Career Success

The Difference Between Good and Great Managers

By Mara CerticJune 14, 2016

If Hollywood and the humdrum of our everyday lives have taught us anything, it’s that bad bosses far outnumber the good ones. In fact a Gallup study of American adults found that half had left a job at some point in their career to get away from an awful manager. For the past 15 years, similar polls have found that less than one-third of Americans say they are engaged at work – and a lot of that comes down to their manager.

But what is it that makes a horrible boss? And, more importantly, what separates the beyond awful from the good, and the good from the great?

Clinical Psychologist Albert Bernstein has written extensively about less-than-stellar managers, how to cope with them, and, more specifically, people he refers to as “emotional vampires.”

“Emotional Vampires are what I call people with personality disorders — the strange psychological maladies that drive other people crazy. Like vampires they are driven by a single insatiable need. If you’re not careful, they will use you to fill it,” Dr. Bernstein wrote in an Op-Ed for Business News Daily.

The four types of vampire you’re most likely to encounter in the workplace, Dr. Bernstein says, are Anti-Socials (hedonists who crave excitement in all forms), Histrionics (who live for attention and drama), Narcissists (who are convinced they’re the most important person in the room), and Obsessive-Compulsives (those who can find no task too small to micromanage.) Similarly, a TIME magazine article once delineated the absolute worst bosses as the “crooked politician,” the bully, the micromanager, the workaholic, and the BFF.

These different combinations of character traits can lead to all-out disasters – the managers who inspired movies like Nine to Five, Working Girl, The Devil Wears Prada and the eponymous Horrible Bosses (both one and two.) And while Hollywood has a tendency to exaggerate, so many of the worst stories are actually true.

We interviewed women (who, for professional reasons, asked us not to use their real names), about their previous managers, and many had stories to share, including their fair share of horror stories. For example, Jennifer, a 30-year finance executive whose manager once asked her to dress more like a Japanese woman and less like a Brooks Brothers ad; or Angela, a market researcher, who once had a boss sit in the front row of a presentation she was giving, shaking his head “No” for the entirety. Or even Marisa, whose manager in a PR firm had her work late one night to help trim his ear hair.

But even managers who don’t cause such extreme horror stories can be difficult to deal with, and the reason why impressive, talented employees often end up cutting their losses and quitting. Among the most common complaints about managers are those who ask for too much and micro-manage.

“Terrible bosses (who outnumber good ones by 10,000 to 1) believe that the staffer is there solely to make the boss look good. The instant there is the hint of failure or client dissatisfaction, the staffer goes under the bus. My favorite description is “seagull managers”: they swoop in, making a lot of noise, crap all over everything and leave,” said Angela who is in her early 60s and has been working in market research for over 30 years.

Emily, a 26-year-old analyst for a leading tech company, also has had to deal with her fair share of controlling managers in her career, “A bad boss imposes their own approach to work upon you, stifling your creativity and micromanaging your every task,” she explained. “When you don’t feel ownership over what you do, you stop thinking about the broader goals of your work and focus in on the micro-task in front of you.”

“The flipside of this,” she said, “Is a boss who doesn’t give you any support at all. There will be some tasks where you don’t have the authority, the experience or the know-how to achieve, and it’s these tasks where you should be able to look to your boss for support and guidance on the approach. Failing on the important stuff when your boss had the tools to help you achieve is the mark of bad management.”

And bad bosses do more than just send employees running. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Educational medicine found that employees who work long hours and have high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And another 2015 poll found that 50% of American workers said they were overworked or burnt out.

Treating your employees well, gaining their trust, and being an effective leader are obviously of utmost importance for any manager. And micromanaging, absurd requests, insane expectations, communication issues, lack of respect, and downright rudeness top the list of bad manager qualities. But what makes a really great manager? Who is the type of person that employees want to work for?

According to all of the women we spoke to, a great manager is not only one who can communicate well, and is respectful and honest, but one who inspires and encourages greatness.

Great bosses are the ones who give underlings the opportunity to shine,” said Angela. “i.e., they give new opportunities, provide enough direction so the staffer is willing to try, then give public congratulations on successes.”

In the endless work day that the internet age has brought to us, employees around the world, and particularly in the tech sector, complain of being overworked and underpaid. Catherine, who is in her late 20s and works for a tech company in the U.K. had to work long hours on both Christmas and New Year, but at the end of the day, she said, it was worth it. In a one-on-one meeting, she asked for a raise. “I told him that the rate I was learning and becoming more valuable to the company was increasing way faster than the wages,” she said. After getting it approved with higher-ups, he quickly let her know that she was getting an out-of-cycle raise. “I nearly cried when he told me, because it really made it all worth it,” she said.

Trusting employees, compensating them adequately and giving them freedom to grow and learn were other highly lauded qualities. A great manager, Emily said, will support you so you don’t screw up the important stuff, but also let you lick your own wounds when you trip up on the smaller bits and pieces. “Basically they give you space to learn on the job without leaving you out in the cold,” she concluded.

“One of my favorite managers here now is incredible at bringing people together,” Jennifer, a high-powered manager in the finance world, said. “When you are with him  — even standing in the elevator or walking by him in the hallway — he will always bring you in and say: Have you met? Do you know each other? So he helps you to build your network.”

It’s all comes down to a level of balance. Managers must be fair but kind; be helpful but not hover; be fun but not distracting; trust you but not leave you out in the cold; offer transparency but not overwhelm with information; know how to communicate and praise without favoring anyone, and always value good feedback.

Mara Certic

Mara Certic

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Mara is a writer and former political reporter with an MA from the University of Edinburgh. She lived extensively throughout Europe, and brings a global perspective to everything she writes.

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