Bad Manager: 5 Signs of a Bad Manager

In their “The State of the American Manager” study, Gallup found that half (50%) of all Americans have left a job to “get away from their manager at some point in their career.”

We’ve said it before, but it begs repeating: employees leave managers, not companies. And a bad manager can make employees leave in waves.

A good manager can have a huge impact on not only the well-being, but the engagement and productivity of their team, as former Intel CEO Andy Grove pointed out in his classic, High Output Management:

onboarding process is within your control as a manager

Unfortunately, a bad manager can have exactly the opposite effect as Grove speaks to. A bad manager can crush engagement and motivation, tank productivity, and generally make coming to work a dread for their entire team.

In the same Gallup report, they found that “the manager accounts for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement.” In the case of a bad manager, that lowered engagement then compounds into higher turnover among a variety of other problems:

signs of a bad manager

What is a bad manager?

Becoming a manager is a career shift just as much as deciding a profession you want to study in school. It requires learning new skills and taking on different responsibilities.

As much as you might like to think that every one of your managers has the best of intentions, they may not be a good fit for management at all.

The signs are often all around us when someone isn’t a good fit to become a manager. Yet, it’s easy for them to take the job anyways due to money, prestige, or simply inevitability because they’ve been around long enough.

Today we’ll look at some of the most common warning signs that someone is likely to be a bad manager and the consequences from those signs being ignored.

Promote team members with caution!

Read more about the impact managers have on retaining their teams here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

5 Signs of a Bad Manager

1) They do it for the money, not the actual job responsibilities

At many companies, the only way to keep getting raises and “advance” through your career is to move into management.  This puts pressure on people to consider management even if they’re not excited about the prospects of becoming a manager.

While money is fair to be part of anyone’s work motivation, it’s a big warning sign you might be making a bad manager choice if their top motivation is this.

The consequence: If someone took the job for the money, they’re likely to hide from problems that could lead to them being removed.  They’re also unlikely to admit there are issues and ask for help as they worry that would cost them a much coveted financial boost.

2) They don’t like dealing with people

Not everyone wants to spend their days helping fix people issues, listening to the problems of others, and developing people.  If they’re not excited to do those things, they probably shouldn’t be a manager.

This one is particularly damaging to team members. Gallup’s recent study found that managers that don’t take an active interest in their people have teams that are almost entirely not engaged, and the majority are even actively disengaged and checked out:

Bad managers that don't care about rapport have disengaged teams.

The consequence: Without rapport, there’s no trust, empathy, or candor in your relationship with their team. Problems will fester and grow until they blow up because the team won’t come to them when they’re easy to fix. This leads to the manager constantly in reactive management mode and frustrating their team.

Want to learn and keep the habits of great managers who deal well with their people? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse here.

Bad managers keep all the good individual contributor tasks for themselves.

3) They don’t want to give up individual contributor work

Particularly for engineers and others in creative roles, it can be hard to give up doing individual work.  It’s easy to want to take the new manager title and keep doing lots of the “fun” individual contributor tasks.

Unfortunately, that’s an easy way to short change all their managerial responsibilities.  And since managers set priorities and delegate tasks, it’s easy to assign all the best work to themselves.

The consequence: If they try to do all the work themselves, their team won’t get the help they need. The team may also resent their manager if they constantly take the “good work” and leave them less desirable tasks. There’s a reason the saying goes, Leaders eat last.”

Bad managers have a fixed mindset, not a growth mindset

4) They don’t have a Growth Mindset

The Growth Mindset is the idea that any skill can be learned. No one is simply “a natural” and others doomed to never be good at it.  It takes hard work, but with effort, anyone can learn and improve at a skill.

Your best employees will have a growth mindset, learning new skills often. Promoting anyone with the opposite mindset (a Fixed Mindset) is a tremendous risk.  Their attitudes not only then impact them, but their teams.

The consequence: First and foremost, a manager with a Fixed Mindset will personally suffer because there is too much to learn as a manager to not embrace your own need to learn new things.

Even worse, this Fixed Mindset will then multiply across their team as their team members won’t grow, they may get bored with their job, get frustrated about being boxed into doing the same things all the time, and ultimately leave for growth opportunities beyond your company.

bad managers hate their jobs

5) They hate their job

If someone is clearly unhappy at work, then promoting them to manager is just going to create a bad manager. They’re likely to still be an unhappy, grouchy, unmotivated employee who now spreads that attitude to their team.

The effect of this has been captured by Gallup in more of their research in something they call the “Cascade Effect” which shows that disengaged managers have teams more likely to also not be engaged:

Bad managers create problems called the cascade effect

The consequence:  On top of hurting everyone on their team by setting an example of disdain for work, it hurts your growth; how can a bad manager hire effectively if they can’t sell why working here is great?

