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I'm the Former VP of HR at Microsoft. I've Witnessed Many Bad Managers in My Career — and They Almost All Had These 4 Traits. Here's what to look for—and learn from.

By Chris Williams

Key Takeaways

  • Chris Williams is a former Microsoft VP of HR and a podcaster, consultant, and TikTok creator.
  • He writes that bad managers are often self-centered and overly focused on their image.
  • Williams also says that bad managers are so afraid of failure that their teams bury any evidence of it.
Chris Williams via Business Insider
Chris Williams

This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

I've seen more than a few bad managers in my over 40 years of business, leadership, and consulting — including as the vice president of HR at Microsoft. Here are four traits I've seen in almost every one of them.

1. Self-centered

The most common trait I've seen in bad managers is a relentless focus on themselves. Everything is all about them. Whether it's driven by ego or panic, bad managers are always worried about how they appear to others.

Bad managers stress about how they look to their boss: Do I look strong or weak? Do they think I'm an idiot? How do my peers see me? What about those above my boss?

Bad managers fret about what their team thinks of them. They want desperately to be looked up to. They must have all the answers. Rather than focus on issues, it's all about appearances. They want to appear strong, unflappable, even invincible to their team.

A few managers do this out of ego. They need to be the center of attention, the focus of their world. They want everything in their team to be for their benefit. Perhaps to enhance their career. More often to stoke their ego.

But the egotists are the exception, not the rule. More common are the worriers. The nervous managers cowering under the weight of their own imposter syndrome. You can tell them from the egotists by their tentative approach to problems. Afraid of being exposed, they put on the bravest of faces. But it's just a mask. Worried what others must think of them. Not realizing how rarely others ever do.

Failing to see that it's the results that count, they worry about image. Their image. So, they try to control every aspect of their presentation to others.

Instead of working with their team to create the results that would get them notice, they make it all about themselves.

2. Input-focused

Most bad managers are inordinately focused on the inputs to their processes, not the output results of the team.

They stress about employees who are two minutes late or too often in the restroom. They track their employees' every move, their every keystroke. They worry about hours input, not results output.

Their obsession with image spills out here as well. They stress about professional appearance, not professional results. They want everyone to always at least look busy. There's no greater crime than a happy employee enjoying their time with their co-workers. It's all business, all the time.

These managers relentlessly track everything, all the wrong things. They track time spent with the customer, not whether the customer was satisfied. They track keystrokes per minute, not problems resolved. They monitor employees as if they were robots, looking for the slightest variation from their ideal automaton.

These managers lose sight of the forest for the trees. Instead of being obsessed with results, sales, and happy customers, they are focused on the inputs — the inputs that feel easier to control.

3. Afraid of failure

A spin off from the obsession with image, these bad managers are deeply afraid of failure. Particularly any appearance of failure that might reflect poorly on them.

Rather than embracing the odd failure as the inevitable consequence of a team that's pushing the boundaries, these managers are obsessed with perfection. Instead of searching for causes, they hunt for someone to blame. Rather than finding a chance for all to learn, they see a reason to be embarrassed.

Outwardly, they bury any evidence of a misstep, hoping it never sees the light of day. Worried it will reflect badly on their record, they find excuses or culprits. Anywhere else to cast the negative light.

Consequently, the team becomes trained to also bury any evidence of failure.

Results are even falsified to prevent disclosure of any outcome that falls short of perfection. Just like their manager, they grow averse to failure. The better to avoid the harsh consequences of discovery.

The team becomes tentative, careful in every step. No risks are taken, and no boundaries are even approached, lest the result be the smallest failing. Safe and cautious to the point of being timid, the team underperforms. Only to earn the further ire of the perfectionist in chief.

Rather than push the team the bad manager plays everything safe. Rather than learn from, even embrace, failure, they lash out and bury it.

4. Information hoarder

All of this leads to a manager who treats information as a precious commodity to be hoarded — rather than a gift to be shared.

The bad manager controls the narrative both into and out of the team. They maintain strict control over communication outside the team. They monitor email and meetings, insisting on being copied or included. They meticulously review and edit every scrap of information that might find its way to the higher-ups.

Afraid of upsetting the team, the bad manager hides bad news they learn from above or around them. They portray it as heroically shielding the team from the noise. In reality, they are postponing the inevitable discovery through other sources. Without control of the news, the manager only looks worse, their greatest fear.

The manager and the team soon find themselves lying to each other. And to everyone outside. "Everything's great here; no need to worry about us." Even as the fires of doom burn ever closer.

Teams run by bad managers often resemble cults in this way. They become isolated islands cut off from the rest of the organization. "I can't tell you, that's need to know" or "you wouldn't understand" are common refrains.

These teams rarely outperform, but you'd never know that from the limited available information — information hoarded jealously by their bad manager.

Managers like this are famous — for the wrong reasons

With this array of common traits, bad managers often become famous within the organization. But not in the way they would hope. They are looked on with disdain, even pity, from the outside. Smart employees warn their peers to avoid them. Refugees from the team tell stories far and wide. Many simply quit to escape the pain.

If you find yourself on their team, the best approach is to find a way out. They will likely outlast you, and wear you down.

Which highlights their most troublesome trait, the bad manager endures.

They even ramp up their tactics. Their carefully masked image of success hides them from consequences. The organization suffers, often rewarding the behavior that makes them such bad managers in the first place. Like cockroaches in the end times, bad managers find a way to endure.

Chris Williams is a former vice president of HR at Microsoft and a leadership advisor, podcaster, TikTok creator, and author.

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