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Five signs of bad management

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

During a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, movie director Brad Silberling explained that conflict is essential to good comedy. "You want to put the wrong people into the wrong situation and watch the fireworks," he said. While Silberling was describing the context of his movie, "Land of the Lost," he also could be describing the reality of bad management: the wrong person in the wrong job.

And how do you know what qualifies as bad management? Here are the tell-tale signs:

Failure to decide. Managers who cannot make clear, thoughtful decisions cannot lead purposeful teams. Lack of decisiveness not only hinders efficiency, it erodes morale. No one likes to work with a boss who cannot decide, or worse, decides one thing one day only to reverse it the next day.

Inconsistency. Co-workers learn to ask each other, "Is he in a good mood today?" Putting up with a boss who swings from one mood to another, and then back again, can be trying. Such mood swings are not clinical in nature; they result when a manager is insecure about his own abilities and therefore lives in fear of disapproval from above. A bad manager vents his mood on his direct reports.

Sameness. Call it the revenge of the clones: Bad managers often hire people just like them. It may be a matter of gender or ethnicity or may simply involve choosing people with a personality or style similar to their own. The resulting lack of diversity hurts problem solving. People with different backgrounds look at issues and problems from different perspectives; managed well, these differences can produce new approaches that result in better ways of doing things.

Favoritism. The boss who plays favorites is one who typically is very insecure in her own abilities. Why? Because those she favors are often folks who rarely disagree with her and never challenge her thinking. When the boss is always right, something is definitely wrong.

Absent without responsibility. When things go wrong, bad managers are nowhere to be found. Long years of experience have tuned their antennae to danger and so when things seem tense, they disappear. This leaves underlings to bear the brunt of the failure. Such lack of accountability is not reserved for the middle ranks; we have seen far too many senior executives insist on bonus compensation even as their organizations lost billions.

The economic crisis we are experiencing highlights poor management, as there is less room for error. Now is the time for superior managers to step forward and help pilot their companies to better times. But it is not easy to get rid of bad managers. Too often they have been put into their positions by equally poor managers who either do not understand the consequences of their inferior underlings or are incapable of putting such managers out to pasture because it would reflect badly on their own hiring decisions. That's why bad management is so insidious; incompetence breeds incompetence until the entire organization is affected.

One solution for those trapped in organizations led by bad managers is to ask for, even insist on, more leadership for the middle. This means senior leaders need to delegate more authority to those below them, and that those in the middle need to step up when called to action. Sometimes called "leading up," this strategy releases the talents and skills of individuals by giving them increasing levels of responsibility.

Grooming leaders from the middle ranks creates new opportunities for people to demonstrate their abilities and influence their organizations. Leadership from the middle is not simply a nice-to-have perk; it's essential for organizations who want to position themselves for future challenges.

Leaders do not intentionally drive their companies into insolvency; they simply fail to make good decisions at the right time. Part of that good decision-making involves recognizing managerial incompetence and taking measures to correct it before it becomes epidemic and puts the company into a nose-dive. And if your boss won't do it, you might have to find ways to do it yourself.

By John Baldoni

 |  October 19, 2009; 12:10 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: 10 Tips for Winning the Respect of Your Followers | Next: The discipline of not being all things to all people


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One other point I want to make on this subject is that good managers are consistently out manuvered politically by the bad managers

Posted by: SteelWheel25 | October 21, 2009 4:46 AM

I worked for a manager that exhibit all of these bad manager straits. Do you know what happen to him??? He got promoted!! It seems the "senior management" that hired and promoted my bad boss were cut from the same clothe. This is not new! Scott Adams captures this managerial insanity in his Dilbert comic strip and books.

What disappoints me, though, is the advice given by so called management consultant experts like John Baldoni. The advice he gave "One solution for those trapped in organizations led by bad managers is to ask for, even insist on, more leadership for the middle. " would only lead to getting fired or politically marginalized by the boss. Mr. Baldoni's advice is useless!

Posted by: SteelWheel25 | October 21, 2009 4:36 AM

Sounds like a description of bosses, period. The art of being a manager is learning how to deflect blame and responsibility and how to steal credit when it's not due. That's how most people get to be bosses, after all.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | October 20, 2009 6:00 PM

If the boss has pointy hair, you're hosed.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | October 20, 2009 5:45 PM

There are OPM regulations that should identify ineffective Senior Executives. Only a few agencies actually evaluate the SES's as required under 5 CFR 430.304. In particular, 430.304(b) specifies: Performance management systems must provide for: (4) At least annually, appraising each senior executive's performance against requirements using measures that balance organizational results with customer and employee perspectives; ... IF the agencies collected employee perspectives in a reliably confidential way, it would be a big step toward improving or ousting bad managers.

