Elegy for Poor Management
A friend of mine is a decent person but a terrible manager. I know this because I have been both his friend and his employee in the fifteen years I have known him, and his influence was the primary reason I left a previous job after working for the organization for nearly twelve years. I am a very human example of an idea that nearly every leader has heard at one time or another: when employees leave companies, they don’t leave companies; they leave managers.
I like to think of myself as a “good” employee, as ambiguous a term as that may be. I am bright and dedicated. My work ethic is strong. I am honest and committed and willing to happily tow the company line. I haven’t called in sick to a job, any job, for over five years. I always meet my deadlines. I seek out new things to learn. I am loyal to a fault. I need very little in terms of supervision, because I believe that the work I produce is a direct reflection on my character, and I work very hard to make sure that reflection is an accurate one.
My demands are meager, and they are few. But what I do require, now and then, is a little pat on the head. An occasional “good job” or a “we’re glad you’re here” or a “you really went the extra mile on that one.” I’ll take feedback, good or bad, thin or robust, over a silent, perfunctory pay raise any day. Although at my previous employer, I couldn’t even rely on that. Of the twelve years I worked in my job, I received one major promotion and no increases in pay, as I happened to be unlucky enough to work for someone who believed neither in annual raises nor in merit-based ones. There was literally zero external incentive to do anything more than a passable job. And yet I kept showing up.
I worked for a business that had experienced unprecedented growth and jaw-dropping success almost since its inception. Because it was so successful early on, the management team became complacent, arrogant about the approach they felt was the right one to take in running the business. The industry environment began to change, slowly eroding the company’s share of the market year by year. It was almost imperceptible—a long, slow death. Because I had been with this company from the very beginning, watching this slow, internal rot was like watching a dear old friend die of bone cancer. And as the company’s illness spread, people who do poorly with power were given positions in which they held it, and the longstanding employees among us, those who felt the grief most strongly, bore the brunt of management’s fury.
The general manager, my friend, had inherited a sickly giant, which was not entirely his fault. But what was his fault was digging himself in; betting his life, his livelihood, and the safety and stability and overall wellbeing of his family on the success of this business. And when he began to realize that he had made a bad choice as a person, he lashed out as a manager. The atmosphere inside the building grew more and more oppressive as the months, and then years, passed. The staff rarely smiled. Every person in every division, except for the very new among us, began to tread lightly around management, knowing that the slightest misstep would result in, at best, public humiliation. The business held on, but barely, in the same way that a person who has fallen off a cliff grasps desperately at the face of the sheer rock wall.
I loved my job, and so I worked under these conditions for seven years. For the last two, just the thought of going to work made me feel kind of sick. But I was afraid to leave. I had given so much of myself to that company. I feared that the tempestuous job market wouldn’t sustain the change I wanted to make, and I was terrified that I might never find work that I truly loved ever again. Silly and pessimistic, I know, but the pull of an abusive relationship is equally as seductive as it is poisonous. I finally resigned myself to the facts of the situation: I loved my job, but I simply couldn’t continue to work under the conditions that my manager had created. I couldn’t suffer a culture that would allow these abuses to take place. I couldn’t bear the idea of sacrificing what remained of my respect for my friend in the interest of supporting his actions as a manager. So I left.
Before I went, I tried to muster up the courage to explain, in detail, why I had decided to leave. Instead of being honest about my feelings—my hurt, my disappointment, and my disgust—I made vague statements about how it was “just time to move on.” Maybe that makes me a coward. Maybe it makes me an enabler. But if my experience had taught me anything, it was that even the most benevolent of criticisms would be met with excuses, and defensiveness, and cruelty, and I decided that it just wasn’t worth my breath.
I said it was time to move on, and it was. But the push I needed was working for a really awful manager and finally getting fed up. I moved on, and none of the things I’d feared so tangibly came to pass. I suppose that this individual ultimately did me a favor, but these aren’t the stories that you want your employees—either current or former—to tell about you when you’re not around. Failing to provide others with appropriate, useful, and timely feedback is a leadership failure, but it is also a personal one. Knowing of the deficit and refusing to do anything about it is simply irresponsible. These failings can be overcome. These skills can be learned. Don’t underestimate the power that feedback, or lack thereof, has over your effectiveness as a leader, the morale of your employees, the culture of your business, and your organization’s ultimate success. If you see yourself in my words, let me give you some well-worn advice: take matters into your own capable hands and do something about it.