Bad Managers

Over the past ten years, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some excellent managers and business strategists. I’ve also worked with a fair number of wasters. In fact, I’ve come to a sort of counter-Tolstoy realization about managers: the good ones seem each to be unique in their particular approach to handling people and process, while the bad ones are dispiritingly alike.

Here’s a taxonomy of some of the more egregiously bad managers I’ve encountered in the wild, and some advice on how to handle them:

George W. Bush and FEMA Director Michael BrownThe “Big Picture” Guy. Resides primarily in the stratospheric environs of executive management. Doesn’t dirty his/her hands with details,  yet somehow manages an encyclopedic retention of PGA stats and the Christian names of sommeliers. Known to make (and then thoughtfully repeat) sweepingly platitudinous statements that are difficult to disagree with. Would characterize his/her primary value as being able to “connect the dots.”

There are pros and cons to working with a big picture guy. Pros: the autonomy; the responsibility; the access to resources. Con: fighting fires while Mr. Value-Added is fluting his way through a Veuve Clicquot down at the Ruth’s Chris. Demarcate your areas of responsibility. Learn to argue, and win, using PowerPoint. Keep this individual off critical path; rely instead on the “cc.”

Douglas MacArthurThe General. Demonstrated an early aptitude for pulling the wings off insects, and has subsequently earned a reputation with superiors for “getting things done,” goddamnit. May or may not strive to be welcomed into executive upper management, which will almost certainly never happen. Verbally aggressive. Sometimes physically aggressive. (Unambiguously sides with Machiavelli on the feared-versus-loved debate. Also: knows who Machiavelli was.) Acutely aware of reporting lines and seniority. Cannot not dominate a meeting; might hold own counsel for the first few bullet points, but will soon interject, redirecting the conversation to introduce radically divergent goals. Manages to deftly identify and solve problems which, remarkably, no one was aware of beforehand.

Most people, when forced to work with a five-star idiot, try to present the smallest possible target, which rarely works. A better strategy is to ascertain your enemy’s enemy. There’s a good chance this type of individual is engaged in a silent long-term battle with a similarly beady-eyed peer. Stoke the flames.

Milton FriedmanThe Number-Cruncher. A reactive and deterministic decision-maker who regards all events as a function of causality. Maintains a library of user manuals for software which hasn’t been available in years. Tends to gravitate toward any bottleneck position in an organization, from which to act as an impediment to proactive or innovative thought. May attempt to overcome perception of risk aversion by embracing (a) skydiving, (b) bungee-jumping, or (c) other employees. Is likely a green belt in Six Sigma.

The number-cruncher’s weakness is a narrow definition of success. Align your goals with anything quantifiable. Where this isn’t possible, attempt the opposite, albeit riskier, spanner-in-the-gearbox strategy: defiantly embrace the unquantifiable and hope that by ratcheting up the pressure something will break.

Inspector ClouseauThe Extremophile. Lives in a constant state of panic, yet is paradoxically most often found in comparatively placid environments. Believes that acting swiftly with marginal information is a more prudent option than acting calmly with full information. Is widely known for responding to the first, rather than the last, comment in an email thread now several hours old. Remains adamant about avoiding stress.

Neutralizing the extremophile requires that you remain on call 24-7 for this individual, solving problems before a minor misunderstanding becomes a five alarm fire. To avoid early morning and late night phone calls, schedule a regularly recurring meeting to nip problems in the bud. If your meetings get blown off, or aren’t frequent enough to prevent conflagration, try recruiting additional fire wardens; there’s a good chance you’re not the only one running from one false alarm to another. As an alternate, but riskier, strategy, you can often distract an extremophile by torching abandoned buildings on the other side of town.

The Dude. Complete opposite of the extremophile. Has found an unassailable niche somewhere in the organization within which requirements and deadlines don’t seem to apply. Although occasionally vocal in meetings, has mastered the art of avoiding active verbs. Doesn’t tag, archive or answer email; a healthy inbox is his/her way of letting the freak flag fly.

Learning to work with the dude is all about finding the right vibe. Keep your expectations to a minimum, and solicit input face-to-face or, if absolutely necessary, by telephone. In conflict situations, don’t assume others will recognize the dude’s failings. There’s a reason the dude abides. Conversely, don’t expect a ride on the dude’s magic bus. Eccentrics are like excuses: the first one’s plausible; the second one smells off.

Kim Jong IlKim Jong Il. Unhinged. So completely odious and unlikeable that his/her decisions go unchallenged. Somehow manages to be a couple years shy of retirement, year after year after year. No one questions the sunglasses.

Trying to manage the behavior of this sort of individual is usually futile; no one can predict the whims of a mad king. Accept that you’re playing roulette, and spin the wheel as often as you can. Rest assured that to a pariah, all threats are equal; you won’t be singled out for particular attention no matter what you do.



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