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Seven Signs Your Boss Is A Weak Manager

Forbes Forbes 31/03/2015 Liz Ryan, Contributor

Anyone who is interested in learning how to lead can do it, but the openness to learning is the essential factor. © Corbis Anyone who is interested in learning how to lead can do it, but the openness to learning is the essential factor.

Dear Liz,

I’m a big fan of yours and a student of human behavior, like you! I am interested in your opinion on the question ‘What makes a strong leader?’ At my job, I see managers who are very on top of things and have everything under control, and others who seem to be flying by the seat of their pants. What would you say makes a leader strong, and how can I (an aspiring leader myself) work toward becoming a strong leader one day?



Dear Marisol,

We tend to think that a strong manager is someone who is decisive and firm. We think that someone who tells you exactly what they think and calls the shots is a strong manager. But what is strength? Strength is resilience. Some managers are quick to tell you what to do, but that doesn’t mean they are strong leaders.

They may need to have all the answers and make all the decisions because they won’t  be respected unless they demonstrate their authority at every opportunity.

Sadly, most corporations and institutions don’t do a great job at teaching leaders how to lead. We have been talking about the difference between old-fashioned management (controlling, budgeting, forecasting and planning) and modern-day leadership (coaching, listening and reinforcing people) for three decades or more, but evidently we still need more time!

Not everyone got the memo. It’s a new day, and strong leaders are people who listen more than they talk. They ask the experts on the ground — meaning the people who work alongside them as teammates — what to do when there’s a question to be answered or a problem to be solved. They don’t bark out orders.

Anyone who is interested in learning how to lead can do it, but the openness to learning is the essential factor. You don’t learn to be a leader by telling other people what they need to improve on without looking in the mirror at your own learning needs and working on those, too.

Here are seven signs your boss is a weak leader. You can help him or her get stronger by being honest with your manager in a polite way. Some managers will be grateful for your feedback and others won’t.

Sometimes when you work for a manager who isn’t a good leader now and isn’t interested in getting better, you might have to look for a new job inside or outside of your company. That process will help you grow your muscles!

2. Weak Managers Already Know the Answer

If you make a sensible suggestion to a poor manager, he or she is likely to ignore it or find a way to put you down. Weak managers don’t want their authority to be questioned, so when you offer a new idea, a weak manager may say “I already thought of that” or “You don’t know how the system works.” A strong manager will listen to you and ask you more questions so that they understand what you’re proposing and how it might help the team.

If indeed you are unclear about something you need to know on the job, a good manager will take the opportunity to fill you in or point you to someone who can. Strong managers are human. They are flexible. Weak managers are inflexible — it’s their way or the highway!

3. Weak Managers Tell  You What You’re Doing Wrong, Instead of What You’re Doing Right

Strong managers reinforce the great things their teammates do. Weak managers point out mistakes. You could do 99% of your job perfectly, but a weak manager will find the 1% that could have been better, and shove your face in it.

Weak managers do not care about the relationships they have with the people on their teams. They care about staying in control and keeping people off balance. If you go to work afraid to make a mistake instead of excited about the possibilities to accomplish great things, you are working for a weak manager.

4. Weak Managers Bluster and Badger People

Strong leaders hire people they trust. That means that they trust themselves enough to hire other awesome people around them. Weak managers doubt themselves, deep inside. They fear that they’re not good enough. They make themselves feel better by putting other people down. You’ll know when you hear their choice of put-downs:

- What are you, stupid? Why can’t you understand this procedure?

- I thought you had experience in this field! That was a dumb mistake.

- Why don’t you have that report finished yet? What’s wrong with you?

5. Weak Managers Don’t Want to Hear What You Think

Strong managers know that every person on their teams has millions of brain cells. Every one of those brain cells could help solve the latest issues and obstacles at work. It would be fun to dig into the thorniest problems your team is facing and knock them down, but weak managers don’t want to give their teammates any say-so over the work they’re performing. Doing that might threaten the weak manager’s sense of authority.

Weak managers don’t ask their teammates’ opinions. If their company sends out an annual Employee Engagement survey the weak manager finds a way to signal his or her team members that they’d better not say anything negative in the survey.

The last thing a weak manager wants to do is to look in the mirror. The second-to-last thing a weak manager wants to do is to get better at leading. That might be scary. The weak manager chooses fear over trust because when people are afraid of the manager, they’ll keep quiet. That’s weak manager nirvana!

6. Weak Managers Don’t Want To Change Anything

Strong managers say “What can we do better? What do we need to change around here?” Weak managers don’t want anything to change. They want to keep reality at bay. Once they set a policy or make a pronouncement, in their opinion it’s cast in stone. If you have a better idea for how to do things, you’d better keep it to yourself or, if you’re good at framing ideas, tell your weak manager that your good idea is really his or her idea.

Then you might have a shot at improving a process (but I hope that if you do that, you invest a little time to get your resume on the street, too. You’ve already got a job to do, and babysitting a fearful manager is not your job).

7. Weak Managers Threaten People Who Speak Up

You can tell a weak manager by the way they treat people who question the status quo in the department. Weak managers don’t hide their feelings about people who feel to them like threats to their authority. Anyone with the naivete or gumption to speak up may soon find him- or herself with the worst assignments and plenty of extra work to do over the weekend.

If the weak manager really feels threatened, the person who speaks up may be put on a performance plan and hustled out the door. If that’s you, that’s okay! We grow muscles by speaking up. We learn about our own power in those situations.

When I look back at the times I questioned things that happened at work and got flattened for it, I don’t remember feeling bad, although I’m sure I did feel bad at the time. I remember the “Aha!” that told me “Wow! This person is afraid of me. That’s amazing.

“I hope I never feel as fearful and defensive as my boss feels right now.” So far, I’ve  been fired two and a half times, and look! I’m still here. There are worse things that getting fired, believe me.

8. Weak Managers Are Afraid – Very Afraid! 

The key to understanding a weak manager’s behavior is to look at his or her fear. Weak managers are afraid of their own shadows. They’re afraid of their bosses, and they’re afraid of their peers. They’re always on edge, and so they lash out at people who don’t fit neatly in the cozy, confining boxes the weak manager wants them in. You can learn a lot from a weak manager — all kinds of lessons about what not to do when you manage people.

We can feel sorry for the weak managers we run into, but feeling sorry is also something you can do from a distance. If your manager really won’t step out of the fear zone into trust, you’re better off working for someone else. If these seven signs look familiar, consider this story a nudge from the universe to go find a manager who deserves what you bring.

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