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  • Writer's pictureJohn Rae-Grant


Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Seems like the world must be filled with ‘em.

At the first leadership course we ever held, we had half the class threaten to leave unless we taught them how to deal with “bad management". At a developer conference, we were inundated with people who wanted advice on how to “fix” their managers. Here’s the straight scoop from my perspective: Most “bad” managers are that way, because we make ‘em that way. What this means is that we expect our managers to be our parents. We expect them to be perfect, know that they are not, but expect them to resist feedback or get angry, so we whimper helplessly behind their backs. We treat the managers as though they have all the information, all the power, all the control, and all the responsibility - no wonder they’re overwhelmed and incompetent! A little (well, actually a pretty HUGE) secret for ya: They’re not our parents! It’s really true. They are not our parents. They can not spank us. They can not abandon us and make us die. They can not disinherit us. They can not send us to bed without dinner. They can not ground us.

They are NOT our parents! Step 1 to “fixing” your bad manager, is to stop blaming your manager for not being a good parent. You don’t really want a parent at work. If you notice yourself acting like a child, chances are you’re looking for a parent. No manager can or should be this for you. Grown-ups parent themselves. Step 2 is to question your own judgment of the “badness” of your manager. Remember that you are the one doing the judging. This is the second way that we “make” our managers “bad”. We are the ones viewing them, we notice what we choose to notice, and we judge it according to our own scripts. Step two is to delve into your own process of judgment, and shift your perspective on this “bad” manager problem. Try asking yourself the following question: Do I really want to “fix” my “bad” manager? Really, really ask yourself that question. Because, part of “fixing” your “bad” manager requires that you take a tough step. In order to really “fix” your “bad” manager, you have to try believing that this person could become (or might already be) a good manager. Are you willing to do that? Have you ever tried believing that about this person before? OK, if you made it over that hurdle, try this one: Have I done anything to act on my desire to “fix” my “bad” manager? I mean, one way to know if you really want something is to notice if you’ve done anything to make that thing happen. If you haven’t tried anything to help your manager, you don’t want to fix the situation. {I think at this point in the article its important to explain why we put the words “fix” and “bad” in quotes. Quotes are an emoticon for “say this thing sarcastically with a screwed up face”. I don’t really believe that you can “fix” anyone (except yourself - but “fix” is the wrong word anyway). I also believe that “bad” is a pretty dubious word. When you want to “fix” your “bad” manager, you need to look at that and say, “why am I not working on myself, I’m the one with the issue”. So, it’s fine to start out believing that you want to change someone else, as long as you end up changing your attitudes and actions, and supporting other people in doing the same to themselves.} Next, ask yourself, What is my manager trying to do? If you don’t understand the motivation, you are not going to understand the actions. Most disagreements are clashes of conflicting goals and perspectives, not true human incompatibility or even incompetence. If you believe that you understand your manager’s goals, ask yourself: What have I done to help my manager achieve his or her goals? This is the tricky part. You are not going to get your manager to be what you need, unless you are actively helping this person to succeed at something that is important to him or her. Usually, inept managers do things like saying: “I need a schedule” when what they need is a strengthened belief in your ability to hit dates or “I need a status report” when what they really want is some honest disclosure about the state of the project. Maybe they are responding to a similarly badly phrased question from above. Get inside this person’s head - help them out. Here’s a really tough one:

What do I really need from my manager? (a.k.a., “How would I know if my manager were actually a good manager”).

If you can’t answer that one, the problem is not with the manager. Finally, if you’ve answered all of the above questions to your satisfaction, and you still believe that you have clear issues with the manager try writing a letter to a friend describing the issue, your evidence, and your feelings. Then tell the manager everything that is in the letter. Including everything. Everything. Yes, even the “feelings” things. Here’s an easy way to remember that one. The first few times I asked Jerry Weinberg for advice on how to deal with a difficult person, he asked me three questions:

  1. What are you having difficulty with?

  2. What do you need from this person?

  3. Have you told this person everything you just told me when you answered the first two questions?

Most people aren’t bad. Most managers are people. You do the math.


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