense to use some like “weak” is if they are talking about specific skills / modifiable things, ie, areas of strength and weakness
          Can’t think of a context where lazy would be a productive word to use at all, seems like more of a venting / dismissive term

    3. Holly*

      Commenting only on the last point: I don’t think Alison meant anything by it (that is, I think it was said off the cuff and I’m not that worried about it, I think she knows essentially what I’m about to say) but I also noticed the use of, particularly, lazy. There is an interesting essay (and corresponding book) about laziness/the lack of its existence by Devon Price, found here: Interesting to chew on!

    4. Corporate Goth*

      I have heard some more positive ways to bluntly discuss strengths and weaknesses of office personnel, behind closed doors, and I’d like to share a few of these examples in the hopes that it will provide another perspective.

      Example one:
      Sansa: “We need someone to take over armor development now that Savannah took the promotion in King’s Landing.”
      Arya: “How about Terrence? He’s interested in promotion, but weak on covering shields with leather and testing new designs. He needs to develop those skills to be considered. Let’s see if he’s interested and train him into the role.”
      Sansa: “Not Vaughn? He was apprenticing to Savannah and his work has been strong.”
      Arya: “It’s a critical role and we need more than one backfill. Plus, we need two people working on armor with the army marching toward us.”

      Example two:
      Sansa: “Winterfell looks weak. We don’t have enough people to defend ourselves from the White Walkers – or anyone taking advantage of our post-battle injuries who want to take over the fortress.”
      Arya: “The children are good archers and skilled at making arrows, but we’re weak on trained swordsmen once the walls are breached. Our first step should be to hire a good blacksmith and a sword-trainer. We’ll still be vulnerable during that time, so let’s make archery practice mandatory for all the adults sheltering here and increase the number of arrows required per week. That way, we can keep invaders at longer distances that don’t require swords.”

      I would never refer to an individual contributor as weak or lazy to their faces. I’d talk to them about developing skills to increase their strengths, or if it was a key/required skill, have a frank discussion about whether it was a good job fit. (A weak supervisor wouldn’t have this conversation.)

      Were it a “laziness” issue, I might ask if something is going on in their lives since they’re missing easy aspects of the job, determine why something went wrong, then steer them toward fixing the process. (A lazy supervisor wouldn’t go to that level of effort, but might merely chastise someone for not doing well.)

      I hope this helps. Your manager, by the way, sounds like a complete jerk. I hope he is no longer your manager – and also that your username is not an internalization of that situation. Good vibes from an internet stranger to you, Failed Manager.

      1. surely*

        I would never refer to an individual contributor as weak or lazy to their faces. I’d talk to them about developing skills to increase their strengths, or if it was a key/required skill, have a frank discussion about whether it was a good job fit. (A weak supervisor wouldn’t have this conversation.)

        Were it a “laziness” issue, I might ask if something is going on in their lives since they’re missing easy aspects of the job, determine why something went wrong, then steer them toward fixing the process. (A lazy supervisor wouldn’t go to that level of effort, but might merely chastise someone for not doing well.)

        These are really good points. But this is also making the assumption that all managers have these types of conversations from a place of honesty and leadership, rather than them giving unwarranted negative feedback because they are being vindictive, toxic, a bully, throwing someone under the bus to save their own skin, a micromanager, a saboteur, etc.

        I’ve dealt with a few too many purposefully bad managers in my time (both as an individual contributor and a manager myself) to truly believe that bad managers, including the weak and lazy kinds, just avoid having these types of conversations.

  9. Antilles*

    In a workplace setting, I find the question isn’t simply “can they change” but instead the more important “can they change in a time frame that makes sense to wait“.

    1. Feotakahari*

      I read this nonfiction book about managing a baseball team, and there was this one player who had good stats, but a terrible attitude. The manager wanted to keep him, but the coach basically said “It took me years to learn to stop being a jerk. We don’t want to spend years waiting for him to change.”

  10. Rhiannon*

    Happened to me a few years ago with a boss who admittedly was just waiting to retire. I made an internal, lateral move to a boss who (was and likely still is) too afraid to stand up to bad behavior. And both were symptoms of a larger problem: their boss, who has anger, rage, and trust issues.

    Now, I have a boss who is kind but firm; I knew things weren’t going to change because people weren’t going to, so I got a different job. It’s like I am on another planet. As I see it, sure, people can change, but they have to really want to.

  11. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    I think OP answers her own question in the letter, but the answer doesn’t help OP’s situation.
    I believe OP, like me, has changed/grown/improved/ by reading AAM. So yes, people can change.
    Can OP’s boss (with no boundary between family and work) change?
    Boss is neither reading or writing in. So OP, hope in one hand, brush up your resume with the other.

