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Managers: Don’t Be a Shithead

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It seems obvious. But I’ve worked with enough managers to know…it’s not.

For example:

At a large client of mine from a while ago, management brought in someone we’ll call Dave to support the technical transformation we were doing. Dave was an “expert” in his field and, for the first week and a half, he seemed pleasant and like he knew his stuff.

Around two weeks in, we were all sitting together in a meeting with other senior officials. The CFO was talking about the funding for our program, and I saw Dave bristling like he was being personally attacked. (He wasn’t.) He started yelling at the CFO and a major stakeholder and project sponsor. Whether the threat was perceived or real, he completely lost his ability to be a decent human and couldn’t control his emotions at all.

After that, I started watching how he interacted with people and realized he was condescending, treated his young (mostly just out of college) team like they were complete idiots when they didn’t know what they were doing (because he was supposed to teach them and hadn’t), and didn’t know anything about the product. If any direct reports asked him, the so-called “expert,” about specific functionality within the program he was an “expert” in, he would yell at them that they should know it, disappear into his office for a few hours to figure out the answer because he didn’t know how anything worked, and then come back and show them how to do it.

He would lose his goddamn mind all the time and scream at people. He was finally fired (and no one gets fired from this client, so it sent shock waves through the organization) after his boss overheard him verbally berating a college kid on his team for not knowing how to do something he shouldn’t have known how to do and that Dave was supposed to help him with.

To this day, I see this guy at trade shows and he keeps getting hired at similar firms because he’s a so-called “expert” in the field.

Think Dave is just an exception? Think again. Near the end of my time at this organization, they finally hired a full-time person to fill Dave’s role – a woman I’ll call Brenda.

At this point, we’d already delivered a lot of the functionality for our users that we’d set out to deliver when Dave was in charge, and Brenda was just trying to get the last pieces in. She had a team of the same college kids, who were now three or four years into their careers and had a lot more experience.

So what did Brenda do? Brenda took all the work already done by myself and other senior people and started reinventing the wheel, shitting on all the people who came before her, overworking her people, ending effective open communication with people in the field, firing three African-American employees at once, and destroying the solid foundation of relationships we had built with a contentious key business partner.

She put targets on the backs of employees who didn’t do exactly what she wanted. She created a toxic workplace environment of fear where no one could rest or tell Brenda anything she didn’t want to hear. She systematically destroyed the high-functioning team she was given as well as about two to three years of goodwill built up by her predecessors with our key business partner.

Dave and Brenda had different styles but they did the same thing — they crippled the ability of their direct reports to communicate openly, voice concerns, and be heard. They caused their employees to become completely disengaged (and we all know engaged employees do their best work). They both had an abusive style that led to complete disenfranchisement of the people working under them as well as a lot lower ROI on the project. They made a lot of the knowledge base walk out the door…and that was super costly to the organization.

So, what does this all mean for your organization and you as a manager?

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Manager (So You’re Not a Shithead)

Let’s start with the don’ts — what not to do as a manager.

The don’ts:

  • Create a culture of fear in the organization (whether you do this by directly yelling at people like Dave or being passive aggressive like Brenda) where no one feels able to communicate clearly. This ensures putting out fires will be constant and employees will be mentally checked out.
  • Abuse your employees.
  • Create an environment where your people aren’t comfortable talking to you about what’s really going on (so you can’t mitigate issues before they get worse).

The do’s:

  • Create an environment where everyone feels that they can be seen and heard. Build into your environment the feeling that anyone can come to you one on one or in a team meeting to talk about problems in a real way without the threat of repercussions.
  • Foster communication at all levels – instead of not trusting your people to communicate both horizontally and vertically. If you single-thread all communication through you or make it known you don’t trust people to communicate, chances are there’s going to be a big game of broken telephone down the road.
  • Be clear about the why when you tell your team things they should and shouldn’t do. Don’t say “because I told you so.” (I don’t even say this to my kids.)
  • Make sure your people know what they’re doing and why, who it affects, and who the players are — this is how you get them invested in the work. People inherently want to do a good job, and when I see checked out employees I don’t blame them. I wonder what’s going on in the culture of the organization that makes their people be like that.
  • Be a servant leader. I know leaders hate this term and say it’s overused, but it’s true that a servant leader is a good leader. I tell my people “I am here to make sure shit doesn’t roll downhill and hit you so you can do your jobs.” Leaders give direction and create a vision for people to follow, but even the most active of leaders need to be in servant leadership.

In summary, when you’re leading people you need to help them and have some humility. That’s what makes you a badass manager. There are a lot of people like Brenda who were promoted to management because of their great individual work, but doing great individual work doesn’t make you a great leader. Bad managers disenfranchise employees, create a ton of turnover in their teams, and hurt the business overall.

So let’s not be shitheads, okay?

Love,

Tim xoxo