Posted by: edwardxa12 | October 20, 2009 4:19 PM

"John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "..." column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is ...."

It seems like this guy is a writer who is misrepresenting himself to find work among the egocentric elite. He probably knows that these Five Signs are symptoms that those with real power would never admit. What this writer would never write about is that "leaders" with real power can have all these faults and more without having to worry about being outed by mere writers.

Posted by: kengelhart | October 20, 2009 4:01 PM

what about all of the above? I think the best suggestion is when criticizing, say i wouldn't have done that, means you're in charge but other person has rights too.

Posted by: rufkd | October 20, 2009 3:28 PM

In a companion column today on "Sully", it was pointed out that his last evaluation, before leaving the Air Force, stated that though he was in the top AF fighter pilot training program, he wasn't a "team player."

As we have learned, leadership is not always about being a team player, but rather about being competent, professional and respectful of others. And, always asking the "what if" questions before the "what if" happens. Bet the guy who wrote that Sully wasn't a team player is today sitting at a desk with three stars - deciding who gets to go to war and die.

Wonder who is happier and more fulfilled?

Posted by: carolineC1 | October 20, 2009 1:59 PM

Interesting article. The #1 item of decisiveness actually should include the even greater problem. That is the supervisor who believes he/she must make an immediate decision so they will appear as a leader. unfortunately many people believe they can fix any mistakes later. This merely makes them appear impulsive, agressive, unable to gather appropriate information, and fearful of their position power.
This also does not take into consideration the distinction between male and female decision making process.
The term "leadership" is a misnomer. To be a leader one must have people WILLING to follow. Too many people believe the title entitles them to be called leader.

Posted by: vicki-decker | October 20, 2009 1:52 PM

Excellent summary of the typical, incompetent boss. I especially like this bit, but with a strong warning:

"Leaders do not intentionally drive their companies into insolvency; they simply fail to make good decisions at the right time. Part of that good decision-making involves recognizing managerial incompetence and taking measures to correct it before it becomes epidemic and puts the company into a nose-dive. And if your boss won't do it, you might have to find ways to do it yourself."

Quite so. Problem is, doing it yourself may get you fired.

And it gets worse: If your boss is known outside as the company as a bozo, it could make your chances of getting hired slim to none. Worst of all: in DC the bosses know, the underlings usually don't, which makes the entire situation poison.

Moral of the story: be CAREFUL who you work for. It once took me years to get out a such a place, and may take years to recover from the career damage.

Posted by: Gracian | October 20, 2009 12:47 PM

I worked for a large law enforcement agency in California before I retired. Unfortunately, we had more bad managers than good ones. The usual policy was to transfer them every couple of years to gain experience. I still console my friends by telling them that bad managers are like buses, one comes by every 15 minutes. They just have to be patient and the bad manager will eventually leave, hopefully without doing too much damage.

Posted by: Listening2 | October 20, 2009 12:18 PM

Thanks for raising an important issue - how to advance leadership development in a dysfunctional organization. Unless the CEO mandates some sort of feedback assessment - preferably a 360 - for all those with direct reports, it is difficult if not impossible for mid-level managers to affect change in the organization. It's tough to lead up if performance evaluations are always top down.


Posted by: TomNees | October 20, 2009 11:42 AM

And there's evidence of little danny snyder exhibiting each of these signs.....He really should be a case study.

Posted by: jmccas | October 20, 2009 11:38 AM

It also says "Four Signs of Bad Management" when there are five.

Posted by: esocci | October 20, 2009 11:04 AM

they've been fixed, thanks for the comment.

Posted by: Andrea Useem | October 20, 2009 10:55 AM

this article is very timely as I just completed a leadership class at my job. Thanks for the insight!

Posted by: getaclue3 | October 20, 2009 10:18 AM

Interesting column, but all the typos (including missing words) are distracting. Could someone please copy-edit this and fix the mistakes? Thanks!

Posted by: GoldieG | October 20, 2009 9:51 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

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