  12. New Jack Karyn*

    I think people do change (grow, develop) even well into adulthood. But sometimes it takes a change of scenery. Or, as mentioned above, a significant emotional event. Being fired or forced out can fill the bill.

    I look back at some of my workplace behavior 15 years ago, and really regret the poor boundaries I had. It was a terrible work environment in many ways, but my methods of handling that were . . . sub-optimal at best.

    1. Glazed Donut*

      Agreed on the second part for sure. I learned a ton from poor boundaries — and am now struggling how to articulate “I understand all my subordinates are friends but I don’t want to be *their* friend; I want to be their boss” as informed by those prior experiences.
      Still learning and growing, I suppose!

  13. Cat Tree*

    OP’s phrasing is super weird to include things like “lazy and apathetic children” and “indulgent parenting”. I read those and expected it to elaborate that the boss was bringing their young children in, or that adult children worked for the company, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    There are some parallels between parenting and managing, sure. But it’s really not the boss’s job to make employees into generally better people, and it’s certainly more appropriate in some cases to fire the employee than to try to fix them.

    Seems like OP has their own weird work issues and a skewed way of viewing the whole thing. Working in a bad environment for long enough can definitely make it run off onto you, which likely happened here. It’s just one more reason for OP to leave this place.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I read it as the grown children in the family business keep screwing up but get infinity do-overs.

      1. ScruffyInternHerder*

        That’s how I read it in this publishing. I probably should go back to the OG and check. But yeah, I’m reading it as spoiled adult children get infinite do-overs for eff ups.

  14. Warrior Princess Xena*

    In my experience, there’s a small number of people who are not great at something deliberately or because they want to be (this can be anything from being a total Jerk to being incompetent with technology) but far, far more are doing something because the environment they are in supports that behavior. There’s a reason that in fraud prevention one of the strongest predictors of an ethical company is the ‘tone at the top’ – how much the upper executives believe in supporting an ethical atmosphere, which is then played out in the resources and time devoted to having a functional company.

    So I’d say that people can change, but how fast and how well they will change is critically based on the environment they are in. Trying to change against the environment is like trying to walk through Jell-O

  15. Willow Pillow*

    This has been alluded to in other comments… I don’t think there are bad employees or bad managers, just bad circumstances. Some circumstances can change, and some can’t. I think we’d all be better off if we stopped using harmful labels and instead look at how we can create circumstances in which people can succeed. I know that’s a tall order but I can still hope…

    1. Sunshine*

      Agh, I don’t know. I’ve had some managers who were just bitter, spiteful people. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which those people would b good managers, short of a full personality transplant. Some people just delight in the suffering of others, and I feel like those people should just not be managers (but often are!)

      Likewise, some people are just awful and working with them sucks. People can always change, but I don’t really see a problem with calling it what it is in the meantime. Someone being a bad employee today doesn’t mean they will be one forever.

      1. Delta Delta*

        I used to work with someone who is well known to be awful to people, and has basically chewed up and spit out a whole load of staff. That person is often referred to by us expatriates as The Terrible One. We all know who that means.

        1. Sunshine*

          Sadly, I think the characteristics that lead people to treat others badly are some of the same characteristics that are valued when climbing the corporate ladder. I’ve heard lots of stories like this! The ruthless always tend to succeed somehow.

      2. Willow Pillow*

        They weren’t born bitter or spiteful, though. There may not be a way to change their behaviour – and after a point it doesn’t matter if you have good boundaries – but calling someone an awful person doesn’t accomplish anything worthwhile. I say this as a frequent target of bullying and mistreatment (go undiagnosed neurodivergence!).

      3. megaboo*

        I think some of my managers who were toxic were sort of worn down by the job. For example, the red tape and changes tried over the years really caused them to shut down new ideas. They know it’s useless to try new things because of the environment.

    2. Emmy Noether*

      I don’t think I agree, if I understood you correctly. There are absolutely people who are unsuited to be managers, and there are people who act really badly. How much of that is attributable to character or circumstance (or character formed by circumstance?) is not so clear.

      Let me give an example: I used to have a manager that was a micromanager, and it was clearly caused by some anxiety/control issues on her part. It didn’t make her a bad person, but clearly a bad manager. It didn’t seem to be caused by work circumstances (possibly private circumstances or history – not my place to speculate). The only way circumstances at work could have changed to make her (and her subordinates) succeed would have been to demote her to not being a manager. That wasn’t going to happen, so my only option was to get out.

      We’ve also seen some eamples in letters here where people aren’t just bad managers, but also are… let’s say… unsuited to working with people in general.

      1. Willow Pillow*

        I would lump systemic issues or upbringing in with circumstance… and I say that as someone who has worked under enough “bad managers” that I have long-term mental health problems. The point is to get away from giving people negative labels.

