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How to spot and tackle a line manager with poor management skills

Rooting out the problem

We have, I’m sure, all experienced, at some point in our careers, what it’s like to work for a bad manager.

Perhaps they were a bully or perhaps they were just really ineffectual. Either way, they had a huge impact on how we felt about coming into work every day, on our job satisfaction, performance, morale and motivation.

When the root cause of employee misery is so often their relationship with their manager, then improving how people are managed must surely be a priority for senior managers and business owners.

Especially in recognition of the significant impact employee engagement (or lack of it) has on retention, customer satisfaction and the bottom line.

But how do we spot the problem in the first place? And how do we tackle a bullying or ineffective manager?

How to spot a line manager with poor management skills

You’d think it would be easy to spot when a manager is causing problems in their team, wouldn’t you?

But I find that often, the manager has become adept at hiding what’s going on. They can be quite skilled at managing up. At managing you. So you wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong from conversations with them or even from the performance level of their team.

This means they can get away with their poor management style for a long time. Long enough for issues to get really entrenched.

So it might be that first thing you know about it is when people are taking extended sick leave, or asking to move teams, or leaving your organisation.

In other words, when it’s got so bad, it’s almost too late.

The only way to spot bad management practices is to make it your business to do so.

Do they do the basics?

The first step is to check whether the manager is performing their basic managerial responsibilities. Do this by talking to them about how they manage their team. For instance:

Are they conducting 1-2-1s with their team, on a regular basis? 1-2-1s are hugely valuable in helping build the relationship between manager and employee so that when issues do arise, staff feel more able to discuss them openly.

Are they setting objectives for team members and measuring performance against these? A successful team needs direction and an understanding of what’s expected of them.

Do they hold regular team meetings? These help build a strong team. So that the manager is not the only one who can help with an issue.

Do they undertake regular feedback sessions? A manager should be providing feedback on how their people are delivering against expectations and standards. But it can be an area that’s neglected, often to avoid having a difficult conversation.

Do they address workplace hygiene factors? Have their team got the equipment they need to do their job? Is the work environment set up in a way that facilitates their work or hinders it?

Are they making sure their team have the skills to do the job? A manager is responsible for ensuring their team has the capabilities to deliver what they’re expected to deliver – and if they’re not, for taking steps to address any gaps, through job shadowing for instance.

It might be that they don’t know they’re not doing some of the basics so how will you upskill them? Maybe they need training, mentoring or further support from you to make sure they are doing the basics properly.

Look beyond performance

Perhaps it’s not so much what they do, but how they do it. Perhaps they’ve got all the basics covered, but their way of going about things is causing real friction.

Perhaps they’re a bully. Or perhaps their low self-confidence makes them weak.

This is harder to establish – the performance of the team might be perfectly satisfactory. And members of that team might feel unable to tell you what’s going on behind the scenes. You’ll have to dig a little deeper to root out the issue.

Taking on the bullying manager

A bullying manager is likely to: micromanage, control, belittle, be prone to arrogance.

Which can make their team: feel powerless and small, be fearful of making mistakes (and therefore likely to hide any they do make), unable to make their own decisions causing delays and roadblocks.

What’s going on?

Let’s face it. No one sets out to be a bad manager. A bullying style is often learnt behaviour and can be a symptom of low self-esteem. The person feels threatened, under attack, afraid of being found out – so they lash out as a form of self-defence.

Which isn’t much consolation if you’re the one getting the brunt.

What can you do about it?

Bullying can often be difficult to prove and will need sensitive yet firm handling.

Start by observing the manager in action. Talk to other people in the business to see if they have any concerns and finally, talk to the team in question.

Then have a frank and forthright conversation with the manager. Present them with the evidence of their behaviour and the impact it’s having on the team and the business. Ask them what they think. Be clear about what’s acceptable behaviour and what’s not.

Then agree what needs to happen next. It might they weren’t aware of how they were coming across and simply by raising their awareness of the impact that’s having is enough to change their behaviour.

But it could be much more deep-rooted. It might warrant additional management training or even counselling.

Supporting an unconfident manager

An unconfident manager is likely to: want to be everyone’s friend, find it difficult to make decisions,  dither about objectives, feel unable to sort hygiene issues.

Which can make their team: feel rudderless, empowered to make decisions, but also feel exposed and unsupported, frustrated because everyone’s working in different directions with no clear objectives.

What’s going on?

This manager may never have been given training or support or feedback on how to be a manager. They may have been promoted based on their technical skill without exploring their managerial potential. Meaning a very capable person is now floundering, which is having a huge impact on their self-confidence – and a damaging effect on their team.

What can you do about it?

You need to help to build their confidence. And their managerial competence. 360o feedback can be a good starting point along with practical managerial training, peer support and mentoring. Unconfident people often struggle to spot their own strengths and tend to be overly self-critical, so help them to see what they’re good at as well as what they could improve.

Increase your visibility

And finally. Remember that a team being led by a bad boss can feel very isolated. They may have been told by their manager – ‘if you’ve got a problem, you come to me’. They may not feel comfortable speaking out or are fearful of the consequences if they were to go over their manager’s head.

As a senior manager, don’t assume all is well just because you’ve heard nothing to the contrary. Increase your visibility and create opportunities, however informal, for people to be able to talk to you.

Need some help tackling this in your organisation? Then drop me an email to schedule a no-commitment chat.

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