Understanding Your 'Idiot' Manager

Sure, your manager may be dysfunctional or just plain weird, but he or she has a job to do. Realizing that will help you do yours.
Posted January 15, 2007

Eric Spiegel

Eric Spiegel

[Editor's note: this is a reprint of one of our recent reader's favorites.]

"I don't give a sh*t what you think."

That was the answer I received the very first time I asked for a raise. It was stated matter-of-factly, as if I was just another irrelevant cog in the system.

Well, I wasn't going to stand for this. I took my whopping one year of experience and left this idiot manager behind, confident that any future manager could not be worse.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out he may have not been so bad after all.

Being in these situations inevitably leads one to question a boss's managerial skills. At one point or another in your career, you most likely have had this discussion with a co-worker: "So-and-so is an idiot. Can you believe that moron who never really talks to us tried to give a team pep talk and then thought we'd be thrilled about working all weekend? If he would actually listen to us, we wouldn't have been in that situation."

What I found is that whether it was the PL/1 development project from my early days to the Java/.Net world of today, the curious actions of managers and the ultimate reactions of employees determined the fate of projects and ultimately damaged the long-term success of a team. (Does anyone even code in PL/1 anymore?)

Since I'm the one most likely getting dissed by my staff, I thought it would help to look back on my past managers and take a different perspective on them now that I'm in their shoes. The classifications I use aren't all encompassing and not every manager possesses any or all of these traits. My goal here is to show that behind quirky, even ridiculous behavior, there may actually be solid reasoning that was poorly expressed or just handled badly.

1. The Jerk - I am not talking Steve Martin from the movie, but more like the bully who picked on everyone in school.

I was optimizing Oracle SQL queries when I felt a searing pain go through my neck. Jim had dug his fingers into my neck and said, "What the hell were you thinking?" Fighting the urge to freak on him (and get fired) I asked "About what?"

"About telling the client it was OK to change the schema." I started to stammer, "Well I assumed..."

Bad choice of word.

"ASSUMED?!?! Do you know what 'assume' stands for?" he asked. "Making an 'ASS' out of 'U' and 'ME.'" I now agree I shouldn't have approved the change. But should he have tore flesh from me? No. Should he have yelled at me? No. Jim should have asked me to explain what happened and then walked me through the reasons why I shouldn't have approved the change. And he should have examined the approval process, which was flawed.

2. The Hovering Micromanager - I was diligently writing PeopleCode when I had an odd feeling I was being watched. In the reflection of my monitor I could see my manager Ted hovering about four inches behind my chair. This sneaking up on people was his trademark, so it wasn't too much of a surprise.

Good thing this was before the web was prevalent or I surely would have been busted for browsing fantasy football sites.

I turned around and he said "Hi" like he had just appeared, when I'm sure he was there for at least a few minutes. As Ted started talking to me, I noticed blood running down his forehead.

Not relevant, but too weird not to mention.

I debated whether to bring this bleeding to Ted's attention, but since he started to berate me over my last months phone records, I decided to let it flow (I mean "go"). I thought the discussion was ridiculous at the time because I was always rated a high performer.

I found out later that the department had to pay by the minute for phone calls. Ted was just protecting his budget. However, he could have done a better job of communicating how I was impacting the team with my extra personal calls and mentioned some positive aspects of my work.

Never did find out why he was bleeding.

3. The Buddy - Every morning, I knew the ritual. Kevin would call me into his office and then he would put an album on his turntable and play a song. He would grin and say, "Name the song or artist." I had to play "name that tune" every single day.

Kevin also liked to take the team out to bars and pick up the tab. He even invited us to his house many times to hang out.

Then one day, the hammer came down. Kevin called a team meeting and started to scream and yell. Quality was way down, resulting in an escalation in the number of production beeper calls. But the team simply didn't take him seriously and blamed him for his lackadaisical approach.

First off, managers should realize that it is OK to be friendly with their team, but don't go overboard. Secondly, maybe in the Army and in fraternities screaming works fine, but I'll go out on a limb and state that it never solved a problem in a professional place of work.

Was he right about the quality slipping? Absolutely. However, a better approach would have been to ask the team to analyze the reasons for the slippage and come up with ideas on how to stem the decline of quality. Knee-jerk reactions are just a bad idea. Analyzing and better planning and execution would have improved results.

4. The Quirky Genius - These are the managers who have been promoted because they are simply the smartest in the room. They know everything about everything, down to the smallest detail. But their people skills may have a few issues.

Todd could take a part a car engine and put it back together again. He also knew everything there was to know about client-server programming. Todd could spend a day at a client's shop analyzing their code and know their whole system design by close of business.

Problem was that Todd expected his team to be able to do the same things he could do. When we didn't, he got frustrated. And he was the opposite of "The Buddy" because he couldn't relate well to the team outside of work. He knew nothing about pop culture or current events - he didn't have a TV and didn't read the paper. He just read manuals.

This combination led Todd to have a lousy relationship with his team. He delegated few important tasks, preferring to do them himself, and did not communicate assignments at the level necessary for the junior team members. This caused project delays that could have been avoided if Todd would have taken the time to get to know his team members' interests and capabilities.

All of these managers had their good points. It may be hard to believe, but yours probably do as well. If your manager can't communicate well, take the responsibility and make the effort to build a line of communication with them for the good of the team and to improve your quality of work life. It won't help anyone to just gossip with your co-workers about your dysfunctional, clueless manager.

And if you must, simply bone up on your music history and be prepared to name that tune in six notes!

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