        1. Sunshine*

          I just don’t see a problem with giving a negative label to someone who is exhibiting negative behavior. If someone is being a bad friend to you, that doesn’t mean they’re irredeemable or even a bad person – but they’re being a bad friend! I don’t think it’s a kindness to fluff up and obscure our language so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings when that person is the one doing wrong. Your circumstances don’t give you a pass to avoid the consequences of your actions.

          1. Willow Pillow*

            Labeling behaviours rather than people does not mean giving one a pass to avoid the consequences of their actions. It does often make it tougher to address those issues, though. They’re not even useful labels – an action that would make someone a bad friend to you could be something I appreciate. Precision is not fluffing up and obscuring language, it’s giving everyone the opportunity to understand.

            In my case (neurodivergent), it’s also given me more confidence – I am someone who has attracted negative labels because I didn’t understand. This doesn’t mean there’s an obligation to change, or even to give feedback to people who have treated me poorly. Life’s not as black and white as is implied by calling someone a bad person.

            1. Silvia*

              I think maybe you are just uncomfortable with them. That doesn’t make them a bad thing. Your own circumstances have led you to be avoidant of them, and you are trying to defend yourself. I’m sorry you have been hurt, but people using negative labels because they experienced your behaviour negatively is not the issue. Someone who finds you a bad friend gets to say that.

              And again, saying someone is a bad friend is NOT saying they are a bad person. You keep conflating the two. This indicates that you are not actually understanding, just knee-jerk reacting because of your personal discomfort. You being uncomfortable is not anyone else’s problem. You don’t fix the problems by avoiding naming them.

          2. Alternative Person*

            This is important.

            People can hide behind circumstances, well meaningness and good intentions, but if they’re causing issues, they need to have it put to them in the most accurate (and ideally constructive) terms possible.

            I don’t take pleasure on it, but people need to hear a spade called a spade when it is a spade.

      2. allathian*

        I concur. I also had micromanager who really wasn’t a good fit for the job. She also got me and my then-coworker as reports without really understanding the fundamentals of our work. We’re translators, she had a background in HR, and our team included HR staff (weird, I know). Things got a lot easier when we had an organizational reform, and we were assigned to the comms department. At least everyone on our team works with written communications now. She was demoted to senior HR specialist (along with about 100 other front-line managers when they flattened the organization) and is much happier now, and she’s still working for the same organization nearly 10 years later. This does mean that when she runs trainings on our current organizational/management culture, which is largely based on empowering employees, flexible work hours, and a very liberal WFH policy even pre-pandemic, it sometimes gives me pretty severe feelings of cognitive dissonance because I knew her as a bad manager.

    3. Boof*

      I suppose it depends what you mean by “bad manager” – I think there are definitely people who are “bad at managing” and maybe it could be masked with the most ideal circumstances, but it doesn’t change the fact that some people would be way better at managing. That being said, they are not a bad person, and it’s really shorthand for “bad at managing” and in theory they could pick up the skills to become a good manager; how likely that is would depend a lot on exactly why they are bad at managing (ie, very new and no training, but eager to learn and working hard at it? Very modifiable! Hot tempered, self-absorbed, disorganized, and has been for a long time? Would take a lot of hard work that they haven’t already done, so what’s going to change now? Etc)

    4. mf*

      I don’t know. I’ve known some people who really are just bad people. I’ve also known people who are bad employees or managers in the sense that they are a bad fit for their jobs.

      That being said: I do think it’s much more common to run across a person who’s a poor performer because of circumstances rather than some kind of character flaw.

      1. surely*

        Agreed, mf. Although while I agree that some bad managers can be made bad through bad circumstances, I think a lot of them just shouldn’t be managers in the first place: many characteristics like a lack of empathy, ruthlessness, being power hungry, lying, and even sheer vindictiveness are too often rewarded in a business sense, meaning that far too many people with these traits end up in positions of power or influence in too many workplaces.

    5. Here for the Insurance*

      Sorry, I have to disagree with your premise. There are bad people in the world. There just are. People who are predators; people who are sadists; people without the concept of empathy. I’m not saying they’re the majority or anywhere close to it, but they exist and the rest of us would be fools not to accept that.

      Could they have been different? Maybe, but unless someone has a time machine that’s neither here nor there. Can they be different now? Maybe, but that’s up to them. It’s not the rest of the world’s responsibility to “fix” them. They need to take responsibility for themselves and they need to do the work to change. As to it being harmful to label them, I’d argue the opposite: that it does more harm to refuse to call things what they are, in part because it gives bad actors one more tool to avoid responsibility and one more tool to use against others.

