In most of the employee engagement surveys you read that one of the top reasons why people leave their companies is their manager. It is not about money, it is not about work, it is not about team, it is about the boss.
Every now and then you run into someone on the management team or in leadership position that leaves you wondering how that person could get there. These individuals are often smart, they appear to be confident, and play nice with their managers. The real issue shows up when you see how they communicate with people who they deem unworthy, people with lower status, their teams, or people who may threaten their position. I’m talking about jerks in management.
Since this can be a rather broad term let’s go to Merriam-Webster dictionary that defines jerk as “an unlikable person; especially one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded – a selfish jerk”. This is the type of boss I’m talking about.
So how do such people get into management? The question you have to ask, is about causality. Do people become jerks after being promoted? Or do they get promoted because they are jerks? Some research indicates that self-centered, narcissistic and confrontational personalities have bigger chance to become managers. Not necessarily good managers, but because of their ability to present themselves well they tend to be seen as confident and persuasive. If the company doesn’t screen carefully their management candidates it easily happens that these people get into management roles ahead of those who have more suitable qualities and actually lead people and are helpful.
The problem with a jerk is that he doesn’t know he is a jerk. These characters truly believe they are great because their egocentrism prevents self-reflection. It is only the surrounding people, the culture, the company who suffer. The only decent remedy is to limit the scope of interaction of these brilliant jerks or to remove them from the team altogether.
Aside of the ones who got to management because of their jerkiness you have a second type of management tyrants. Those who became one over time. They were completely fine individual contributors who got increasingly antisocial once they got to a management positions. The great thing is that these people are not inherently damaged. They are not jerks, they just act that way. For these people it is usually something that can be changed with feedback, training, and help from outside.
So what are the reason why good people turn bad when getting to management? And what can you do to prevent it?
Why managers become jerks:
- They follow a leader who is a jerk – this is leading by example at its worst. Because they work or worked for a jerk they emulate behavior that made their boss successful.
- They feel insecure – often because they feel they don’t have the skills to do the job. They are new to management but they want to appear strong and so they overdo it.
- They are part of a toxic company culture – if the company culture permits this behavior and even rewards it then very few people will have the strength to fight it. They will make decisions that goes even against their core values even without realizing it. They often end up with low ethical standards and can justify their jerkiness in the name of bigger good.
- They reached their state of incompetence – sometimes called as a Peter Principle as coined by Laurence J. Peter. The theory is that you are being awarded by promotions for a good work in your current role until you reach your level of incompetence and that is where you spend the rest of your life being miserable because you are way over your head and can’t succeed.
- They have low emotional intelligence – they never felt the need to exercise the emotional intelligence muscle. Often you see this with highly technical people who are experts in their fields and can win any dispute just by using technical knowledge itself. When they get to management they don’t understand how to communicate with others by any other means.
- They are managers for the status or money – they got to management for the wrong reasons. Not because they want to lead and help others. They reached the status they wanted and now will do whatever it takes to hold to it. They stopped caring about doing a good job or about other people and want to bask in the glory of being a boss.
- They sit on too many chairs – this is true especially for people who get promoted and still keep doing their individual contributor job. They have competing priorities, focusing on their old job, which they are good at, instead of trying to learn to be a good manager. They are bottleneck for their teams, have no time to grow and develop themselves as well as the people they are responsible for.
- They had no training – and thus don’t really know what to do. This is especially important in small companies and start-ups where new managers or founders have no one good to learn from. Because of that they often resort to a brute force since it seems like the easiest way to get things done if you don’t have any other tools in your management toolbox.
What can you do to change that? As you can see most of the items listed above are based on external circumstances that can be changed. You can mitigate most of them by following couple of basic rules:
- Understand well people’s motivation for wanting to get to management and when the reasons are not right, don’t let them. Even if it means they may leave the company.
- Promote people to management because they are ready, not because they are great at doing their current job.
- Don’t allow jerks to keep their jobs and deal with them quickly and decisively, otherwise you are implying that this sort of behavior is fine and others will imitate it.
- Provide enough training in how to communicate, manage, and lead before you ask people to do so.
- Make a clear cut between the former and new job. Don’t let them sit on too many chairs and make it easy for them to let go of the past responsibilities.
These are the very basic things that you can do to help others, especially new managers, to avoid the trap of turning from great employees to lousy bosses. But what if you are the one who just got promoted? What if you don’t want to rely on others to help you but want to make sure you don’t become a jerk? Let’s talk about this next week.
Do you think you can recognize when you are acting as a jerk? What are the signs in others that tell you they are being inconsiderate?
Originally posted at LinkedIn.