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Bad manager? How to deal with yours and get enlightened in the process

Keys to change dynamics by taking responsibility, even when you're feeling like a victim
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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Is a bad manager born or made?

It depends on how you define what a bad manager is.

5 Signs you’re dealing with a bad manager

Let’s start by highlighting five signs of a bad manager:

1. They make you feel bad for your mistakes.

A good manager will use every mistake you make as a learning opportunity, as a chance for you to grow. A bad manager, in turn, might react to mistakes by making you feel small and inadequate. This is rooted in a fixed vs. growth mindset: a bad manager often subscribes to the former, as expressed by statements such as “oh, we can’t listen to John, he doesn’t have what it takes.”

It’s important to see that this is a defense or coping mechanism. A manager who’s this harsh with his reportees is even harsher on him or herself. Even if that’s hard to believe.

2. They don’t know how to deal with emotions

This underpins the point above. A bad manager will have trouble showing resilience and balance amidst an upswell of positive or negative emotions.

This might make them less open to criticism or more prone to ask for feedback to stir up conflict, which they then will react to by belittling, calling names, and disrespecting another’s viewpoint.

Managers who struggle to deal with their emotions might also have a hard time listening. Their focus, as they listen, might be on formulating a reply, often with the goal of proving they’re right.

3. They build factions instead of bridges

A good manager will empower their employees to communicate as directly as possible with each other. S/he will also make sure to involve stakeholders as needed in decision-making.

Instead, a bad manager might favor the creation of “factions:” this team, against that team.

This might also mean creating processes that slow down communication and work and tend to erode trust over the long term. Under such management, lots of issues become political, and therefore, heated.

What’s at stake here is the need for the manager to stay in power, against the need for the team to do their job well.

4. They won’t set standards for unacceptable behavior 

All it takes for an apple basket to rotten is one bad apple.

Many managers spend a lot of time praising good behavior. But what sets great managers apart is that they are also not afraid to engage in difficult, constructive conversations when needed. A great manager will not shy away from enforcing consequences in the face of poor performance, and they know how not to make it personal.

On the flip side, failing to acknowledge the difference between good and bad performance will ultimately drive away motivated team members, eroding team performance.

5. The leads from fear

Ultimately, a bad manager is leading from a place of fear. They are driven by the unconscious and limiting belief that the world is a hostile place. Their fears might relate to loss of credibility or status or an underlying need to be liked. Regardless, the outcome will be poor performance. 

Organizations are built on the premise of diversity, which, at its core, can be a source of conflict. This is especially true when people fail to recognize that different points of view are a source of strength.

Thereby, it is a bad manager’s lack of self-awareness that holds them back. This lack makes them unable to see that their worldview is preventing their growth. This same lack prevents them from developing the emotional intelligence skills they need to really succeed.

Cause ultimately, it is emotional intelligence skills that truly set apart great managers from bad ones. These include compassion, self-awareness, generosity, patience, and the ability to show equanimity in the face of adversity.

But other than wondering if you’re dealing with a bad manager, the question you could be asking yourself is, “Can I display emotional intelligence when dealing with my manager?”

What if dealing with a bad manager was an invitation to change ourselves first?

Understanding the manager—employee relationship in light of social structures

According to social psychology, we act not according to who we are, but according to the social and power dynamics that structure the interactions we participate in.

The building blocks of such social structures are roles. Roles consists of “scripts” of rules of behavior, most of which are implicit. To understand roles, reflect on how different you would act as someone’s manager and as someone’s employee. You’re the same, but the role is clearly different. The role is prescriptive: it tells you what you can and cannot do, as determined by social accolades and sanctions.

The problem that arises when dealing with someone in a position of power who doesn’t know how to keep their emotions in check is that it may elicit in us the role of the victim. This is a role made up of feelings of unworthiness and powerlessness, often inherited and unprocessed and rooted in past experience.

If you find, when dealing with your manager, that:

  • You develop anger or resentment and want to respond by belittling or insulting them (Even if you do that just in your head)
  • You feel powerless
  • You experience a sense of injustice and unfairness, and feel like things will never change…

Chances are that you’re letting your projections (And your manager’s) drive your reactions.

The trouble is, a victim response won’t help to break the dynamic you’re now enmeshed in.

Transference in the manager-employee dynamic

When someone else’s behavior triggers a response from us which is not aligned with who we want to be, what’s at play is often an issue of transference.

TransferenceManfred Kets De Vries explains, is a kind of reliance on our existing “relationship data bank.” We resort to it every time we interpret the actions of another person that we don’t know very well.

As with bias and a host of other mechanisms, this works as a sort of path of least resistance for our brain. In the data bank, we’ll always find an explanation for the other’s behavior, and this explanation will depend on a pattern we’ve witnessed in the past.

For example, we might find ourselves coping with the bad manager’s behavior by overworking, by trying to “save the day.” But, as I write about here, if I become resentful of my manager for taking advantage of my tendency to “save the day” again and again, I cannot just blame my manager.

Instead, I have to realize my responsibility in the matter and learn how to set proper boundaries.

Learning to deal with a bad manager through compassion for myself

One of the issues we encounter when dealing with a bad manager is that we look at their behavior with aversion. Culturally, we are conditioned to believe that we are separate and different: my manager’s “badness” has nothing to do with me.

However, feeling separate doesn’t empower us to change anything.

As long as I blame the “manager,” in fact, I can avoid taking a look at what is the opportunity for me: that to engage in self-reflection.

The “bad” that I see in my manager, in fact, is also a reflection of that which I have not accepted in myself. Whether that which I cannot stand is the belittling, or the manager’s inability to set clear standards, chances are, I’ve been there.

This is where dealing with a problematic manager forces us to meet ourselves with compassion and kindness.

How?

By tuning in with what is happening with me when dealing with the manager.

What emotions are manifesting themselves through my body (Sadness, anger, fear)? How are they manifesting themselves (Heart pounding, chest tightening, shortness of breath,…)? What do these feelings remind me of? What images come up? Can I stay with this pain, if even for just a minute?

Building bridges through compassion

We can never show compassion for another if we do not first practice compassion with ourselves.

But, if we’re willing to build bridges, we must also be willing to take go the extra mile.

This entails recognize that the “bad” manager, ultimately, is “just like me“.

The invitation is to see the goodness:

  • Can I see what the manager is trying to achieve with their behavior?
  • Could they be protect themselves from a threat? Could they be trying to defend that which they’ve so painfully built for themselves?
  • Can I relate to their struggle?
  • Can I accept that this is the best they can do right now?

Changing our relationship with our manager demands realizing that we are not separate. It means accepting that what’s hurting about our manager’s behavior is something that is hurting inside of us.

Only then, can we start to get untangled from the dynamic we’re in.

It is by lifting our perspective that we can stop pointing fingers. We’ll see then, that for every finger we point, there are at least three that are pointing back at us.

How have you dealt with a difficult manager in the past, or are you perhaps dealing with one right now? Do you need support? Feel free to send me a message to receive personalized support via mail.

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