  16. cncx*

    I’ve been around the block enough that I think the vast majority of office situations are just the environmental factors being toxic, I can’t think of anyone (including myself having walked away from a weak boss who didn’t have the intellectual capital or emotional tools to, you know, manage) who truly can’t do anything anywhere- some people can work with some dynamics and some can’t. And when enough of the mix is chaotic, people just spiral.

    What I mean is I’ve only met a few people in my 25 year career who were irredeemable and absolutely incapable of staying gainfully employed and playing nice with others; I’ve met more than several people (again including myself) who just spiral if something in the company culture is wrong, and it’s the culture that is hard to change. The most incapable worker in one office can thrive in another, I’ve seen it over and over.

  17. Delta Delta*

    I think there are often multiple factors at play. I think of a toxic job I had where the boss had no leadership experience, an overwhelming caseload, and crushing business expenses. He was already borderline difficult, but adding those factors in made him absolutely intolerable. I suspect if one of those three factors hadn’t been present he wouldn’t have been so bad, but putting it all together created a frappe of terrible. I no longer work there, obviously, but have heard the caseload has been modified somewhat. Does that change him at all? I don’t know, but I suspect he may be able to focus on other things a little differently now.

    I like to think I’m more professionally mature now than I was when I started working. But after leaving the toxic stew I chose to affirmatively incorporate kindness into my work. I don’t think I was unkind before, but in choosing to focus on that I hope I’ve changed for the better.

    1. surely*

      I can very much relate to this comment.

      The very worst boss I ever had almost ruined my health, finances, career, and marriage. She was not suited for leadership roles due to her tendencies to bully, lie and manipulate, and had me illegally fired based on fabrications, nitpicks, and sabotage. I eventually received a settlement, but it took almost a year.

      She’d been a manager for a long time, but was promoted too young (because she was the last person left and they decided they needed to promote someone), but had never been trained or mentored in leadership or management. At the time we worked together, she was carrying a heavier-than-usual workload, and due to her refusal to disconnect from work or take leave, hadn’t had a break for about 2 years.

      I wonder if it would had turned out differently if we had worked together at another time, but I also know it was a pattern of behaviour from her, as evidenced by the extraordinarily high turnover, and her inability to keep new starters on the job for more than a year at most.

      I hate to think of the damage she was allowed to cause to so many people’s lives, careers and finances. But the culture was toxic: the lies the company told in court to try to defend her actions were dispicable.

  18. Darn, heck, and other salty expressions*

    People can and do change all the time. My ex is certainly not the same person I married 30 years prior! The real question is will they change in the direction you want them to change, and will that change be significant enough to improve what you see as a problem. There has to be intrinsic motivation to change. In a boss situation that desire to change may not come from feedback from their direct reports, no matter how valid it may be. The boss may even agree that they need to change but it won’t necessarily give them the intrinsic motivation they need to do so. In this type of situation you need to be willing to walk away if it is important enough to you and there is no significant change.

  19. Chris*

    Asking whether someone can change is a very different question than asking whether you can change someone.

  20. Kes*

    Yeah, I think people have to be both willing and able to change, and in many cases it’s really the willingness that’s the problem. Telling someone what you need them to change doesn’t mean they will listen and accept that feedback, and be willing to make changes. Thanks For the Feedback is a great book about this; it talks about all the things that stop people from absorbing feedback.
    I think there’s three possibilities of response in a work environment: a) They don’t listen to your feedback and don’t change, b) They change but only halfheartedly – they change only because they hear the risk of consequences, but they don’t actually agree or absorb the feedback. This isn’t likely to be lasting change as they are accepting your authority, not the feedback. c) They accept the feedback and try to change as a result. Even then, trying to change may or may not result in them succeeding, or succeeding immediately – change is hard.
    Trying to give feedback upwards is even harder because you’re not going to have b) and there’s a fourth possibility d) they don’t accept it, and they retaliate at you for giving feedback.

    There can also be challenges of ability if someone is struggling with work they’re unsuited for or if there’s something blocking the change – an employee can’t currently succeed at getting to work on time due to their insomnia/depression/lack of good transportation – in which case change on the issue probably won’t happen unless the blocker is first dealt with.

    In general, change is a gradual process – people change over time as they mature and learn (as they gain experience), that’s why we have threads about things people did as junior employees that they would never do now. It’s much harder to force change in a limited period of time and from an external force (especially if internal motivation is not fully aligned)

    1. Sunshine*

      That’s a good point. Even sudden changes often aren’t optimal right away – if it’s in response to a wake-up call kind of moment, the right way forward isn’t always clear even if you know you can’t continue as you were. It can still take time to reach a new standard.

    2. DyneinWalking*

      Yes to your first sentence!
      Willingness is super important for change – in fact, I’d say it’s the very first step of change (followed by step 2 – learning curve/period of reparations).

