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Are You a Bad Manager? How to Ensure Your Answer Is 'No'

Are You a Bad Manager? How to Ensure Your Answer Is 'No'

by Paul Walters

"How's work?" I asked over drinks with a friend. It didn't take long for our conversation to center on good versus bad management practices. I'll save some of the choice words my friend used to describe her boss, but the general themes were micromanagement, caring more about process than outcomes, weakness-focus, lack of recognition, and the list continued.

I then asked how she felt. She dreaded going into work; used all possible days off available; loathed having to meet with him; and felt undervalued, demotivated, and a general heaviness. It had gotten so bad that she refused to talk to her partner about it because talking about it wasn't cathartic -- it only made her more miserable. No wonder we were meeting for drinks. She needed some help, she needed an outlet, she had to escape the negative experience she felt trapped inside.

She then turned to me and said, "Okay. You work for Gallup. Tell me what to do." I thought for a second and said, "Well I actually can probably offer more to him than I can you."

Think about some complaints you've heard from family, friends and colleagues about their work. What is one consistent grievance that you hear? More likely than not, it is about that individual's manager. That's because, put simply, some managers shouldn't be managing.

Gallup research reveals that about one in 10 people have innate talent for managing people. They naturally engage team members and customers, retain top performers, and sustain a culture of high productivity. Another two in 10 exhibit some basic characteristics of managerial talent and can function at a high level -- if their company invests in coaching and development plans for them. So, what about the remaining seven in 10? Despite their lack of natural managerial talent, some of them are still in manager roles -- and they are not doing a great job.

Now, before you get defensive, feel discouraged or leave this article, be assured that if you do fall in the 70% bucket, there are immediate steps you can take to improve how you manage. And if you are already in the top 30%, these are tips you can follow to upgrade your performance.

Set Yourself Apart as an Exceptional Manager

No one sets out to be bad at what they do. The vast majority of managers are well-intentioned. Most of us live in a culture where we equate success with climbing the professional ladder, yet when put in a manager role, most people are ill-equipped and ill-suited to be successful. That's not just the fault of the manager for not learning and playing to their strengths; organizations do a poor job of setting managers up for success, neglecting to provide that person with the right training, resources and development needed to be effective and engaging. The logic is typically: "They were a great individual contributor; they will naturally be able to manage people effectively, right?" Ummm … maybe, but probably not.

Gallup offers a host of research and literature on what sets high-performing managers apart from others. Within this understanding, I have discovered an approach that can completely transform your performance as a manager: Individualize your approach to managing your team members.

We know that, literally, no two people are the same. The biggest difference in success as an individual contributor and success as a manager is that managers must reach results through people, using not only their own talents, but also the talents of others. To capitalize on others' strengths, managers must approach each person differently. This might sound like common sense to some, but you would be surprised how poorly managers individualize their approach consistently and with success.

Let's look at three strategies to help you individualize your management approach:

  1. Have individualized and ongoing coaching conversations.

Employees are most engaged when managers focus on strengths rather than weaknesses, but it is even worse to ignore the person altogether. "No news is good news" is no longer the right mindset -- even the idea of an open-door policy can lead to team members hearing little feedback. Lack of regular, supportive conversations leaves people feeling isolated and irrelevant.

Action Items

Focus on the three key principles of effective coaching conversations: frequent, focused and future-oriented.

  • Frequent: Gallup recommends that employees experience some form of coaching at least once per week.
  • Focused: According to Gallup's Re-Engineering Performance Management research paper: "While there is no perfect approach for keeping coaching conversations focused, it is important for managers to be intentional about what and how much they are trying to achieve during each conversation -- from addressing performance progress to better understanding employee needs to discussing a learning opportunity."
  • Future-oriented: Generally, you can focus your conversations on a) what they are doing well, b) their goals and development, and c) support you can provide.

If making time for these conversations is not a natural management style of yours, put systems in place, such as calendar reminders, to ensure you make time for these conversations and treat them as a priority -- because our research shows that they matter to people.

  1. Explore individualized development opportunities.

I recently coached individuals on a team that went through a new, supposedly exciting and innovative technology training. Some of the people I coached absolutely loved it and kept talking about how it was a value-add for their development; others really struggled with the training and felt lost, frustrated and demotivated.

People are driven by different motivators, so a one-size-fits-all model of development does not work. And the excuse that "we don't have the time or money to develop our employees" does not hold water -- because development does not have to mean promotion, and it doesn't have to cost anything. Development can mean addressing what you do well today and what you would like to do well in six months.

You cannot afford not to develop your employees. One person said to me, "What happens if we develop someone and they leave?" I replied, "What if you don't develop them and they stay?"

Action Items

  • Get curious about which types of development opportunities most motivate your employees. Help align their work to this kind of growth.
  • Carve out a "development" line item in your annual budget and proactively look for development opportunities for them.
  • Give them dedicated time each pay period that they can devote to advancing their skills, knowledge and talents in areas of interest to them through whatever platform makes the most sense for their development needs. Keep in mind: Many development resources are free or low-cost. Examples include online courses; webinars; speakers or conferences in their city; podcasts; books, magazines, or other literature that are of interest to them; etc.
  • Connect them with a mentor who is in a department or role that they someday want to be in at your organization.
  • Let them dabble in work that is of great interest to them -- even if it is outside their job description.
  • Most importantly, let them see you be an active presence and advocate for their development. If they see it's as important to you as it is for them, they will more likely develop a loyalty to you and the organization, as well as a commitment to doing good work.
  1. Offer individualized recognition often.

While coaching a manager around his team's struggling engagement scores, I asked how he recognized his high performers. His response: "I give them more work."

This manager was recognizing his employees the way he valued recognition -- and it wasn't working. To him, getting more work means you are exceeding expectations, so he wanted to recognize their success by giving them more responsibility and opportunities to prosper. Instead, he needed to recognize them in ways that were meaningful to them.

Action Items

  • Make meaningful recognition a priority; if you are not one who naturally recognizes people, put a system in place or find a partner to ensure this happens frequently (at least once a week is a good guideline).
  • Recognize people the way they want to be acknowledged. Some may want to be recognized in front of people; others might want a quiet pat on the back or a note from you put on their desk. There is a really easy way to find out how a person prefers to be recognized: Ask them!

People often leave their job because of their manager. Considering that at least 70% of a person's engagement at work is directly related to a manager, it's easy to see why a manager will make or break a person's professional experience and decision on whether to stay with a company or move on. But if you can make some adjustments that position you as a coach who cares about your employees, you will elevate your employees' well-being, engagement and, ultimately, their performance.

Now, rather than wondering if you're a bad manager, ask yourself how you are individualizing. Celebrate the opportunities you have taken to get to know your people in unique and personalized ways. Lean into the power and potential of the strengths of others. You'll find that it underscores your relationships and your effectiveness as a manager.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Paul Walters' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Strategic, Communication, Arranger, Competition and Woo.

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