· 9 mins · Communication

5 Management horror stories and what leaders can learn from them

Learn how to be a better manager from these three horrific management stories.

Avatar of Hiba Amin Hiba Amin

In the spirit of Halloween, we reached out to several management communities and asked individuals to share their most horrific encounter with a manager. We’ve also pulled some stories from an active Reddit thread that asked people what made them quit a job on the spot. 👻

Let’s be real… It’s likely that at some point in your career you’ve had to deal with a bad manager. Whether they micromanaged you, created more roadblocks than they removed, or were someone you didn’t feel comfortable being around. There’s no shortage in bad managers, but there is a shortage in people willing to deal with them.

In fact, in a 2018 Monster.com survey, the job site polled 957 people who were openly seeking new jobs on why they wanted to leave their current employer. 76% of respondents blamed a “toxic boss” for being the reason.

The honest truth? No one wants to be a bad manager. No one wants to be a horror story for someone else. That’s why it’s so important to understand the experiences of others to ensure that we, as managers, are doing everything we can to be the leader our teams deserve.

In this article, we’re going to walk through 5 management horror stories, including:

In the interest of those who shared their stories, their identities will remain anonymous.

The leader who refused to provide feedback when asked for it

“I had a manager who would refuse to give me ongoing feedback while I was working on something. I’d ask for it and she would say, “just show me when it’s done”. I was in a co-op/learning position so it was terrifying to think I’d be going in the wrong direction only to find out at the end. I am the kind of person who needs constant feedback loops to feel confident that the work I’m doing is not only what’s expected of me, but that it’s great. My manager constantly refused to give me the feedback I needed when I asked.”

What leaders can learn from this: 

  1. When employees ask for feedback or support, always act on it. Ignoring it will only lead them to shut off. It’ll deter them from asking for help, sharing feedback, and their overall productivity will take a hit as a result.
  2. Remember that what works for you won’t always be the same for your team. Every individual has different communication and workflow preferences so take the time to understand what those preferences are for each individual on your team. If you want to lead a high performing team, then it’s on you to adapt to the needs of your team to ensure they have everything they need to succeed.
  3. Always communicate your expectations and check-in throughout the process rather than just at the start and end. When you don’t it’s a recipe for disaster. An employee could spend weeks finishing a project only to have that work be rendered useless because you didn’t sync up at the right time. Consider implementing the 10/50/99 framework for feedback sharing on your team!

The leader who decided that work was the best way to grieve

“While in my first proper job after university, my parents both passed in traumatic circumstances. My parents lived in a different country, so I’d need a bit of time off. I asked my boss what the policy was for this kind of situation and he said, “I understand this is a difficult time, but I find that work often helps process these emotional circumstances, so I expect you back at your desk in a week”.

What leaders can learn from this:

  1. Practice empathetic leadership. Whether it’s a death in the family or other circumstances that are affecting your direct report, work shouldn’t add to their personal stress. Take the start of the COVID-19 pandemic for example, people were struggling. From the uncertainty of the “new world” to the fear around how the pandemic would impact loved ones. Instead of being another source of anxiety, leaders should give their team space to breathe. Make adjustments with individuals when life happens.
  2. Don’t offer unsolicited feedback. If a direct report shares a traumatic experience with you, listen more than you speak. Before letting them know what you expect or providing unsolicited advice, ask them what they need. Bring in any individuals that you need, like HR, so that you can come up with the best plan to support your direct report while balancing business needs. 
  3. Things are bound to come up that will require your direct reports to take extended leaves, sick time, or even just a day off. A great way to ensure your whole quarter doesn’t blow up is to follow the agile methodology to keep your team… well, agile.

The leader who decided that one person could do three jobs

“When I was an individual contributor, I was working on a project with two other developers. One of the developers quit and the other was fired. They were not replaced and it wasn’t made evident to me that replacements would be hired. With the lack of resources, I started having to work until midnight day in and day out, including weekends in order to meet our original deadlines. This went on for months. When I finally approached my manager to explain my point of view and ask for help, he told me that it wasn’t a resource issue, but that I was bad at time management. I got so frustrated during this conversation (and was very near complete burnout at this point), he told me I was too emotional. From that point on I had no trust for my manager. He wasn’t on my side.”