      And I think what trips people up when they want to assist other people in changing is that these two steps need vastly different types of support – in fact almost exact opposites.
      Someone who already accepted that they need to change and really wants to do so will be going through step 2, the learning/reparations curve. During that period, the biggest challenge is the frustration of being out of their comfort zone while not yet reaping the rewards of the change. A good way to tone down the frustration is to raise expectations gradually and reward intermediate improvements. This needs to be balanced against other people’s resentment who already meet those expectations, so you shouldn’t be too rewarding – but kindness and understanding during that period will go a long way toward helping the person going through with the change, IF they show true effort and commitment.
      If they don’t, that suggests that they are still at step 1, willingness to change. And the only way to support that is to let someone run into all the consequences of their behavior and not shield them from anything (note that this is not the same as punishment!*). Kindness and support during step 1 usually just leads to the person thinking that change is not necessary. Even if the person is otherwise nice and understanding, their commitment to change will be very limited if the need for change didn’t truly sink in. Nothing gets a person out of their comfort zone like making the comfort zone uncomfortable.

      I noticed on this site that people can get really confused that the reactions from Alison and most commenters is not perfectly proportional to the level of wrongdoing described in a letter… and the reason for that the other relevant factor is people’s willingness to change. If a person comes across as fully understanding the problem with their behavior, people here tend to be hugely supportive (gotta make sure that they make it through the frustrating step 2 and don’t give up in between!), while someone who seems nonchalant about their problematic behavior will get a ton of pushback (gotta drag them through step 1 so they even start trying to change!).

      *Punishment: Something that is supposed to make someone feel bad about what they did. Generally only happens because someone not affected by the wrongdoings interferes to make it happen. Examples: Getting grounded, having perks taken away, extra exercises.
      Negative consequences: Happen either as a direct result of the wrongdoings, or are designed to diminish the damage. Examples: Cleaning up one’s own mess, fixing one’s own mistake, paying for one’s purposeful material damage.
      Examples of negative

  21. New to management ish*

    I think theres a difference between growing and change. Both require internalization of weaknesses and desire to do better. One thing I have learned from overseeing my own group of 5 is that motivation varies on an individual basis and the source of that motivation (whether internal or external) will determine how much effort they want to put into it. Growth or change requires a lot of mental and psychological effort in recognizing “I am the problem” and that can be secondary to the full work load someone is given. That is not necessarily an excuse for serious behavior and professional flaws, but I think the ones most willing to have difficult conversations will be the ones more willing to address their issues. Anyone who takes a “its not my problem/fault” mentality and makes endless excuses that alleviates them from blame/contribution will probably never recognize and subsequently grow towards being better.

  22. Chilipepper Attitude*

    I have a follow up question that I hope Alison (or anyone else) sees here or that someone will tell me she answered already.

    Alison (or anyone who does consulting), have you ever consulted at a workplace or with a manager who needs the kinds of changes Alison describes here? Do they listen? Do they change? Can a workplace culture change?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I used to work with a consulting organization whose whole thing was coaching high-level leaders to be better managers. We would screen clients beforehand and wouldn’t take them on if we didn’t think they were committed to making changes, because we’d learned from experience that it wasn’t a good use of our time otherwise. Of the ones we did take on, a LOT made real changes. Some tried but struggled. Sometimes they ended up being able to change X and Y but not Z.

      But that first screening step was key — there was no point to investing in the work with them if they weren’t really bought into changing because this stuff is hard and painful to change and people who aren’t already convinced of the need won’t do it.

      1. surely*

        Were you ever able to rehabilitate a bullying manager, Alison?

        From my own experience, I think a bullying manager who is vindictive and self-absorbed should never be put in a position of influence or power in a workplace.

        The only bullying managers I’ve ever seen rehabilitated were the two who were genuinely horrified when they realised what they’d done to people. But for both of them , that realisation only landed when they were subjected to the same treatment they’d inflicted on others: they were both fired for problems with performance that were either manufactured, or highly exaggerated. (They both could have been fired for workplace bullying, but oddly, this was not the case in either instance.)

        1. tamarack etc.*

          I’m not Alison of course, and I think her point about pre-screening is smart and illuminating, and speaks of practical experience.

          I’ve however seen examples that are relevant to the question. More than once I’ve seen a manager being brought in with a negative reputation who, then, turned out to be actually fine. One vivid example was a school that was getting a new headmaster/principal. This was a guy with a terrible reputation as a bully. Screaming, yelling at teachers, demeaning students etc.. He was a few years from retirement and it was understood that the atmosphere at his previous school had become so toxic, that the powers that be decided to move him to a school whose principal had retired. This happened to be a smallish, pretty low-in-problems, socially privileged school. (This was in a public school system in Europe, where the school had no say in the appointment of the principal and the principal had no power to hire or fire teachers for example.) Anyhow, he arrived to *considerable* apprehension and … nothing. No yelling; no bullying; no demeaning. An affable guy who was competent enough not to drive the vehicle that was puttering along off the well-appointed road. I have no doubt that he had been a bully – I guess he was just … done. Probably the constant conflict at his previous job had made him a lot worse, and being put in a situation where his best interest was to be passive and accommodating he was just that. He retired a few years later.