How can companies avoid promoting bad managers?

The team of a bad manager suffers most in all of these cases. A single bad manager can hurt your retention of not just the manager, but everyone that reports to them potentially costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to replace everyone.

This is a decision to not take likely, so how can you avoid creating bad managers in your organization?

bad managers can be avoided by giving them an alternative growth path

1) Create a growth path for individual contributors

If the only way for employees to advance in their career at your company and get pay raises is to become a manager, you will continue to attract people to the roles that shouldn’t take them.

You have to create a path for individual contributors if you want to eliminate this problem. As Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOMoz writes:

“I worry that some significant portion of that expressed desire doesn’t come from a true passion for the responsibilities of people managing, but instead exists because they want to level up their career and/or influence and believe this to be the only path.

When people see that their deep and growing individual contributor experience is valued and can be leveraged even more as they advance, you will find that they will no longer consider people management roles.

bad manager could be a great iC

2) Promote based on a level of aptitude and interest in people skills

This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s amazing how many companies will simply make someone a manager because they like them, or they’re a great individual contributor.

The skills required to succeed are different and even the best person can be set up for failure without help.

Start developing your employees to be managers *before* you need to promote them.  Simple things like empathy and people skills are easy to learn by first leading small projects, managing an intern, and reading great books like How to Win Friends and Influence People.

bad manager dilbert

3) Make it safe for a manager to decide it’s not for them

People may think they want to be a manager, but once they start doing the job they find they’re unhappy. Unfortunately, it’s hard to admit that, especially if doing so means a demotion and/or pay cut.

Sadly, managers in this situation feel embarrassed and unsupported, so to save face, they leave for an individual contributor role at another company.

Returning to an IC role is good for everyone.

If instead there’s a graceful way for a bad manager to transition to a different role that’s a better fit, you spare their team as much as you help them. Otherwise, either the team all leaves/transfers or the manager quits (or in particularly bad situations both happen at once).

Dale Carnegie has a great story about how GE kept a brilliant engineer who had failed as a manager:

“Steinmetz, a genius of the first magnitude when it came to electricity, was a failure as the head of the calculating department. Yet the company didn’t dare offend the man. He was indispensable – and highly sensitive.

So they gave him a new title. They made him Consulting Engineer of the General Electric Company – a new title for work he was already doing – and let someone else head up the department. 

Steinmetz was happy.”

By letting Steinmetz save face and move into a great IC role, they spared the team who didn’t like reporting to him, and gave him a graceful way to stay at the company. This is the type of pro-leadership move that costs you almost nothing, and helps you have the best team possible.

Knowing what to avoid is the first step. Now, let’s talk about what to look for, so you can fill your team and company with good managers.

bad managers - hire good ones

3 Signs someone would make a good manager

We’ve covered some of the main signs someone is, or would make, a bad manager. We also covered ways to protect yourself from promoting bad managers.

Beyond that, what are some signs you can look for that would help you identify employees who are a good fit for management? How do you know if someone would make a good leader?

Knowing the things you don’t want in a future manager is important, but if all you’re doing is avoiding those you’re not doing everything you can to promote the right people.

These are three signs on the opposite spectrum; here are signs someone would make a good manager:

Signs of a bad manager

1) They show empathy for their teammates

Leaders are servants. That’s the first, and possibly most important, thing a new manager can learn.

Whereas you might have been used to focusing on IC work up until now, as a manager, you need to shift your thinking from individual contribution to how you can multiply the productivity of your team.

In other words, it’s all about how you can make them better, as well as support them.

The ability to care about your teammates is a hallmark of a good leader. If someone is consistently showing through their actions that they’re thinking about their teammates and helping everyonegrow and improve, that’s the sign of someone who would make a great servant leader.

Sympathy vs. empathy: The mark of a good leader

This post from Inc. explains well the difference between the average person who has sympathy vs. a potential leader who shows empathy:

“According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is ‘the feeling that you understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions.’

Whereas sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, empathy requires us to go a step further, and it lasts longer. Here’s an example:

Imagine a colleague goes through a difficult situation; let’s say he loses a close family member in an accident. We naturally feel sympathy for him. We may even write a card or express those feelings somehow. For the most part, though, we move on with our lives.

But when we show empathy, we take more time–time to remember how we felt when we lost someone close to us (or how we would feel, if we haven’t had this experience). We think about how this affected our work, our relationships with others.