What leaders can learn from this

  1. There will always be turnover in any organization. It’s normal. However, how you handle that turnover affects the employees who are still with you. You need to make sure that with the limited resources you have now, you’re continuing to set your direct reports up for success rather than burnout. It can be tempting to overload those who do great work with more work, but don’t. It’s not fair to them and can push them to the brink of quitting, or push them to resign from the job.
  2. Set realistic expectations with your team. When you set quarterly goals, you do so with the understanding of the resources you have at hand. When resources dwindle, adjust your goals and expectations to the resources you’re left with. Remember that employee burnout is a slippery slope and impacts the overall productivity of your team. In fact, employees who frequently experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, and 2.6 times more likely to actively seek a new job. In times of turnover, avoiding burnout should be the goal. Set realistic expectations that challenge your team, but be mindful about their mental health.

The leader with a big ego

When I joined an investment management firm out of school, I had a fantastic interview process. I was promised employee development opportunities (MBAs, growth path to partner/ownership, etc.) and autonomy. It was so exciting! I worked in that position for 2.5 years after school, and I would say that within 12 months, I realized that I didn’t love the job and the manager that I worked for was not a real leader. He was a boss. He had an ego, was petty, and generally, didn’t have much of a care for the growth and development of the team and instead took every opportunity to make it clear that he was the boss.

I worked hard and cared deeply for my work, but I never felt recognized. In 2.5 years, I was never offered a review meeting or an evaluation. Instead, I had to scrape and claw to book them myself and pull teeth to get any feedback. My boss never took the time to build rapport with anyone on the team. The relationship was strictly professional. He was the boss and I was the employee, not a person.

I write this and feel so compelled too, because I know that there are other people in my situation now. I’ve since moved on from the position and I’m as happy as ever in a new role that I love. I’m working with a leader who truly cares for me, both professionally and personally. In some ways, you don’t realize how frustrating or stifling a situation is when you’re in it, and you need to get out of it to see how truly bad it was.

What leaders can learn from this

  1. Having power doesn’t open the door for you to abuse it. Our advice here is to read and practice Radical Candor so you can lead a high performing team without putting your humanity on the back burner. As leaders, it’s important that we foster psychologically safety on our team. It enables open communication and continuous two-way feedback. As a result, you have a better understanding of how to best motivate your team. The easiest way to foster psychologically safety is to be vulnerable first. Lead by example and set the tone of open, honest communication with your team so they feel more comfortable doing the same with you.
  2. If you want to keep your team engaged, invest in their growth and development. In fact, Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce found that when employees have consistent performance feedback, they become emotionally and psychologically attached to their work and company. When you don’t prioritize growth and development, you’re actively disengaging your team. If you’re not sure where to start, try asking any of these growth-focused questions during your next 1:1 meeting.

The leader who had unreasonable expectations

“I had a very stressful job and was expected to answer Slack messages from my boss at any time, or I would be fired. He was in a different time zone so often I would be woken up at 3 am being yelled at to do something. One day in the office, he was talking sh** about me on Slack and accidentally posted it to a channel I was in. I was killing myself for this guy and he didn’t even appreciate it. I packed up and left, best thing I’ve ever done.”

What leaders can learn from this

  1. If you’re working at a 9-5 job…that’s exactly what it is. Not 7 pm, and definitely not 3 am. Even if you’re a night owl that prefers to work in the evening, it’s unreasonable to expect that from your employees. Workplace boundaries should be outlined and, most importantly, respected. However, if you are a night owl, a best practice should be to schedule your messages for the next morning. This is one of the best ways to respect an individual’s workplace boundaries and personal time, while also ensuring that you’re not forgetting that great idea or thought from the night before. Win-win.
  2. If you’re working on a distributed team, say hello to asynchronous communication. Give your team (and yourself) the freedom to respond to messages at a time that works best for that individual. Operating as async-first means that you’ll give your team more focus time, respect everyone’s time-zone and workplace boundaries, and also give people the flexibility to think through their responses.
  3. Being an a**hole is never the answer.

Don’t be a management “horror story”

Leaders, it’s important that you continue to remind yourself that you’re managing people, not robots. Things are bound to come up. Whether it’s internal conflicts, life events or the “little” things that your direct reports need to feel supported. It’s your job to handle these things in the best way possible (keeping in mind how your direct reports will perceive them!).

What should you do now

You made it to the end of this article! Here are some things you can do now:

  1. Our library of meeting agenda templates is designed to help you run more effective meetings.
  2. Learn more about Hypercontext and how it can help you run a high performing org.
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