          1. Monty*

            Wow! That’s quite the interesting situation. I’m glad that he turned out not to be the bully in the new school. Sadly, I can’t help but wonder if discrimination wasn’t a factor in his bullying behavior in the less privileged school. Classism and / or racism could have been why he was mistreating the folks at the other school. I’ve seen this happen — some people will be perfectly nice to some groups of people, but an absolute terror to others. Unfortunately, I’ve been on the receiving end of this myself.

  23. Pyanfar*

    My experience with subordinates and truly “just work” issues has been 50% — about half make the changes needed to be good to great employees and the other half don’t. If the issues are more soft skill than hard skill, my success rate has been a bit lower (like an assistant project manager with zero proactivity). YMMV

    1. surely*

      I may be in the minority here, but the only workers I’ve come across who have been unwilling or unable to change for the better are people in positions of power or influence: the most common group being bad managers (usually bullies), and a minority being non-managers who are somehow protected, usually by being someone’s child, family member, friend, and so on.

  24. surely*

    A bad manager can be life-ruining: destructive to your health, finances, relationships, well-being, and career. They can ruin your chances of getting another decent job, or any job at all, due to the over-reliance on reference checking in the recruitment process, and the assumption that managers are always right (which is also what leads to good people being fired).

    On the other hand, a bad employee can be extremely irritating, disruptive, and infuriating, but very, very rarely are they as damaging as a bad manager. Indeed, it takes a bad manager of some kind supporting that bad employee for it to become ruinous the same way a bad manager often is. And that’s because of where power in the workplace is actually centred.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with some phenomenal leaders and managers, and the extreme misfortune of working with some managers who are not only bad, but absolutely life- and career-ruiningly awful: toxic, vindictive, gaslighting liars who seemed to take genuine pleasure in having people fired for no reason, twisting laws and policy to make it happen. The bad employees I’ve worked with are irrelevant in comparison. But basically all of this ruinous damage can be stopped by a good culture that is transparent and fair, and takes a zero-tolerance approach to nonsense like bullying.

    I’ve been a manager for more than a decade now, and I certainly know what not to do from working with those truly horrific managers. But that said, I don’t think I would ever have fabricated documentation to have an employee fired because they were good at their job and it made me feel threatened. I also don’t think I would lie on people’s performance reviews, or block people’s transfers, or steal money and tell HR the employee I didn’t like was the one who did it, or tell HR an employee wasn’t performing based on a mix of lies, exaggerations, and nitpicks of minor non-issues, all while making it impossible for the person to do their job through micromanagement, sabotage, and other means.

    I think a majority of managers are not suited for management, but I think the culture of the workplace has a very serious impact: if the higher-ups don’t tolerate this sort of garbage behaviour, then the bad mangers will either shape up or ship out. Or be shipped out. In a really good culture, where employees are believed as much as managers are (and full, objective investigations are conducted), even the sneakiest of bad or abusive manager will find it almost impossible to be an awful manager or generally destructive force, and even managers who are a poor fit for their roles can either be improved, or moved to a different role where they can thrive as an individual contributor.

    1. Tired*

      I have to agree with you, surely. You also have my sympathy and commiseration for having gone through that. It’s an awful experience, particularly if you have to go through it more than once, as it looks like we both have. People forget how much luck and timing play into success in the workplace, including avoiding bad managers.

      Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of good or even excellent managers out there, and even more okay or adequate ones. But IMHO, even one bad manager is too many bad managers, and unfortunately, my own experience shows me that ‘bad’ managers of varying sorts are the majority, although whether this a slight majority, or a larger one, does depend. There are certainly organizations that are very effective in not promoting or hiring bad managers in the first place.

      If I had my way, I would fire every single bad manager and prohibit them from ever managing again. They are not only a liability for the companies that permit them to wreak havoc but are also, as you said, life-ruining. I actually am at the point where I don’t care if bad managers can learn and improve from their mistakes because they don’t grant that grace to anyone who has had to suffer under their lack of leadership. I have no patience left for them whatsoever.

  25. Team Vorkosigan*

    I feel like I read a Substack article recently that was discussing the way that women in particular have been sold this myth that anything can be fixed if they just try hard enough. Of course, this is mostly regarding the invisible work that goes into maintaining & improving relationships, but there’s certainly something to be said of how this plays out into the workplace too. Especially for how this work is rewarded (or not, as it were).

