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“Let’s take a step back” he said, reclining in his swivel chair.
One comment sucking all momentum out of the meeting, and remaining will to live from my soul.
This seemingly innocent phrase was just one weapon in the arsenal used to control meetings and move everyone towards his desired outcome.
A destructive manager has an insidious effect on a business, leaving you a year later with a trail of disgruntled employees, difficulties hiring, and broken processes everywhere you look.
I want to share a few tactics I’ve witnessed destructive managers use in the hopes you can spot it early and disrupt it before it leads to serious damage.
(Aside: It can be hard for senior managers to spot these behaviours. They may see high staff turnover and hear complaints, but they may also see profit margins increasing as staff costs reduce, making it seem like progress is being made. This gives some “wiggle” room to the destructive manager. More so when the manager is confident and appears to know what they’re talking about. This is a short term gain that will lead to long term pain.)
1. Control information and decision making
The first step to becoming a tyrant is to control the flow of information.
So too a destructive manager will restrict or obfuscate information relating to financial performance, team remuneration or anything else that aids independent decision making.
This hinders the ability of other managers to make informed decisions or debate proposals in meetings.
Destructive managers may also insist that all decisions are made through them, forming a bottleneck and neutering subordinates. This is where permanent damage happens as good staff begin to disengage and simply act as instructed.
2. Mislead and gaslight
Once a destructive manager has control of information, this next step is easy.
Giving misleading information, changing the facts, or being deliberately vague. All of this makes it more difficult to debate or push back. It leaves other managers on the back foot at all times.
If someone disagrees or debates an issue then spouting technical information or numbers that don’t make sense will likely confuse them enough to subdue them. This affects C level managers as much as it does junior managers, especially in technical fields.
3. Create panic and fear
“If things don’t change by [insert arbitrary date] then we’ll be having a very different conversation”
Ominous threats, a sense of impending doom, and motivating teams with fear rather than inspiring with a bold vision.
Being a leader is tough. But that doesn’t mean the stress and anxiety that comes with it should be passed on to more junior team members. This anxiety is more likely to cause burnout than inspire teams to go above and beyond.
The best managers I have known face difficult situations with optimism and positivity, even if they have concerns in private.
4. “Pressure testing” (bullying people out)
Pointless tasks, overworking team members who are beyond capacity, and requests for complex, unnecessary information without ever looking at the work provided.
These tactics are aimed at getting staff to leave without having to go through the closely watched processes of performance management or redundancy.
5. Make promises that never come
Bullying and intimidation alone don’t keep the wheels turning.
The promise of salary reviews, new hires, and new tools can all allay the concerns of staff. It’s possible to keep towing people along for a few months with empty promises. But eventually, they are recognised for what they are, leading to a permanent loss of trust in the business.
6. Never admit fault or other peoples success
The failures of a destructive manager are always the result of existing conditions or their subordinates, or whoever isn’t in earshot. Ideally, people who have just left the business.
Any success or crisis averted is a result of their unique abilities. No one else’s work is more important than their own and will generally go unrecognised. They are the soul hope of the business.
This reduces the sense of self-esteem in the team and confidence to speak up.
7. Their way is the only way
Insisting on everyone working their way, even where this might be outdated, inefficient or unrealistic.
This can come in the form of last-minute changes to big projects, insisting on cumbersome processes, or refusing to listen to recommendations of team members. It represents the inflated ego of a destructive manager.
This obviously creates more work but also stifles feelings of ownership and the motivation of the team to go above and beyond.
The damage caused by a destructive manager will leave deep scars that can take years to heal.
Tactics used aim to restrict the flow of information, bullying to get what they want, and lying to create a positive perception of them.
For contrast, good managers inspire and empower their teams to achieve more, celebrate team accomplishments, and live up to their promises.
Keep an eye out for controlling and manipulative behaviour and recognise what’s happening early. Regular, centrally managed performance reviews including 360 evaluations are the most effective method of recognising issues as they develop.