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Whether it’s over a cup of coffee with a neighbour, shopping with friends or standing by the water cooler at work, the topic of horrible bosses and ineffective managers comes up all the time. In fact, the concept is so mainstream, it’s even been the focus of a major Hollywood motion picture. Despite the fact that there are only a few real causes for ineffective performance, there are plenty of reasons why people are dissatisfied with their managers and even more opinions on how to best remedy the situation. And while some solutions are a little less realistic than others (think elaborate murder plot from the Hollywood take) there are some real action strategies for resolving the tumultuous relationship between a subordinate and his or her boss.

In Part 1 of this multi-part series on the horrible boss, we will be discussing the literature surrounding managerial effectiveness, identifying the requirements for effective management, and followed by some of the symptoms of the “horrible boss.” Finally, Part 1 concludes by introducing a framework for understanding job effectiveness with 3 key dimensions that are at the root of many horrible boss issues. Part 2, 3 and 4 of the series will outline each dimension in more detail and Part 5 will conclude the series by providing action strategies relevant to each cause.

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What Does the Literature Say?

Aside from the creative comedy depicted in the movie theatre, there is much more serious discussion on the subject of ineffective management and “bad bosses.” Despite the breadth of the topic, literature is consistent in its conjecture that to be an effective manager yourself, your manager must be capable. Clearly, if this is not the case, it becomes increasingly difficult to be effective at any level. Nevertheless, understanding what can and should be expected from management can guide understanding for what should be given to lower level direct report managers.

What Must Effective Managers be Providing to Direct Report Managers?

Regardless of industry or organizational size, there are essentially five requirements or specific abilities every manager needs to have to be effective:

  • Set context and boundaries
  • Plan
  • Delegate
  • Take Action
  • Establish feedback loops

Elliot Jacques, Peter Drucker and a host of other management experts and consultants discuss the different categories of management and the specific tasks managers need to “manage” effectively. Some prefer to use the term “managerial leadership”, others “aspects of management”, but in every case, at Effective Managers™ we believe it boils down to the five central requirements that need to be in place. In all the literature, there is consensus that if a manager is not getting these things from his or her next level manager, then they will not have the context needed to plan or delegate effectively. In that same vein, if there is not adequate feedback received on their own performance, it will be nearly impossible to know how well they’re doing or not doing in terms of delegating to direct reports and giving/receiving feedback from them.

What Makes a Horrible Boss?

The characteristics of a horrible boss may be difficult to describe, but in most cases, you know it when you see it. It’s important to remember that not all horrible bosses are born equal and just as there are likely a variety of catalysts driving inadequate performance, there are just as many symptoms. In some cases, people who describe their manager as a horrible boss feel they are being over-delegated to, or given too many accountabilities. In other cases, they may not be getting the right context to make decisions or not being given information in a timely way.

Other subordinates describe feeling as though a boss is constantly looking over their shoulder, depriving them the freedom they need to actually use their own capability. It could be as simple as a manager not being accessible enough, failing to give subordinates the direction they need to succeed. In other cases still, it could be that there are personality issues, where an oil and water relationship makes it increasingly difficult to relate and communicate in an effective way. Still others may feel they are not getting enough direction.

3 Key Dimensions of Effectiveness

MacDonald, et al, in “Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organizations” identified three key dimensions that must be fulfilled in terms of being effective in your job:

  • Capability – Do you have the capability to be able to work at the level of complexity for the job that you are in? Elliot Jacques calls this “mental processing capability.” Others use different terms, but it’s essentially intellectual horsepower and how people make decisions.
  • Skills and Knowledge – Do you have the managerial leadership skills and social processing skills to do your job effectively and how well do you relate to others while doing your job?
  • Application – do you value the work you are doing as a manager so that you fully and completely apply yourself to that work?

As a manager at any level, these three dimensions comprise a useful framework for thinking in terms of what might be going off the rails regarding a relationship with a manager. In just about every case, if these key dimensions can be understood, then there is a much better probability of success – for all.