    To be clear, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to improve others around you, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing to opt out of it either.

    To those in a workplace situation, I would question why you specifically are the right person to take on the task.

  26. tamarack etc.*

    It’s one of these paradoxes we grapple with: A lot of people actually do change – their approach to relationships, their political affiliation, and, yes, their workplace attitudes – but seeing them change when we desperately want them to, and even try our best to facilitate this change, is extremely rare.

    I believe that everyone can change, but that isn’t really relevant: what’s relevant is whether someone will change. That’s a smaller number to start out with. But even if they will change at some time, when the circumstances are favorable, it’s unlikely they will change exactly when you need them to.

    If your work life is miserable in January 2023 it won’t help you that they’ll have an epiphany in May 2025. On the scale of a work career the 2-3 year lapse is rather minor, but on the scale of a team it’s major. Now, in January 2023, they don’t feel enough pain or uncertainty about their style / course of action, and they probably are getting positive reinforcement from their boss or peers. They easily rationalize away your requests, criticism, flags or feedback.

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – indeed, we may inadvertently give the decisive message to someone we actually don’t need to change so badly. It’s a messy world, but cultures are changed through small actions in the aggregate.

  27. Tired*

    I apologize in advance for the length of this comment, but my job of many years now involves trying to fix serious problems caused by these exact issues, so perhaps my experiences may provide some useful insights.

    Can bad employees change? Yes, although it depends on what you mean by “bad”. Is the “problem” actually a barrier that is pointlessly being put in place, like forcing someone to work at the office five days a week, despite it meaning they face a 2+ hour commute each way that exhausts them when they are perfectly able to work from home? Or does the problem not actually exist other than in the mind of a bad manager, who is clueless about what the job actually requires or what “good” performance in that job looks like, or is just abusive of their power?

    A poor match between a person and their job can happen, of course, but this is something that is often the fault of management. Think the job being “oversold” or misrepresented, or even the job changing with time, and the person not receiving adequate support. A lack of training and support being provided to someone who is actually a good fit for the role can also end up being presented as a poor job fit, when it’s really just poor management, but they want to blame the worker for it. If you have impatience or intolerance for questions of any kind, minor mistakes, or even clarity being sought for something that has not been explained adequately, do not become a people manager.

    The more important question in my mind is if bad managers can change. Again, it depends on what you mean by “bad”, but if you mean someone who wants power and glory at any cost, and/or is dishonest, manipulative, self-serving, mean, overly critical, judgemental, a bully, or abusive, then no. Same goes if they either flout or abuse systems, processes, policies, and laws. If their actions result in even one person losing their job and livelihood that did not deserve it, then no, the likelihood of them being willing or able to be changed into a good, or even non-bad, manager is practically non-existent.

    Here’s my two cents, having worked in law, people management, and even in HR. If you are in a position of power at work and you abuse it, particularly to the point that you cause undeserved harm to others and their ability to earn a living, even for a short time, then you do not deserve a second chance at holding a position of power. You have already shown that you have no empathy, no sympathy, no compassion, and no patience, and you do not deserve to have it extended to you.

    Every time I have seen someone powerful given another chance to hold power at work, even if they are reprimanded for their bad actions (but not fired), they abuse it. Why? Because they have gotten away with it. The only time I have ever seen actual change is if they themselves are punished by being fired, or at least very severely demoted. But even then, it doesn’t always work, as some of them will again abuse power if they happen to get it back. Some people should not be given power, or even influence, at all.

    People all too quickly assume that managers are always right, and always tell the truth. They are quick to assume that anyone who has been put on a PIP, or fired for “poor” performance, deserves it. Perhaps this provides them with a sense of comfort that such injustice will never befall them out of the bad luck or timing of having to deal with a bad manager? And it is certainly possible for people to encounter this scenario multiple times. It is, after all, merely luck – I had two terrible managers in a row, followed by two good ones, then a bad one, then an amazing one, then two more terrible managers, and then another amazingly good one, all back-to-back.

    This moralising of “they were clearly a Bad Employee who deserved it” is misplaced in a majority of cases, and all too often blames the victim, rather than hold those who have abused their power to account. People only tend to understand it once they’ve finally been through it themselves, or someone close to them has. I’m really quite tired of it.

  28. Dennis Feinstein*

    Yes they can change. That’s the whole purpose of education – I learned/believed X, but now I’ve found it’s Y and I can respond accordingly. (Of course not everybody does this, but many of us do).
    I think if a person is truly capable of self reflection & honesty, they can change.
    I became a manager by default about 20 years ago. I didn’t like it and wasn’t good at it. If I HAD to manage again I’d be much better at it because I’m more aware of my own strengths & weaknesses. (But I’d never seek out a management position again because I know it’s not my cup of tea).
    Also, people may not be able to change their personalities, but they can certainly change their behaviour.

