Four types of dysfunctional manager

Share this page

Written by Jim McLaughlin on 16 September 2014 in Features

Problem managers are indeed a problem, and this is hard to rectify, Jim McLaughlin says

A while ago I saw a neighbour rushing back to his house looking queasy and a bit distressed. It was 7.15am.  A bit unusual, I thought, so I paused to ask if he was okay. At that point, his wife emerged and confided: “He hates his job (or rather his boss); it makes him nauseous sometimes.” He was a solicitor.

As L&D professionals, we are often involved in working with poorly performing managers. Be it at selection, through initial or ongoing training or through rectification of problems via performance management, development or coaching. Given the misery they can cause, it’s an important responsibility to both the organisation and to our colleagues. 

A meta study of 27 of the most reliable pieces of research by Dr. Kuoppala Jaana of Siinto, Kiiskilampi, Finland found moderately strong evidence that good leadership led to 27 per cent reduction in occasional absence and a 46 per cent reduction in long-term absence. Other studies have found increased incidence of anxiety disorders, depression, strokes and heart attacks where managers and leaders are considered bad.

As a reason for absence, bad management is top of the list with bad backs.

Obviously, the best way to reduce the problem is through effective screening at recruitment and at promotion. However, if you do find yourself with dysfunctional managers, here are some thoughts on diagnosing and dealing with them:

  1. The bully

This manager uses anger or fear to manage individuals or teams. Colleagues dread when they enter the workspace and feel relieved when they are on holiday or otherwise absent. They have the most directly corrosive impact on colleagues, particularly their favourite victims.

Dealing with this type depends on whether they are conscious of their behaviour or not – whether it is a deliberate set of tactics or whether it is an aspect of their personality. Either way, it’s worth starting with rigorous 360-degree appraisal to assemble a balanced picture of how the individual manages. Then you need to deconstruct the negative behaviour. How they talk to colleagues, tone of emails, how they run meetings, delegate, follow up, hold performance conversations, coach, supervise, resolve problems. But deep down, this work often also requires a values shift to help them recalibrate how they see colleagues, their toleration of difference, their norms around courtesy and respect.

It may be that you need to use the performance management system to challenge their style. It’s helpful if you have some form of statement that defines the style of management in the organisation – a description of management competencies and style that describes what good management looks like in terms of respect, engagement and consultation with colleagues. If you are heading down the outplacement route, you will need to show categorically that they failed to meet the expected standards of a manager and it may be a long battle. You will need the strenuous commitment of senior leaders to follow through but it is worth parting company with this type of manager for the good of your colleagues.

2.  The climber

Excessive self-orientation is the hallmark of the climber. They invest heavily in looking good to those above with little attention to those below. They use every opportunity to present themselves in a good light and this often means diminishing or claiming the deeds of others. They are intensely political and see peers as competitors, their team as promotion fodder.

At the very least, the managers’ boss needs to use some form of evidence from the workfloor to guide and direct this employee. Best of all, if the employee recognises that his or her performance is dependent on producing a highly engaged, high performing team and that personal schmoozing or positioning will not compensate for failing to do that. You might seek a coach that is willing to have the tough conversation along these lines:

“… A theme that emerges is that people see you as self-oriented and not team-oriented. What specifically do you do to enable such a view of you to emerge? … How does this fit with what directors and boards are looking for in the next level of management? … How would you prefer to be viewed and what can you do to achieve that?”

Using colleague opinion in promotion boards helps. Most people are reasonable and not revengeful.

It may also help to counsel the most senior managers to be aware of the engagement levels of this manager’s team (if they are not) and to be conscious to not encourage “climbing” behaviour. I once supported a CEO saying to a director: “I judge a manager by the quality of their team, not by how they present their own brilliance. Part of my job is to be aware of any disparity between how people self-present and the reality on the ground.” This refocused the manager in question immediately.

3.  The incompetent

Out of their depth on the content of the job, indecisive, weak, lazy, not as good as some of the team members, chaotic, lacking managerial skills. Incompetence comes in many forms.

If they are liked, often the team will cover for or tolerate an incompetent manager. If they are disliked, discontent will mount quickly, particularly if they are weak.

When faced with such a person, you have to ask honestly “is this rectifiable or is this a recruitment/promotion mistake that is unlikely to be resolved with support and development?” If your honest answer is “mistake”, you have to act quickly to redeploy or move them on. It’s not fair that an employer should affect the working lives of team members by supporting an under-performer with little hope of recovery.

If you think the situation is rectifiable, it must start with an honest conversation about development needs. The person should be in no doubt as to how their performance is regarded. Then a structured and supervised development programme starting with the high-impact items can be put in place. It can mix self-development with external support. It works well to anchor this in an Improvement Action Plan that needs to be reviewed against evidence of practice periodically.

4.  The micromanager

Micromanagers exhaust, deskill and undermine their team. They kill discretionary effort and they massively reduce job satisfaction. They contribute to stress by removing the locus of control from the individual.

Some aspects that require attention are: What is driving this behaviour? Is it anxiety that the team is not likely to perform?  Is the anxiety well founded and, if so, what is the manager doing about this? Is it a style they have inherited from a previous context that doesn’t fit around here?  Is it an aspect of their neuroticism? Retraining – either through participation in a course or through coaching can be successful if the manager can adopt a full understanding of

  • the adverse impact of their micro-managing behaviour
  • situational leadership and
  • a well-formed delegation routine.

As we can see, problem managers are indeed a problem. They are hard to rectify and it is not always possible to develop them out of negative behaviours. However, you will find it invaluable to be able to base conversations on well-collected feedback, coupled with clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable in terms of relating to colleagues. Google has a “no jerks” policy. More colourfully, you could adopt what Dr Robert Sutton of Stanford University calls A No Asshole Policy in a book of the same name.  One of the greatest services we can do to a business and to our colleagues is to help refuse entry or otherwise sort out these individuals when we see them. It will certainly be life-enhancing and it could be life-saving.


About the author

Jim McLaughlin

Optima and Co


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.

Related Articles

30 January 2023

TJ’s editor selects news, views and research from the world of HR, talent and learning. 

24 January 2023

In another article on supporting wellbeing at work Cass Coulston and Ricardo Twumasi examine neurodiversity

16 January 2023

As lack of motivation and engagement grips organisations, Giora Morein suggests that agile methodology could be the way to re-energise flagging employees 


Related Sponsored Articles

14 January 2022

Anthony Santa Maria on how personalised learning builds future-ready workforces

5 January 2015

Vincent Belliveau, Senior Vice President & General Manager EMEA at Cornerstone OnDemand, explores the benefits of internal recruitment

15 December 2021

We need to do a better job of preparing young people for the world of work, so they can make informed choices and build fulfilling careers.