Company Culture
Business / Culture / Hiring / HR

Want to speed progress and enhance company culture? Fire bad managers

Find people who want to manage, instead of just promoting staff members who’ve done good work.

Members of the team — none of whom are bad managers — in December 2023 (Solmaira Valerio for
Two internal candidates were up for a vacant management position. 

Both were thoughtful, hardworking and invested in our organization. One was more senior on the team, and better in their current position than the other. Yet I promoted the other — and the first left our organization, albeit on good terms. 

It was difficult. But I stand by it. The first may have done more for our organization. But promotions aren’t rewards for what you’ve done. They ought to reflect what skill you bring to the new role. This is especially true for jobs managing other people.

Yet we get this wrong all the time. In my experience, the most common cause of bad managers is promoting someone because of past contributions rather than future interests. 

This risk is getting bigger. America has 19 million managers — 60% more than in 2000. Nearly 1 in 5 American workers is a manager now. A 2016 analysis put it coldly: As many as 12 million managers create little or no economic value. By 2018, anthropologist David Graeber argued in his irascible book “Bullshit Jobs” that as many as two in five jobs in the rich world were economically pointless — many of them managers who weren’t also leaders. 

Orgs inflate titles, and compensation is too often tied to how many direct reports a person manages. Better to encourage well-compensated individual contributors than feel the pressure to retain employees with inflated manager titles. 

The difference between bad managers and good managers is vast — and the difference between good managers and great managers is more vast still

Imagine a dystopian future in which every job is a management job overseeing hordes of artificial intelligence, automations and robots. The performance reviews would be chilly.

Before then we need to do better. One business analyst put it dimly: “Managers are expensive, increase the risk of bad decisions, disenfranchise employees, and slow progress. In fact, management may be the least efficient activity in any company.”

Which is why “managers” have developed such a bad reputation. In a survey across 10 countries, nearly three-quarters of workers said their boss influenced their mental health as much as their spouse did. Half of Americans who leave a job say it’s because of a bad manager — versus just a third in the United Kingdom.

Pity the managers. Management is tricky because people are fiendishly complex. Motivations, personalities and preferences vary widely. And yet, a manager’s job is to channel employees with various interests into a common goal.

The difference between bad managers and good managers is vast, and the difference between good managers and great managers is more vast still. 

The most reliable way to get close is to hire people who want to manage people rather than promoting people who have done good work. A promotion ought not be a reward. It’s a reflection of being a good fit for the new role.

Looking back, the internal candidate I promoted wanted to be a manager, and the one I overlooked wanted a promotion. In other cases, though I’ve gotten swifter at removing underperforming teammates, I never move faster than when that ill-fitting employee is in a manager role. 

Have a bad manager on your team? Forgive my bluntness: Fire them.


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