  29. Dunno*

    I’m not really sure what to make of this question. Maybe because I’ve had too many bad bosses, and seen too many companies protect them against all odds and logic, basically no matter what they do to their employees?

    So. Can bad employees and bad managers change? This depends on if they want to, or more commonly, if they have to. Bad managers are protected a lot of the time by senior leadership, so they don’t usually have to change. The status quo suits them, no matter how toxic it is for everyone else, and bad managers are not usually the civic-minded types. If it doesn’t impact them, they don’t care.

    Bad employees are more likely to be forced to change, but it depends on if they are also somehow protected by someone senior.

    But a bad manager is a much, much bigger problem than a bad non-manager employee.

    Let me put it this way: my worst ever colleague was mostly just inconvenient, and my worst ever manager almost succeeded in having me unlawfully dismissed during the GFC, which would have resulted in my family and I ending up on the streets.

    I was able to work around my worst ever colleague, Bob, by making sure that I had a solid paper trail of emails explaining that I could not complete Task A by the required deadline without Bob providing XYZ first. This meant they could have Task A by the deadline but missing the 50% of it that was reliant upon XYZ being provided, or that Bon would need to provide XYZ ASAP and the deadline would need to be extended by a minimum of half its original lead time. I learned early in my career after working with a notorious white-anter of a manager who loved to try and undermine people that I needed to protect myself against becoming any sort of scapegoat.

    My worst ever manager, Kim, was an actual problem. She lied on 3 of my performance reviews in a row, and put me on an unlawful performance management plan as a result. Kim even forged my signature on these documents, so it appeared that I accepted her lies about my performance. The actual performance reviews she gave me, which I had signed, were very positive, and sadly for Kim, I had copies of all 3 of them. It became very messy, but her division head protected her. I was moved to another department, and she was allowed to keep bullying people for years until new senior leadership came in and finally had the courage and sense to fire her.

    Bob was a nuisance and at his worst, interfered with deadlines. Kim caused my health to suffer very badly, and almost lost me my job at a particularly difficult time financially, as my husband had been laid off and it took him almost a year to find another decent job (again, this was during the GFC). Our children were 8 and 6 years old at the time. Bob caused me irritation. Kim caused me significant stress and worry that we would lose our home. The two do not compare.

  30. Julia*

    I’ve had at least one manager improve after I left a job working for them. I don’t think the change wasn’t related to me leaving, but it was nice to know things improved for the next person.

    A couple bad coworkers I’ve worked with ended up improving their behavior at new jobs or under new managers. I’ve also been a difficult employee who had better success with different managers.

    So much depends on what the problem is and how big a change is needed.

  31. Lilith*

    I had a terrible manager change while I was working for her – I put the change solely down to a new exec coming in, seeing the problem (and not through us telling her, as we were all too beaten down by this point) and putting a lot of effort into coaching and working with my manager to develop better ways of managing people.

    It didn’t benefit me, as by that point it had been too long working with that stress and terror and I was soured of the whole organisation, but I believe the person that came after me had a good relationship with that manager.

  32. kiki*

    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.”

    I think in this scenario, it’s unlikely that somebody would likely immediately get how inappropriate it is because to think putting hexes on your coworkers is fine likely means your sense of professionalism is extremely off-base.

    But it can happen! Just probably over time, not within a day or two after one discussion. I love that Alison has had a series where readers reflect on their cringe-iest behaviors early in their careers because so many people DO change and become radically more professional, it just happens over time in such a way that they look back and can’t even believe what they used to do.

  33. Someone Else's Boss*

    LW #1 – I practice the “check three, then me” approach. My team knows that their first step is to search their email (I send weekly emails with all new procedures, so these are easy to find), their second step is to check our shared files/how to guides, and their third step is to ask their colleagues. If they still can’t solve the problem, they can come to me. This was an absolute game changer. By giving them the specific steps, they don’t feel lost and know at least where to start. If someone still comes to me often, I ask “What happened when you asked your colleagues?” or a similar question to see what steps they took. I am not demeaning (I never say, “Did you try the three steps first??”) but nor do I give in and answer every question they have.

  34. megaboo*

    Here’s what bothers me. Helga or whatever is placing curses on their coworkers, or eating spicy food and getting the food bringer in trouble…so many stories on here. They are mollified and if I tried that I would be fired or on a PIP. I told my mom that I would one day just love to be a complete b, but it will never happen.

  35. EmmaPoet*

    I’m thinking of the LW who bit her coworker, and that not being considered at all bizarre by anyone at that company, including the bitee.

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