Survive and Thrive with a Bad Manager

I Quit!
Early in my career, I joined a startup that went IPO. The company was trying to figure out how to scale revenues and operations. I was in technical support and our tiny 10 person department was feeling the stress from a growing customer base with buggy products. While the chaotic, responsive nature of supporting customers really excited me, my manager, who we’ll call Frank, made my life miserable. In short, he redeployed resources away from supporting customers instead to work on “pet projects” that made him look good in front of the Sales executives. Since I was the guy that was “left behind,” his reallocation of resources effectively doubled my workload and made it extremely challenging (what felt like ten-fold) for me to be responsive to customer needs. Worse yet, Frank kept beating on me about myproductivity.
I loved my job. I was learning, making good money and people told me I was great with customers. However, Frank increasingly made my job unbearable over a 15 month period and my anger and frustration was spilling into my personal life. When Frank was promoted to Director, I thought for sure I was “cooked” because his work priorities were more visible in the company and therefore I expected my situation to get even worse (if that was even possible). Just as I started planning how I would resign, something absolutely unexpected and wonderful happened… I got a newmanager! Sherry transferred from the Engineering team and now reported to Frank as a 1st level manager. Previously, Sherry and I collaborated on several customer escalations and we had a good rapport. She was very metrics and process oriented.
After a few weeks in her new role, Sherry called me into her office. I sat down in her guest chair and she turned her computer screen around so I could see it. She had a dashboard that showed I was the most productive member on the team! She then proceeded to tell me that I was doing a great job (fielding and closing the most customer cases in the department) and to keep it up. Over the next 18+ months, I implemented training programs, worked closely with Engineering to improve the products, all while continuing to deliver support and excel with customers. I really hit my stride and leveraged those experiences and strong business contributions get to my next big role.
Things are Clearer on the “High Road”
It’s hard to be rational when you’re under attack. A natural reaction would have been for me to lash out and defend myself against Frank or on the opposite end of the spectrum, to crawl up in a ball and continue to absorb the abuse. Here are some steps you can take to gain control of your circumstance and come out with a stronger career position:
  1. Stay focused on improving your skills – if you enjoy your work content, keep developing your functional and (if applicable) technical skills. Knowledge and experience are key to growing your career. If you stay focused on learning and doing the best job that you can then you’ll also build up your reputation. Just as your “bad manager” may have you under his microscope, consider that everyone else you interact with is also watching how you handle yourself. Are you perceived as hard working and dependable? Many of them may not even be aware of your dire situation so maintaining a good professional reputation is important because that will follow you wherever you go. Spending any amount of time playing “victim” will be counterproductive and slow down your development. One bad (manager) relationship doesn’t define who you are so keep things inthat perspective.
  2. Fight personal agendas with facts – Numbers don’t lie so make certain that you are able to quantify your productivity and work quality according to how you’re being measured. Whatever your manager is criticizing you about, the best way to move from subjectivity to objectivity is to get metrics-oriented. This is the first step in getting on the same page with him or her. Your metrics ultimately tie to departmental goals and objectives that are also quantifiable. Make sure that your work is measurable and aligned to those objectives. Finally, many disagreements have to do with hidden personal agendas. Get to know what your manager’s personal agenda is and decide whether or not it conflicts with your value system. In his book, True North, Bill George discusses the need for every leader to get a hold of his/her “Internal Compass” and how professional failures are quite often associated with compromises in their “values and principles.” My compass was pointing away from Frank’s but completely in line with Sherry’s.
  3. Find supporters – Although I felt isolated under Frank’s attack, because I had strong working relationships with most others, I was pretty confident that he wouldn’t fire me. Generate support from within your department and also inter-departmentally, especially with your managers’ peers. Make sure that they experience and observe you directly and not just through the “filter” of your bad manager. This up-swell of “fans” will counteract the opinion of your bad manager. Additionally, I was fortunate when Sherry became my manager because she created a shield between me and Frank. I knew she had high regard for my work ethic and contributions and would protect me from further unfair accusations by Frank.
  4. Run a marathon, not a sprint – Marathon runners are able to endure a lot of pain between mile 1 and 26. They train their bodies and minds to perform under adverse conditions and to get past that pain. Your current circumstance is just one stage in your (career) marathon where you are being tested. Be patient and try to work through your situation. Leaders learn as much from adversity (sometimes more) than when everything is going their way. If you make a quick to move (i.e. transfer out or even quit) then you’ll be robbing yourself of a great learning opportunity. My management and leadership style was significantly shaped from the negative behaviors I observed in Frank and other bad managers. While you can learn a lot from a good manager, it’s the bad ones that teach you what not to do.

I had a great 3+ year run at the company, both professionally and financially. I’m glad I didn’t “pack up” and quit while under duress because I wasn’t getting along with Frank. I endured his management tactics and when he eventually moved into a Sales role, I was happy that I “outlived” him. It really would have been a shame to prematurely quit a good job. Instead, I left on my own terms – and for a much better opportunity than I would have gotten after only about a year of experience. 

If you have any good stories of how you overcame bad management or what you’ve learned from bad managers, please comment and share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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