A Good Manager Is Hard to Find

by Stephanie Stern

Last year, a Gallup poll found that a lowly 30 percent of Americans are actually happy at work, and many complained of “bosses from hell” as a major reason. The truth is that it’s difficult to be a good manager. A good manager should, ideally, both direct your work and help you grow in your skills and career. She should be supportive, provide timely feedback, and help when you are stuck. She should be able to do all of this on top of the work that she needs to do herself. It’s said that people are promoted to the point of their incompetence, and this is especially true when it comes to management, since dealing with people is a skill that few people actively cultivate. And there are so, so many ways to be a bad manager.

The Micromanager
Managing requires a delicate balance of giving people responsibility and autonomy, but also support so they don’t feel abandoned. This is a hard balance to achieve, and many managers end up veering towards too much “support” or micromanaging. They get involved in details that are not essential and/or really should be left up to the person actually doing the work. A micromanager might tell you exactly how to set up a room, how to phrase an email, or what to wear to a meeting. In a previous job, I helped host focus groups and was responsible for setting out food and checking people in. My boss had very clear notions of what the display of food said about the organization and often gave me incredibly specific instructions for how I should arrange pomegranate chicken on a platter.

The Lazy Manager
Managers can be bad because they do too much — or too little. My friend had a manager that he described as having a “Path of Least Resistance Management Style.” That is, least resistance for herself. Essentially, it meant that she would just forward emails from clients to her team, and then, in turn, forward their responses onto the client. She was essentially just a useless, and highly paid, middleman.

The Threatened Manager
The best managers are secure in their own abilities, which enables them to solicit other people’s opinions, tell you that they don’t know something, and appreciate areas where their employees can contribute things that they cannot do. Yet, so many managers are not secure about their own abilities, and end up seeing their employees as threats to their own power and position. This might mean that the boss doesn’t hire quality people, or doesn’t encourage their development, especially in ways that might encroach on their turf.

The Avoider Manager
Another keystone of good management is clear communication. From large things, like goals for the year, to small ones, like who will write up the agenda for an upcoming meeting, we work the best with people when our roles and expectations are clearly spelled out. They can’t avoid the hard stuff either. I had a boss at a previous job who hated asking her employees for things — so much so, that she often waited until the last minute, and then did it over instant message, despite the fact that the office was only six people and she was about 50 feet away. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to anyone.

The Petty Manager
One tragic trait of bad management is when your boss gets upset over trivial things. Or worse, they use you as pawn in a larger, but still petty, battle. The best (and I mean worst) story about this comes from my friend Colin: When he was working as a production assistant, he had to deliver some materials that had gotten misplaced to an assistant at another company. It was routine, and he easily delivered the materials. Yet, his boss said that the other assistant’s boss had complained that Colin had been rude, and forced Colin to write an apology letter that included the phrase “a thousand apologies.” It turned out that Colin’s boss and the other organization’s manager had bad blood, and poor Colin and the other assistant had been caught in the cross-fire.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are cheap managers (who won’t pay for small things that will make employees lives easier and more productive), there are overly demanding bosses, absent ones, and many other types that I have yet to experience. For the most part, bad managers don’t mean to be bad, they usually just don’t know better, and don’t think about work from their employees’ perspectives.

Sometimes carefully constructed feedback to your manager can help, especially if there is something concrete they can improve on, or if there are areas that you need help in or want to become more involved in. We can’t expect managers, even good ones, to read our minds.

Even without giving feedback, if you’re like me, suffering from a less than perfect manager, there may be things you can to do balance your manager’s style. My manager has tendencies towards being absent, so I’ve make it a point to schedule regular check ins with her. This helps me both gain clarity about her expectations, and makes me feel more appreciated and connected to her. It’s easy to blame your manager, after all, it is their job to manage well, but it’s also worth asking: What can you do differently?

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

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