Nothing kills an employee's engagement, morale, and job satisfaction more quickly and decisively than a terrible manager. Unfortunately for the employee, options to improve the situation tend to be limited. Regardless, there are certain actions that can be taken to limit the damage.
Those who have been in the workforce for a few years can identify without hesitation their best and worst managers. Just as every employee is a unique individual, so too are managers. We all wish that business schools and corporate training programs would produce leaders with appropriate levels of empathy, tact, intelligence, trust, awareness, vision, and accessibility. The reality is that the business world is full of managers that have a few good traits and plenty of bad ones.
The abusive micro-manager is perhaps the most difficult person to work for. This personality type is ruled almost entirely by emotion, in terms of constantly feeling insecure and needing to maintain control. This leads to both subtle and overtly abusive behaviors that leave employees feeling trapped and fearful. Overt abuse is just like what we see in the movies, where the manager-villain (think The Devil Wears Prada) is patently impossible to please, nitpicks everything the employee does, and screams irrationally at even the most minor of infractions. Subtle abuse is more difficult to recognize but can be just as damaging. This includes constant interruptions to "check-in" on progress and displaying profound lack of trust in the quality and completeness of work performed.
DISINTEREST, BE THY NAME
At the other end of the scale are managers that are distantly opaque. Here there is a complete lack of connection between the employee and manager. The manager has only the vaguest notion of what the employee is doing. Days, or, in some cases, weeks may pass between one-on-one meetings, and even those may be cursory check-box exercises lacking in depth and substance. This situation breeds distrust and uncertainty. The employee receives little or no feedback on performance, and is left in the wind in terms of career development. While higher levels of responsibility frequently come with increasing ambiguity, the manager should be involved in providing mentoring and advice, instead of ambivalence.
HOW TO COPE
The most obvious thing you can do to improve their situation is find a new job with a different manager. Unfortunately, even in today's fast-paced "gig economy", firms remain quick to fire and slow to hire. Dealing with an intractable manager requires short term tactics and a long term strategy. The one thing we know for sure is that hoping that your manager will be fired is a futile exercise. Often times, these people a very well entrenched in their positions with executive-level protectors.
The tactical approach is intended to provide immediate relief to the daily issues. For the abusive micromanager, the following behavior changes may improve the situation.
- First, notice your manager's triggers and try to pre-empt them. This may be done by sending a brief progress report email before your micromanager comes by on rounds.
- Next, increase the level of assertiveness and respond more rationally than emotionally when being questioned unfairly. Most micromanagers are accustomed to doling out command, control, and criticism without being questioned and may be less inclined to intrusive and abusive behavior if they know an employee is less susceptible to bullying.
- Finally, look for projects that don't require a significant level of oversight, and again, using an assertive communication style, make it clear that more trust and less oversight is entirely appropriate.
In dealing with the uncommunicative manager, a proactively assertive approach may be helpful. In this case, it is necessary to take charge of the interpersonal relationship, with the goal of improving connection, communication, and transparency.
- In terms of connection, try to find common ground around which to have discussions. It is almost always possible for two people to find something in common that they can relate to.
- For communication, look for patterns of times of the day or week when the manager will respond to email or answer the phone. Use these times as opportunities to engage your manager on work-related topics, and be assertive in seeking clarity in the face of ambiguity.
- Lastly, use free time in the office to expand your internal professional network, where more experienced peers can act as informal mentors and sounding boards.
As a longer term strategy, the only way to fix a problem manager with certainty is to advance to a position under a different, better manager. For many people, this can be an extremely difficult decision, involving questions of loyalty, geography, and uncertainty. It becomes very important to frame this move in a positive light. An internal job transfer may remove questions of geography and loyalty. It should certainly be a consideration if your manager is the primary source of trouble in an otherwise sound and stable firm. Regardless of internal transfer or leaving the firm entirely, don't just take the first position available out of desperation to escape. Instead, treat this as an opportunity to find the job that you want under a manager that you can respect.
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