We’ve all had one. The bad boss you would moan about in the pub, dread meetings with and cross the office to avoid. They come in various guises, but the common underlying factor is that a toxic manager makes their employees unhappy. And unhappy often means less productive. But what if you are that bad boss?
At their worst, a study by the University of Manchester found toxic managers could have narcissistic and psychopathic traits. These increased “the prevalence of workplace bullying, counterproductive work behaviour, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and depression among subordinate employees”.
The chances are you’re getting some things wrong as a manager—a recent survey revealed that 74% of employees think their managers need reskilling and upskilling training. But what’s the difference between a toxic manager, a bad manager, and a manager who just gets it wrong sometimes? And what does toxic behaviour look like to employees?
1. The micromanager
As a manager it is your job to delegate, see the bigger picture and build your team’s expertise. This will lead to them being able to make decisions independently, rather than you regularly getting involved with the details of whatever they are working on.
This is something Mo Nasr found difficult when he managed a team of 10 software engineers. “You plan for teams and projects and you spend a significant part of your time planning for other people’s work,” he said. To him, managing, rather than using his engineering skills, felt a waste of time. “I felt as if I could have brought more value with a more hands-on approach,” he said.
The issue with getting too involved in projects you have assigned to members of your team is that it leaves them feeling like you don’t trust them. Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Quite simply, it’s irritating for an employee to have someone watching over their shoulder as they work.
Nasr eventually decided to move out of management because it wasn’t what he wanted for his career. However, micromanagers can change their ways. Lauren Landry, writing for Harvard Business School, suggests they learn to step back by practising delegation, setting clear expectations and letting go of perfection.
And, of course, it helps if they hire the right people in the first place.
2. The coach who can’t coach
Management expert Daniel Goleman defines coaching as a leadership style that allows employees independence in choosing problem-solving techniques. It works on the premise that employees already have the expertise to solve a problem, and it’s a manager’s role to draw this expertise out of them. What’s more, successful coaching is key to long-term staff development.
Coaching employees proved a struggle for Sacha Carline. “The worst part of managing is when you have someone under your responsibility who’s not delivering,” he said. “And you can’t find a way to get the person delivering well, even if you are being as helpful and as supportive as possible.”
Carline’s worst moment as a manager was having to fire an employee who wasn’t doing a good job—and who he couldn’t coach to improve. This left him feeling stressed, both in and out of work. “I can’t disconnect when something very stressful is happening, especially involving other people,” he said.
Becoming a good coach means working with a high level of emotional intelligence to bring out the best in others, and that can take time to develop. Goleman advises managers who want to improve their coaching skills to begin by coaching themselves using techniques such as journaling and meditation to build self-reflection and mindfulness.
3. The bad communicator
Alex Bridges, the founder of an online sales platform, used to work by a simple principle. “I always try to treat my staff in the way that I would like to be treated,” he said.
However, being a “friendly” manager backfired. He became invested in his employees’ personal lives and ended up letting too many staff have time off at once. Not only did Bridges have to pick up the slack, but “it made me come across as incapable to other managers”. He felt staff were “taking advantage of my kind nature”.
The answer for Bridges was to become more assertive. He acknowledges that he may not come across as such a caring manager. “I can now appreciate that I need to be firmer for production to continue because, without production, no one is getting paid,” said Bridges.
Good communication for managers boils down to a few simple points, according to management expert Henry Mintzberg:
- Interpersonal communication: Managers must communicate information and ideas as authority figures, leaders and as a liaison with the wider company.
- Informational communication: Managers must process information by monitoring what their team is doing, sharing useful information and being a spokesperson.
- Decisional communication: Managers must use information to handle problems, generate and implement ideas, allocate resources and negotiate.
4. The leader with no strategy
As a manager, the goals you set for employees are an important way to measure progress and success. However, if these goals are not well-planned, they can be frustrating and demotivating.
For Brad Fowler, his high level of expertise in digital HR has made it difficult to implement realistic goals for those around him. “A lot of my staff are good, but their conversion rates are 3% to 4% below mine,” he said.
“I struggle to understand how they are not as good as me, and despite my support, tips and encouragement, they are not closing the gap as quick as I would like.”
Fowler realised that in order to keep his staff motivated and productive, he had to change the parameters for the goals he was setting. Instead of comparing their progress against his, he started encouraging healthy competition within the team, “ensuring that they are evenly matched and that the competition will drive their conversion rate up a little without raising the bar too much”.
He decided to exercise more patience. “It’s best to keep them happy at that level, rather than push them too hard and risk them lowering their conversion rate due to pressure or, worse still, quitting,” he said.
5. The newbie
In her mid-20s, healthcare manager Alana Marsh became the manager of a team, some of whom already had 30 years’ experience in their field. “I wasn’t necessarily the most senior person in the room, even though the organisational chart suggested that I was,” she said.
This dynamic meant she had to reconsider her management approach. “There was no way I could have waltzed in at the age of 25 and started telling them what to do,” she said.
“I had to get myself into a position where I could have a constructive working relationship with people who were, on paper, a lot more experienced than me.”
The way forward for Marsh was to recognise the strengths of her team, as well as the strengths she had as a manager, and collaborate. “It really did end up as teamwork,” she said. “I completely respected their wisdom and experience. And I think they accepted the position I was in and the responsibilities and the duties that I had. We did the best we could to come to good decisions together.”
6. The workaholic
It is crucial for managers to have strong interpersonal skills to support their employees’ wellbeing and success , which creates a healthy work atmosphere. Mental health charity Mind found that 60% of employees say they’d feel more motivated if their employer took action to support mental wellbeing.
Manager Stephan Howel has recently found himself wondering if he has enough empathy for his 11-strong team. “If a job comes in, or something needs to be raised, I will get in touch with them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s daytime in the week, evenings or any point at the weekend. I just like to get it done,” he said.
“But how do they feel about that? Do they feel it is unreasonable? Are they just not telling me?”
Howel says he is hesitant to raise the matter with his team. “I’m not sure I feel brave enough. I have always thought I am a kind and considerate boss, so what a shock it would be if they felt I was often unreasonable.”
Research from Mind suggests a culture of openness is a good place to start. Having a conversation about workplace conditions might seem difficult, but according to Mind, doing so will “open dialogue and embed positive attitudes and behaviours” among staff—as long as it’s a two-way conversation.
The charity also suggests focusing on work/life balance, and building peer support systems and positive working relationships, while prioritising learning and development is crucial.
Know your flaws, and fix them
Results from The University of Manchester study found that truly toxic managers are bullies. They thrive on “taking advantage of others, taking credit for their work, being overly critical and generally behaving aggressively”.
Conversely, management expert Goleman says that great managers have great people skills, including empathy, motivation, relationship building and self-awareness.
If you’re concerned about being a toxic manager, the fact that you’re worrying about it in the first place makes it unlikely that you are knowingly making your staff’s lives hell at work. What’s more likely is that you have a few managerial weak spots. This is hardly surprising—one in four managers are promoted without receiving any management training at all.
So instead of asking whether or you’re a toxic manager, how about reframing the question? What, as a manager, could you do better?
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