11 mins

Great managers tend to have some common traits: vision, empathy, decisiveness. Bad managers, however, come in many different flavors.

Most bad managers aren’t intentionally evil or malicious. Rather, poor management techniques are often a result of insecurity, stress, and lack of insight. These are fixable problems, but the manager must first recognize their flaws.

This article caricatures five such counterproductive managers. Think of them as management anti-patterns. Or cautionary tales.

1. The Bottleneck

The Bottleneck wants their team’s work to be perfect. Unfortunately, the only way they know is to handle everything personally. They insist on reviewing every code change and design document. All project decisions go through them. In addition, Bottleneck’s boss expects them to present updates to upper management and strategize with other teams. Naturally, Bottleneck is swamped with work.

In the meantime, the team is starting to grumble about slow code reviews. A senior engineer is visibly irritated whenever he has to bring project decisions to Bottleneck. But Bottleneck thinks working harder will fix everything. Then one day, the senior engineer quits. Two others swiftly follow. The boss yells at Bottleneck for their poor cross-team coordination. Bottleneck finally realizes they can’t do it all. Their unwillingness to relinquish control delayed the project and frustrated everyone. Even worse, by trying to be a hero, they denied the team its own chance to shine. The senior engineer who quit in frustration could instead have owned technical approvals. Engineers could have learned a lot by making their own project decisions.

Bottleneck starts to delegate. The engineers don’t always make the best decisions, but they learn from their mistakes over time. As a bonus, this frees up Bottleneck to focus on the strategic outreach their boss wants them to do.

2. The Sphinx

The Sphinx’s team is a confusing place to work. One engineer gets a poor performance review out of the blue. Another one is unexpectedly reassigned to a new project. The team never knows what the Sphinx is thinking.

In 1:1s, the Sphinx makes generic statements like ‘you’re doing great’ but doesn’t provide actionable feedback. They move engineers around and abruptly change priorities without explanation. The engineers feel like they’re always on murky ground, and their work could change overnight.

Sphinx thinks they’re being decisive and sheltering the team from distractions – the team don’t need to hear about senior management’s new strategy; Sphinx will simply adjust projects to fit it. They will be a positive cheerleader in 1:1s and not shower folk with negative comments.

Imagine Sphinx’s shock when the engineers rate the team low on psychological safety during performance evaluations! As Sphinx unpacks this feedback, their boss provides a valuable perspective: psychological safety requires trust and a team cannot trust a manager they don’t understand. Sphinx finally sees things from the team’s perspective. They resolve to communicate early and often in the future.

3. The Sh*t Funnel

Managers can be sh*t funnels or sh*t umbrellas. The umbrellas keep their team strategically shielded from outside crap. The Funnel does not. Upper management pressure, organizational rivalries, over-eager product managers – the team gets the full force of all these distractions.

Over after-work drinks, the Funnel regales engineers with complaints about a ‘rival’ team. At lunch, they rant about the product manager’s unreasonable expectations. Amusingly, this firehose of crap initially endears the Funnel to their team. It’s the team against the world, and the Funnel is on the team’s side.

But slowly, the drama starts to wear away at team morale. It is hard to focus on work when rumors of upset product managers are swirling around. Then one day, the Funnel is chewed out by their boss. They come to the team meeting fuming and repeat the conversation verbatim. Everyone in the room squirms and wishes the Funnel would just not... share so much.

Stress is part of a leader’s role, but successful leaders learn to absorb the pressure and shield their team. The Funnel does not need to become the Sphinx, of course. Transparency is critical, but Funnel must distinguish between ranting and productive sharing. They could also use tips on calming down after emotional meetings. Otherwise, their team is going to become demoralized and unproductive.

4. The Wrecking Ball

The Wrecking Ball is warned that their new team has low morale. So they come in looking for issues to fix, and right away, they find a couple. Firstly, the majority of the team is working on a migration project that has hit repeated delays. Also, the team has a cumbersome approval process, making launches slow and frustrating. Wrecking Ball is determined and decisive. In their first week, they scrap the approval process. They also decide the migration isn’t worth the cost, cancel it, and reallocate the engineers to an exciting new project.

Unfortunately, in their haste to fix the problems, they don’t seek the team’s input. It turns out the migration would have resolved issues that have frustrated the team for years. Senior engineers on the team had instituted the approval process after multiple disastrous outages. Naturally, Wrecking Ball’s sweeping changes leave these senior engineers feeling slighted and unappreciated. Morale goes down instead of up; the most valuable talent is the first out the door.

Ironically, Wrecking Ball wasn’t wholly wrong. The migration had suffered from scope creep. The approval process was overly conservative. Their mistake was underestimating the emotional impact of their abrupt decisions and overestimating their own ability to diagnose and fix problems.

If they had collaborated with the team, the result could have been very different. Together they could have rescoped the migration to its original goals. A slimmed-down approval process would still prevent the most dangerous outages. The changes would have energized the team and leveraged the senior engineers instead of alienating them.

5. The Wallflower

The Wallflower has been on the team for years and was recently promoted to manager. Unlike Wrecking Ball, they aren’t looking to make significant changes. Instead, they focus on keeping things running. The team owns critical infrastructure for the entire company, and Wallflower ensures every bug is promptly fixed. New clients of the infrastructure get personal attention during onboarding.

At first, this works well. But as the company grows, cracks start to show. Their storage architecture isn’t scaling well. A junior engineer suggests rearchitecting the system, but the old-timers on the team insist that it just needs minor fixes. Wallflower doesn’t weigh in. With an explosion in new clients, onboarding becomes a significant burden on the team. Wallflower merely reiterates that giving new clients a good experience is essential. Their boss prods gently for more extensive improvements. Should new client onboarding become self-service? Are they going to rewrite the storage layer? But Wallflower is afraid to disrupt the status quo or go against the old-timers. Eventually, complaints flow in from all over the company. There are too many outages, and the onboarding takes forever. The team also faces major attrition issues. The old-timers stick around, but it is hard to retain newer engineers. Nobody wants to work on ancient architecture and bloated code.

Finally, the boss demands Wallflower make significant changes. Or else! Wallflower realizes their complacency and timidity have hurt the team. A manager should be forward-looking, ambitious, and not beholden to the status quo.

Do any of these characters sound uncomfortably familiar? If you think you incline towards one of these anti-patterns, don’t despair. Becoming aware of your problematic behaviors is the first step towards changing them.