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So you want to be a Manager - Part 4: The blast radius of bad management
I initially had doubts about naming this article in such a negative and dramatic way. However, after watching Oppenheimer this week, I decided to stick with the title. Like a bomb, the impact of bad management can ripple far beyond what we initially realize and the aftermath lingers, leaving lasting scars.
Few things upset me more than bad management. I have seen its impact on myself and others. It's difficult to watch friends and coworkers experience issues such as panic attacks, thinning hair, depression, ER visits, crippling self-doubt, and strained close relationships - all because of their jobs. I cannot simply be a bystander watching people and projects I deeply care about suffer due to mismanagement and a poor work environment.
I often wish there were an engineering management version of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take at the beginning of their medical careers. Similar to doctors pledging to do no harm, why not have managers do the same? Food for thought for a future article.
So, yes, I'm sticking to the bomb analogy because the impact of poor management is larger than we think, and we need to talk about it with the gravity it requires.
This is the 4th installment in a 5-part series about management. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend starting with Part 1. This article explores how far-reaching and damaging poor management can be.
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What’s really at stake
Often, we consider a manager's impact mainly from the business perspective. The business is at stake, and no business means no jobs. Metrics like KPIs, EBITDA and ARRs make business impact easier to measure and track.
However, we must not forget that without people, there can be no business either. Therefore, people are also at stake. Unfortunately, compared to the business metrics, the impact on people is much harder to quantify and measure.
One thing is clear: numerous studies, replicated over an extended period of time and across different industries, confirm that the number one factor determining one’s job satisfaction is their relationship with their manager. Good management is a key factor in a company's success. So how come bad management is still so pervasive?
In this article, my goal is to connect the dots between the different behaviors poor managers exhibit and the impact they have. To understand the blast radius of bad management we need to start with the individual and look outward to their network, the team, the organization, and the company overall. Let’s explore these layers one by one.
Impact on the individual
The better the manager, the happier, more creative, and more productive the employees tend to be. On the flip side, bad managers can impact one’s physical and mental health, lead to burnout, and damage someone’s sense of self and confidence. The effects can last long after the person stops being their manager.
If you've had a bad boss, you understand firsthand the toll it takes on your stress levels.
In the “What is Psychological Safety and why you should care” article, I explain what happens with the brain when we are stressed and feeling unsafe: our motivation, creativity, productivity, and performance are the first to suffer. For more info, check out:
2. Physical and mental health
Besides stress, bad managers can cause major health issues and even death. Behaviors such as constant criticism, scrutinizing and doubting, controlling, unrealistic workload expectations, neglect, lack of support, and unfair treatment can wreak havoc on anybody’s physical and mental state.
Chronic exposure to stress impacts our immune system, heart, digestive system, and much more. Besides the physical issues, it should be no surprise that employees also start developing clinical depression and anxiety. And no, it’s not the workload causing these issues. Studies show that an unfair boss and an unfair work environment are what really bring employees down.
Additionally, receiving a lot of criticism and negative feedback can cause people to doubt their abilities and lose self-confidence. Without enough appreciation and support, people start feeling like they're not important, which can hurt their perception of self.
Bad management can lead to burnout. The link between the two is something I talk extensively about in “Burnout in Tech - Part 3: The external causes of burnout”.
Some of the manager behaviors that contribute to employees’ burnout are passing down pressure, not helping remove roadblocks / reduce friction, failing to set expectations and give feedback, and not helping bridge the relationships with other roles and teams. For more info, check out:
4. Long lasting damage
To make matters worse, the effect of a toxic manager stays with you even after that person stops being your manager. Data from a study on NBA players shows that players with abusive coaches performed at a lower level -- and had more technical fouls -- than players who were not. In addition, the negative impact lingered for as long as 10 years!!
Impact on the individual’s network
The aftermath of bad management radiates outward, affecting not just you but your broader network. Workplace stress is a collective challenge.
Coping with workplace stress might lead to emotional withdrawal or detachment from one's support network. This emotional distance can create a sense of isolation, making it challenging to get the proper support needed when dealing with a bad manager.
2. Impact on all social connections
Stress and frustration, mood changes, decreased energy, and increased irritability stemming from work-related negativity can strain connections with family, friends, and even acquaintances, altering the dynamics within a person's support network.
