I’ve had the fortune to work with some truly incredible people throughout my life. Thoughtful, kind, hilarious, hard-working people. I’ve formed lasting relationships rooted in mutual respect and admiration. And I’ve worked my a** off for those people as a result.
Unfortunately, I’ve also worked for some people who were horrible. Managers and owners who blatantly acted out their insecurities on their employees. People who were skilled at creating toxic cultures and unengaged teams. I’m not exactly proud of it, but have to admit that in those situations, I didn’t always work my hardest, and the only loyalty I felt to my co-workers was based in shared misery.
I like to think I’ve picked up a few valuable lessons along the way. From my front-line vantage point, here is my advice* for team leaders to avoid being horrible. Even after following this advice, you’ll likely still have a long way to go, but in the meantime, you might avoid becoming a punchline in an inside joke and start to make some improvements to the morale of your team.
Here we go.
Get to know people on your team as human beings.
The people who work for you want to be seen as human beings first. It may sound simple, but learn to pronounce your team members’ names correctly, and address them by name. This is a basic human decency, and you do not deserve praise for pronouncing an “ethnic” name properly (plus, don’t think you’ve fooled anyone that this unusual-only-to-you name gets you off the hook from figuring it out). Your whole team—not just the person whose name you refuse to say—hears you referring to “that girl” or “her” or “the person who runs those reports,” and is embarrassed for you.
Build and show you trust in your team.
Progress updates are a fantastic way to stay in touch with your team. However, do not ask for an update 15 minutes after assigning a project, and then every 15 minutes after that until the project is complete. Your team will be too busy rolling their eyes and sending you updates to get any actual work done.
When a staff member calls in sick for the first time in a year, do not answer your phone by saying “Oh sure, too hungover to work today?” When they return to work, don’t ask them how the party was, or why they think socializing is more important than working. The flu is a real thing, not a fiction concocted to make your life difficult.
Communicate openly and honestly.
Change is bound to happen. If, in the course of executing a project, you change your mind about the scope and format, take time to update your team. Call a meeting, or send a quick note. If you don’t, your team will be bewildered when you yell at them for submitting the spreadsheet you clearly requested, not the written report you were secretly hoping for.
When you have feedback for the leadership team, address it with them directly. Do not include a passive aggressive quote in your email signature and hope they get the picture. If you ignore this advice, do not explain your crafty strategy to a junior staff member as though it is very smart good management.
Keep your ego in check.
When you learn a surprising piece of data about your business, do not call a staff meeting and ask the team to guess what that number is. When they get the answer wrong, do not spend the rest of the meeting telling them they are idiots who are lucky to be employed by a genius such as yourself.
Do not tell your staff that they are “lucky” to be receiving their wildly below market pay. If you think that hiring is a personal favor, and that people are indebted to you for life as a result of your generosity, you should not be in charge of hiring.
Do not go out of your way to call a meeting, praise yourself for your boundless generosity, and explicitly promise holiday bonuses, especially if you have no intention of issuing them. When your staff gently broach the subject in February, do not use this as an opportunity to berate them for being “ungrateful.” See above.
Make sure your team knows their safety matters to you.
Address toxic behavior head on. If a member of your team routinely announces “I’m going to make two people cry today,” and then follows through, do not treat this as an example of effective goal-setting. Furthermore, do not “congratulate” the staff members who make it through the shift without a breakdown. Praising a person for carrying out their work while enduring a barrage of unrepeatable** insults from a co-worker is also insulting, just in a different way.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if an aggressive homeless man frequently wanders the halls of your unsecured office building, often using the hallway as a bathroom, do not tell your staff to “toughen up and ignore it.” Put some security measures in place.
- Treat people like humans. They have names and personal lives, and most of them want to do good work in an environment that doesn’t make them cry.
- Give feedback in words. You have options! Say them out loud or write them down. Just make sure those words are directed at the person who needs the feedback, and use your inside voice. No name-calling allowed.
- Show, don’t tell. In my experience, when a person frequently goes out of their way to insist that they are a smart, generous, good manager, they are in fact the opposite. Smart, generous, good managers are too busy actually being those things to tell you about them. Either walk the talk, or shut the hell up about it.
If you read this advice, and thought, “what kind of person needs to be told this stuff?”, well yes, it is fairly basic human decency. If any of the above made you think “well, I do that, but my staff love me,” I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a good chance that you’re a punchline or a voodoo doll (you likely also have a code-name, and not a cool one)—either with your current staff, or with the people who have quietly left your organization. Do better.
If you read this advice and it resonated, or worse, feel like you could add to it, share your story with us for a Part 2 edition of this post. Tweet to us @actionableco using #horribleboss, comment on Facebook or LinkedIn, or shoot us a direct message if you need to remain anonymous. I can say first hand that it feels good to get this stuff off your chest.
Less than 40% of new leaders receive any kind of leadership training, coaching, or mentoring. That doesn’t excuse terrible behavior, but it does kind of suck. We created this infographic of advice for people moving into a leadership role for the first time, collected from our community of expert consultants and coaches. It’s also 100% sarcasm free.
* Based on 100% not true, entirely fictional examples, that I have definitely not witnessed or experienced first hand.
** Unrepeatable at work. Buy me a beer off the clock if you want the uncensored version.