Even further, we try to imagine specifically how our colleague feels in this situation. We recognize that he (like every individual) will deal with the trauma in his own unique way.”

It’s important for leaders to go that extra distance to understand what’s going on in their team member’s minds. The better they understand what they’re going through (good or bad), the better they can support them in the best ways possible.

This approach matters, because when people feel supported, understood, and psychologically safe,  they perform better on their job.

To learn more about the importance of leading with empathy and the power of putting others first as a way of building rapport and trust, there’s no better book than Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

bad managers don't listen like good managers do

2) They’re a good listener

Ever met someone who wouldn’t stop talking about themselves? You spoke “together” for thirty minutes, but they never once asked you a single question?

A good leader is the opposite of this: they understand that listening is a critical part of leading effectively. Without effective listening, you can’t know what’s wrong, you may misread situations, and you lack the understanding of your team.

Good listeners ask good questions.

A key part of this is the ability to ask effective questions. As a leader, you need to be endlessly curious about your team.

With the right question at the right moment, you can discover the heart of an issue, encourage a team member to open up and build rapport, or obtain valuable feedback you can use to improve as a leader.

Questions are the lens that magnifies the power of listening. You could let a conversation go wherever it happens to go, or you could ask the right followup question to really understand a situation fully.

However, asking the right questions and being willing to listen aren’t the only things that go into making someone a good listener. You have to follow through.

Talk without action is pointless and frustrating. To avoid this, practice active listening, by repeating back what you think you heard, and making sure they agree with what you say.

Then, it’s about taking notes, and taking action, to follow through on what you heard, so that the person knows it’s worth the effort to talk to you. It’s easy to forget to do this, but it makes all the difference in how people feel about talking with you in a manager – team member relationship.

If you see a team member is good about asking questions as much as sharing opinions and is careful to take notes and keep their promises, then they have strong signs they could be a good listener and manager.

To learn more about the power of questions and curiosity as a tool for improvement, read Brian Grazer’s fascinating book, A Curious Mind.

And you can read more about the power of curiosity and asking questions as a manger in our post here: The most important, yet overlooked management skill

signs of a bad manager

3) They’re interested in being a leader (not a boss)

This last one might sound obvious, but so much of what makes someone a good candidate for leadership is their desire to be a manager in the first place (or not).

Wanting to be a manager is about interest in the actual job and day to day tasks, not the title.

If you’re interested in the life of a leader (and you fully understand what that means), the likelihood is you’re:

  • Willing to give up IC work to work to make your team better through a multiplier mindset
  • Prepared to make effective communication and listening a priority
  • Bring a growth mindset and a desire to learn all the new skills needed to succeed as a leader

Wanting to do the work of a leader is a special calling, and not everyone will want to do those things. It’s why we outlined all the right and wrong reasons to be a manager today.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to think a manager is “the boss”, but that won’t get you far. Instead, being a good manager is about working to serve your team and your mission. That takes a different kind of makeup of a person.

For managers, desire > talent

From what I’ve seen, nothing is more important for a leader than wanting to be a manager for the right reasons. No one goes to school to be a manager, so everyone has to learn a lot to succeed. Those with the right mindset are more enthusiastic and dedicated to learning the skills they need and filling in the gaps they have.

Ironically, some people you’d call a “natural leader” will struggle most; they may want the responsibility, but then coast on their charisma and natural abilities. Meanwhile, the less natural manager, who has a growth mindset will zoom past them as they work hard to learn and master the myriad of skills needed to be a great leader.

To help you or a future manager better understand what the life of a true leader looks like, one of the best books ever written on the subject is John C. Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, which paints a clear picture between the self-serving boss and a true servant leader.

To learn more about what qualities to look for in a good manager, read our post: Who do you promote? 5 Qualities of a Good Leader.

bad managers - know what you're really looking for

Know what you’re looking for when choosing your managers

Few employees know what it’s like to be a manager before they get placed in the driver’s seat.

It’s not their fault. Rarely is it made clear to them what leadership is really like. Just like you have a small glimpse of their day to day work, they only see small pieces of what you do.

It’s no wonder then, companies often make the mistake of promoting the wrong people, creating bad managers.

To avoid those problems, remember to:

Remember, employees leave managers, not companies. Being able to identify the right people for management and giving them the tools to succeed affects everything at your company from engagement to turnover.  A little thought now can save you a lot of headaches and problems in the future.


Have better one on ones at GetLighthouse.comIf you really want to avoid having bad managers at your company, you need to give them the tools to succeed and lead their people.  Lighthouse can help ensure your people are taken care of by their managers, while teaching the managers the best practices of good management.

See for yourself. Sign up for your free trial here.