Mar 23, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: Confronting bad managers

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's hard enough to give candid feedback to a friend or subordinate. Giving it to your boss is so much harder — and can get you booted if you botch it.

  • Why it matters: Very few of us make it through life without running into moronic, mushy or mediocre managers. But there are ways to raise concerns directly, safely and effectively.

I botched my first stab at it, quite spectacularly.

  • I was at Roll Call, in the mid-1990s, when a fellow journalist was put in charge of the newsroom.
  • A few of us thought he was wrong for the job, so I impulsively went to the bosses, winged it with no forethought, made it way too personal, pitched myself as an alternative and... lost.

I did everything the Jim of today would counsel young Jim not to do. Now, 30 years later, having watched others do this well and poorly, I see a clear blueprint.

  1. Sharpen your thinking. What exactly is the boss doing that's making it harder for you or others to thrive?
  2. Gut check. Discuss your issue with a friend, family member or mentor, someone ideally not involved at your company. Lay out your concerns without hyperbole and then lay out a dispassionate defense your manager might make.
  3. Write it down. I am a big believer that you can be more precise and measured if you put your concerns in writing. Be respectful. Be direct. Say you appreciate the chance to share your unvarnished thoughts.
  4. Explain, don’t accuse. You put someone on instant defense if you hammer them or question their character. Be very specific, clinical and unemotional in how you frame your concerns.
  5. Offer solutions. No one wants to hear someone simply bitch about problems or grievances. Offer specific solutions or alternative approaches.
  6. Lock arms. Make it plain that you want to help be part of the solution. People who feel judged, isolated or backed into a corner typically retaliate or hide.
  7. Follow up. Ask for a follow-up conversation, in person, after they have digested your note, to discuss next steps. How they respond will give you a strong indication of whether it's fixable.
  8. Give 'em a chance. Change is hard. Watch to see if a correction is made. If not, politely but directly remind them of your note and chat.
  9. Confront reality. Most middle managers, in my experience, are hard to change. If someone does not listen to you respectfully or refuses to change, be ready to live with the status quo... or quit.

Truth bomb: Just because someone gets power does not mean they deserve it. A lot of bad or talentless people rise to management by bootlicking or tenure.

  • Great bosses are like firm but unconditionally loving parents. Embrace them. Bad ones are like duplicitous ex-boyfriends or girlfriends who suck the life out of you. Run if you can.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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