This year I’ve been keeping a list of the unique behaviors I observe in the best and worst managers I meet. You might be surprised how much you miss when you’re not really paying attention and how many valuable lessons you can learn when you do. I try to apply the best of what I see to my own game and make sure I avoid the bad stuff as much as I possibly can. Of course, I also share my thoughts with you to help you learn from it as well.
This week I’m going to share four behaviors – habits really – I consistently observe in the worst managers I meet, and almost never see in the best. To be fair, if you’ve been known to do a few of these from time to time, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad manager. But it does mean you have a tendency toward a few bad manager behaviors. Whenever I inadvertently commit these mistakes, I make note of it so that over time I will rid myself of them for good. Management prowess is not a binary thing. There’s no clear goodness or badness … we’re all moving along a continuum. The most important thing is that you’re heading in the right direction and actively trying to improve your qualities as a manager.
The question for today: What are 4 things great managers almost NEVER do?
I should start by saying this is not going to be an exhaustive list. I’m certain there are many more. But this year, as I’ve made note of the best and worst things I see managers do, these 4 jumped out at me over and over again. Truth be told, I’ve probably committed a couple of these myself so don’t be too alarmed if you find yourself in a few of these. But do take notice and consider what you can do to reduce or avoid them in the future.
4 Things Great Managers NEVER do:
1. Embarrass a manager in front of their employees.
This one is for managers of managers. I see it happen much more frequently than you might imagine, and it can be crippling to a team. The typical scenario is a quarterly review or other major meeting where a leader, a team manager and her staff are all present. For whatever reason, the meeting is not going well. The results aren’t good. The leader, due to frustration and anger, rips into the team manager and goes way beyond a critical analysis of the team’s performance. It is clear, to all in the room (including her team) that the leader has lost confidence in the manager.
When you do this, you might as well just fire the team manager. It’s impossible to manage and motivate a team when they all know your boss has lost confidence in you. This situation leads to insubordination and the complete evaporation of engagement and accountability.
My recommendation to leaders is to stick to objective analysis and critique of performance in these group settings. If you’re frustrated and angry, keep the manager afterwards and be hard on her then. Don’t embarrass a manager in front of her team.
2. Defend their people no matter what.
This one is the almost the opposite of the first one and may raise a few eyebrows at first. It is nuanced to be fair. Yes, you should always support your people. Great managers go to bat for their teams. Great managers protect their employees when times are tough. BUT … great managers do not defend unfair, unethical or inappropriate behavior, no matter whose behavior it is. Some of you might think this one is obvious but I’ve seen it several times this year already. There is a segment of the leadership population who have adopted a “defend at all costs” mentality. If a team member screws up, they’ll defend it. If a team member is rude to a fellow employee, they’ll defend it. If a team member acts inappropriately they’ll try to sweep it under the rug. Ostensibly this is solidarity but in my opinion its unacceptable. It sets a terrible example for your team and can led to serious cultural issues at the company.
My recommendation to managers is to defend on a case by case basis. There is no blanket approach that works in this circumstance. If a team member has made an honest mistake, then defend the person but acknowledge the error. Don’t just blindly defend or deflect no matter what. If a team member has acted inappropriately or unethically, you need to call it out and fight against it. As a leader, you are responsible for upholding the organization’s values and your own moral code. You can’t just defend bad behavior because the offender is on your team. Call it out. Make it right. Ask yourself if this is someone you really want on your team.
3. Turn on your team when things go bad.
This one is pretty ugly, but it happens quite a bit. You’re preparing to review a project with your boss’s boss. Naturally you do a preview session with your boss beforehand to get his blessing on the work and to make sure there are no surprises. In the preview meeting, your boss loves the work, he’s thrilled. Then the big meeting takes place and its clear it’s not going well. It’s totally missing the mark and your boss’s boss is not happy. Surely your manager will have your back since you aligned ahead of time on the approach right? Not always, I’m afraid. Some managers – the not so good ones – have a tendency to switch sides and start openly critiquing the work to save their own skin. Sound familiar? It’s quite gross actually.
I know exactly what it feels like to be every party in this scenario. I’ve been turned against, and I’ve also felt like jumping ship and saving myself when I realized the team’s work wasn’t as good as I thought it was. But you cannot do that. You can’t turn on your team. If you do, you’ll lose them forever. No matter how embarrassing or painful it might feel. No matter how much damage you think it may do to you personally, you just can’t bail on the team when they did all the right things and aligned with you ahead of time. You just have to take the hit, go back and try again.
4. Talk negatively about staff in front of their peers.
This is another one that seems like it should be obvious but it’s really not. I’ve actually seen more of this in the last 5 years than I had previously, though I’m not exactly sure why. The scenario is, you’re in a meeting with a few employees about some topic or project. For whatever reason, another employee is mentioned in connection to an issue or mistake but is not present in the room. The manager, who is perpetually frustrated with this employee, rolls his eyes or makes a snide remark about the incompetence of the team member in front of her peers.
When you do this, a few things happen. The first one is you’re giving permission to the employees in the room to behave the way you do. You’re setting a terrible example for how to treat staff when they’re not present. Whether you realize it or not, your own mistake is made exponential as you inspire others to gossip and belittle other team members as you do. The second one is you’re basically making it impossible for the employee you’ve belittled to be successful in the company. Now, everyone knows you don’t respect them which will make it incredibly difficult for that person to operate effectively on the team anymore. People will distance themselves from the person. Team members won’t want to align to their initiatives anymore. It actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One eye roll about a team member in front of their peers can set off a chain of events that almost guarantee failure for that person in the company. The last thing that happens is the other team members in the room, while they might giggle or nod when you make comments about their peer, are really thinking: “hmmm, I wonder if he says this about ME when I’m not here …?”
My recommendation to managers is to hold it in. I know you’re frustrated. I know it’s the tenth time you’ve seen that person drop the ball. I know you want people to know you’re aware of the problem. I know it feels easier to make some snide remark in front of a group than to actually have the hard conversation with the employee in question. But you must.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I’m certain this list is not exhaustive. I hope the ones I have shared with you are helpful as you work on your own management skills. I’d really like to hear about some of the things you’ve witnessed lately that we can add to the list.