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Are You a Bad Boss?

Sandy M. Fernandez

It can happen to anyone.


No manager wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Today, I want to completely demoralize my staff.” Or, “In this meeting, I want to send conflicting messages that leave everyone confused and insecure.” Yet with almost half of Americans in a recent poll saying they’d like to fire their boss, clearly not all is well between teams and their leaders. 

Sure, there will always be the stereotypical bosses from hell, a la “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Office Space.” But, more often, bad bosses are good people who are just making bad management choices--sometimes without even being aware of it.

A few years ago, psychologist and leadership consultant Nicole Lipkin realized she’d become one. “I’d hired an office manager for my psychological practice who kept making mistakes and was snarky on the phone,” she says. “Finally, I just lost it. I was obnoxious, micromanaging. I was coming down hard on her.” The root of the problem, she figured out, was that she didn’t want to admit she’d made a bad hire and that kept her from dealing with the problem head-on. The realization prompted her to write "What Keeps Leaders Up At Night: Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues." "I’m a shrink, and my job is to help leaders and managers be better, so I’m a pretty self-aware person,” she says. “But I wasn’t self-aware about this, and I feel like if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone.”

How do you know if it’s happening to you? Keep reading for nine signs to watch out for.

Your staff avoids you.


No one ever drops by your office to say hi or check in, and you realize that when your staffers encounter a real work issue, they’re going to everyone and anyone else for direction instead of you. Courtney Templin, co-author of “Manager 3.0” and COO of employee development company JB Training Solutions, says it brings to mind a famous quote by Colin Powell: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded you do not care.”

How to fix it? Hold a team meeting to air out the root issues and listen more than you speak. “Remind your team that you want to help, support, and partner with them,” says Templin. “The key is doing what you say you will do.”

Your staff is constantly in your office.


It seems contradictory, but this can be a bad sign too, says human resources consultant Deb Howard, who has more than 20 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies. “Bad managers tend not to empower people to make their own decisions, and they have people in their office all the time asking what to do.”

The fix: Keep your door open, but empower and encourage your employees to work independently. If they have a specific challenge they’re grappling with, you can help them get through it. But they should feel they have the support and ability to make decisions. 

Your group is consistently underperforming.


Everyone can have a bad month or a bad quarter. But if you’re regularly seeing missed deadlines, poor execution, or products going out late, it may indicate something more serious. “It means you haven’t created a culture of accountability and responsibility,” says Lipkin. “Most likely, there isn’t a history of clear direction, at least on that project.” 

How to address it: Have a team meeting followed by one-on-one meetings to lay out clear expectations, goals and consequences (most importantly, clear follow-through). “The one-on-ones allow for personalized goal setting, action planning and expectation setting, and the team meeting solidifies the expectations and the cultural shift you are making,” says Lipkin. “People may also need some guidance and co-created action plans to meet goals.”

Turnover is high.


You’ve probably heard the line that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. If you find yourself in the conference room cutting good-bye cakes on a pretty regular basis, it’s time for a serious self-assessment. “If people are leaving left and right, you need to take immediate action before you become a team of just one,” says Temple. 

Her advice: Meet with your team members individually for informal conversations about how things are going. Ask: What do they like about their job? What don’t they like? How can you help them? Is there anything you could be doing differently? If they were the leader of the team, what would they do? “It’s too late to ask these questions in the exit interview,” she adds. One caveat: Before you start beating yourself up, look at how other teams at the company are doing, says Lipkin. “If you’re all having the same problem, it might mean that the company as a whole has created a culture that’s pretty toxic.”

Your personal relationships are difficult too.


“It can be very difficult for direct reports to give their boss feedback. On the other hand, your family is never afraid to do it!” says Templin. “You can’t take everything your crazy aunt says to heart, but if your sister says you always cut her off when she’s talking, you might want to see if some of those behaviors are showing up at work and with your team.” When Lipkin is hired by an individual looking to improve leadership skills, she likes to get feedback from spouses and friends as well as co-workers. 

“As much as people think they’re different at work and at home, you’re the same person in both places,” she says. “Bite your tongue, open your ears and let people important to you (family, significant others, friends, work colleagues, your manager) know you are working on your own personal and professional growth and want feedback about the way you come off, the way you communicate, the way you deal with difficult situations. Relationships don’t have to be difficult. Things can change. But it requires an ability to be open and receptive.”  

You tolerate bad work.


It’s natural to like some people more than others, and completely human to want to avoid conflict. But letting these feelings guide your office behaviors is essentially abdicating your main responsibility as a manager. “Next time you're concerned about something an employee has (or has not) done, don't wait until they do it again and you're absolutely sure it's a problem before giving them feedback,” says Howard. “Do it the same day! Use ‘I've noticed...’ ‘I'm wondering...’ and ‘I'm curious...’ as conversation openers. ‘I noticed you came in late this morning, and that you've been late a number of times this month. I'm wondering about that.’ Then be quiet and give them a chance to respond. Or, ‘I'm wondering why you didn't invite me to this meeting. Can you tell me what you were thinking?’ Give them the benefit of the doubt and a chance to explain before judging them and giving corrective feedback.”

You don’t move people up the ladder.


“If you’re known as a ‘career stifler’ or the ‘dead-end boss,’ your direct reports will actively seek out other teams and opportunities,” says Templin. “Part of your success as a manager is helping your team get to that next step. Take time to get to know each person individually. What are their career goals? What are their passions? How can you help them get there?” Lipkin also suggests you meditate on the source of the problem. “This is either really poor hiring on your part or an issue with self-esteem, in the sense that you don’t want to see others succeed,” she says. Either way, she says a good coach can help dissect what’s getting in the way.

Your employees take a lot of sick days.


“Research has consistently shown that when teams or companies have disengagement, you see you see a decrease in performance, productivity, workplace safety and the bottom line, as well as an increase in turnover and absenteeism,” says Lipkin. “When you see problems with absenteeism, you must look at the level of engagement.” 

Templin suggests you start by literally taking a look around the office. “Ask yourself, ‘Are people in good moods at work?’ Does your team smile, laugh, and have fun during the day? Do team members respect each other and help each other out? Are you a positive and flexible leader? Then set the standard by simply being in a good mood at work, showing recognition for a job well done, and taking time for team building activities.” (One caveat: In at least one study, high rates of presenteeism—coming to work despite being legitimately sick—also correlated to heavy workloads and little supervisor support.)

Former employees simply vanish.


They don’t call to ask for recommendations when they’re job hunting, they don’t ping you through LinkedIn. Once your people leave, you never hear from them again—except from other people they friended at the company. “Employees want to keep in touch with managers who are mentors, coaches, strong role models, and solid connectors,” says Templin. “So if all of your former employees are disappearing, then the problem is most likely you.” The good news: Follow the advice above, and that inbox might see a little more action.

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