3. Impact on parents
For parents, there is research to confirm that the nature of one co-parent’s work environment impacts the other co-parent. Partners who had supportive managers were, in turn, more supportive of their co-parent at home. The opposite is also true, not having a supportive manager will take away the time and energy individuals can bring to their home lives.
Impact on the team
At the team level, the effects of bad management are palpable and far-reaching. Some of the behaviors most impactful on team dynamics are lack of clarity regarding expectations and goals, lack of feedback, and lack of recognition. This results in ineffective performance management, and can have terrible consequences on a team.
Lack of clarity: makes people feel confused and unmotivated, leads to unfair workloads and evaluations, and creates resentment among team members.
Lack of feedback and guidance: makes people stagnate in their careers, which hurts the team's performance.
Lack of recognition: erodes team spirit and leads to decreased collaboration and a sense of isolation among members. As motivation dwindles, conflicts can arise, which makes it even harder for the team to work together.
And let’s not forget about mood contagion within a team, a well-documented phenomenon, where team members mirror the emotions of their manager and one another. In a true domino effect, bad morale can propagate to the team as a whole.
In a nutshell, poor management negatively influences team dynamics and can cause a series of cascading effects very difficult to reverse later on.
Impact on the organization
The implications of bad management extend beyond individuals and teams to impact the entire organization.
Poor managers can cause teams to become dysfunctional, which is typically marked by a lack of trust, accountability, collaboration, and communication.
This has an impact at the organizational level because the dysfunctions of a team rarely stay contained within the team. For example, if individuals within a team don’t trust each other or their manager, they will start projecting the same distrust on other teams.
Additionally, dysfunctional teams start to have negative track records of not being able to deliver on time. What might happen is other teams will start isolating this problematic team and that will end up creating silos. Working in silos is really harmful to the culture of a company because it results in communication breakdown, and affects decision-making.
Lastly, similar to mood contagion, dysfunctions can also be contagious. The larger the “infection” the harder it will be to fix.
Impact on the company
1. Stifled creativity and innovation
Let’s take a moment of silence for all the great ideas throughout history that have not seen the light of day because of bad managers.
This is a good example of a non-quantifiable impact of bad management. We can’t really measure the opportunity cost of silenced ideas, but we know it’s the normal consequence of not feeling psychologically safe to speak up and voice your ideas.
2. Quitting and quiet quitting
Bad bosses are the #1 reason why people leave their jobs, and the impact is costing the business in multiple ways.
When employees feel frustrated or unsupported due to poor management, they're more likely to look for new opportunities. This turnover disrupts project timelines, causes delays, and costs the company both time and money. Hiring and training new employees is also expensive, adding to the financial toll. But the real loss goes beyond numbers – experienced team members take with them valuable context and domain knowledge that's hard to replace.
Worse thank quitting is "quiet quitting", a situation where employees start disengaging without making it obvious. Quiet quitting is more insidious because it's harder to identify and address, allowing the underlying issues to go unnoticed and fester.
Employees who are disengaged tend to work at a slower pace and produce lower-quality work. They don’t participate in team activities and are less likely to suggest new ideas. This results in a gradual decrease in performance and morale that can spread, affecting the overall organizational culture and hurting the company's financial success.
3. Negating other investments
A boss's influence can overshadow all the good things the company offers.
No matter how many fancy programs a company introduces to improve employee engagement, such as rewards, stimulating work environments, EAP programs, health benefits, and more, they won't have much impact on people who have unsupportive or ineffective bosses. The perks won’t make up for the daily challenges employees face. It's a reminder that strong leadership is essential to making the workplace truly fulfilling and motivating.
Poor management can have serious negative impacts. As a manager, you don't just lead a team. You also have an impact on the whole organization and the personal lives of team members.
If you’re considering becoming a manager, remember that your actions have a bigger impact than you think, whether it's positive or negative. Be a leader who cares about their team, and you’ll see them flourish.
Lastly, we shouldn’t blindly accept that bad managers are an inevitable cost of doing business. Instead, we should raise awareness of the potential negative consequences of bad management and not let them get out of hand. We need to carefully select our managers and work for companies that support, train, and hold their managers accountable.
The next article is the final installment of this series, and we’re discussing why transitioning to management is worth every step, despite its difficulties. Hope to see you there!
Until next time,
Your Caring Techie
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