It was something that had been brewing for a while. Over the course of a few months, Francesca*’s civil – sometimes even friendly – relationship with her manager had morphed into hostile to the point of combative.
The poor relationship began when Francesca who was a copywriter for a well-regarded company at the time, felt her work was constantly left unpublished for no real reason. Things worsened when her manager started speaking over her in meetings – even belittling her in front of her colleagues.
“I don’t know what caused his change in attitude towards me,” Francesca recalls. “Other people pulled him up on the way he spoke to me, but nothing changed.” It was a snarky email she received first thing in the morning after returning from annual leave that really tipped Francesca over the edge. “I just remember getting up from my desk, getting my coat, and leaving,” she says. “I never went back. Working there was my dream job, but it turned into a nightmare – all because of that one person.”
Sadly, Francesca’s experience is not an unusual one. Research carried out by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that one third of British workers have quit jobs because of a poor manager creating a toxic working environment. Among those workers who told researchers they had an ineffective manager, one-third said they were less motivated to do a good job – and as many as half were considering leaving in the next 12 months.
And yet, in many industries, the only way to climb the career ladder and earn more seniority (and a bigger paycheck to boot), is to enter the rungs of middle management, whether people want to or not. As a result, the natural next step for many employees who are skilled at the technical parts of their jobs seems to be ending up rewarded with people management, despite it not being one of their career aspirations – or something that suits their skill set. Researchers have termed this ‘accidental management’, finding that many managers are entering the position with no formal training in leadership, with as many as 82% of new managers in the UK within this bracket. And out of those who had no formal training, only 15% felt confident enough to call out bad behaviour in the workplace - allowing the cycle of rudderless leadership and bad workplace cultures to continue.
While management has become a necessary step on the way to career success for many, their team members are becoming collateral damage as the ambitious make their way through the open-plan crowd. The impact of this? Unhappy workers, inefficient teams and a higher staff turnover. Research conducted on 2486 leaders in the UK and Australia found that managers who created an environment of fear amongst their direct reports could be behind a £2.2 billion drop in productivity and performance.
Aside from the business’ bottom line, poor management is taking a serious toll on the mental health of the workforce. Margot Faraci, international leadership coach and author of Love Leadership, believes better training is essential in order to make the workplace a more appealing, and therefore more profitable place. “The impact bad management has on workers can be devastating, to their own wellbeing, to their ability to learn and grow into a role and ultimately to business performance.”
Lauren* certainly found this was the case just weeks after landing her dream job at a PR firm. “It started off quite well,” she says. “My manager gave me lots of training as it was a new field I was entering. But then there were a few red flags.” Specifically, after one night at the pub with her team, Lauren was stunned to hear her manager use racist language – something that made her feel particularly uncomfortable, being mixed-race herself.
Back in the office, Lauren’s new manager was curt and unpleasant to deal with. “He’d be friendly and charming when we were in the office, but over Microsoft Teams, he’d be a nightmare,” she says. “He would be so short and nasty. You could feel the stress coming off his messages.” Things came to a head after the manager sent Lauren an expletive filled, bullet-point list of everything she’d done wrong on a project, even suggesting that he would help her look for another job. “It was over the Christmas holidays,” she recalls. “I went back home to Staffordshire and just bawled my eyes out. My confidence was so shot, I had to get signed off from work for anxiety.”
Lauren found new work quickly, and reported her boss to HR before leaving. However, the experience has left a lasting impact on her. She says she has yet to rebuild her confidence, nearly four years after she quit.
Lydia* had a similar experience. At first, she was excited to start her new job in market research, having clicked with her line manager during the interview. But soon, her new boss started to become overfamiliar and breached manager / employee boundaries. “He would pick my phone up off the table and go through my pictures. He’d bitch about my colleagues to me. It got to the point that I was scared to go to the loo because I knew if I went to pee, he’d bitch about me too.” Lydia’s manager also kept assigning her work well below her paygrade – asking her to write emails on his behalf, and not letting her answer the phone to clients due to her Kent accent. “He told me that the way I spoke made me sound unintelligent,” she said. “I’d never felt bad about my accent until then. It’s had a lasting effect on me.”
Lydia soon quit and found a new role, where she now manages a team herself. Having seen both sides of the coin, she can see where errors are being made by managers. “Lots of people may be really good at their job, but bad with people,” she says. “There’s not really any real training provided; you’re just expected to start looking after a team. Stronger people skills are needed to do that effectively.”
So what actually makes a bad manager? And what can be done to ensure fewer of them are entering positions of leadership? For Faraci, it comes down to trust from a team member. “Will this leader do the right thing? Will this leader deal with difficult situations, even if that’s hard? Will this leader support me if I make a mistake, even if it might make them look bad? If the answer to these questions is no, then you are dealing with a bad manager,” she says.
And, she adds, managers don’t have to be HR-levels of bad in order to make the workplace difficult. “Sometimes managers just don’t realise the impact they’re having. Sometimes they get so busy in execution and the pressure they just don’t realise.
So if management isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, why is it an enforced part of progression? “Becoming a manager is sadly often the only way to progress in your career and this is simply because it’s always been like that and salaries are based on responsibility which is all about managing staff,” Sheila Starr, career coach, explains. “It’s an old fashioned approach and the key to change is to introduce more specialist roles that are more suitable for those that have awesome technical skills and just won’t make great managers. Unfortunately change is slow in this area and so we are still seeing ‘accidental’ managers who significantly impact on the success and wellbeing of their teams.”
For those finding themselves in a position where they’re working for an unpleasant or unqualified manager and quitting simply isn’t an option, there are routes that can be taken to improve the situation. “It can be easily fixed with some awareness,” says Faraci. She advises those looking to negotiate smoother ground by stating your intention to firm up your relationship with your manager, while having relevant examples to hand. “Ask them to explain their intention in saying what they said. Remember, this will be confronting for you both. The manager might need some time to process it – offer that,” she says.
“Whatever they tell you, you’ll then have to decide whether they’re genuinely concerned about their mistakes and committed to change. It might take a few conversations. It’s surprising how many managers are better because of these types of conversations.”
Broaching such difficult conversations can be awkward and unappealing for most of us and it also shouldn’t have to fall on the employee to make that happen. Faraci says that there are certain things she wish all managers would do as standard. “When you can’t actually deliver on a promise you made to your team, say so and say what you can do instead,” she says. “Don’t overcommit and people please. Being a good manager is about building trust. Managers do all of these things with their families and friends. We all know how to create trusting personal relationships. It’s exactly the same in leadership.”
According to June 2023 Gallup data, 59% of 122,416 of global workers say they're ‘checked out’ of their workplace. Not all of these will have done so as a result of bad management, of course, but the impact of having a shoddy boss cannot be understated. And HR departments and company bosses would do well to take note – from the perspective of human decency and because bad management is just bad business.
*names have been changed
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