The Accomplished Solopreneur
Saturday, August 12, 2023
How to deal with bad managers: a guide for consultants
Every consultant has to deal with “bad” client managers - the people you report to in your consulting engagement. Most of the time, the “badness” is not intentional, but it can hinder you from doing your job well, and leads to frustration (or worse). How do you deal with these clients? In this guide, I walk through the different kinds of “bad”, and give you strategies you can use to rescue the situation - or exit gracefully.
The different kinds of “bad”
I’ve never been in a consulting engagement where a client is deliberately “bad” or even evil. Despite what movies would have us think, there are very few evil geniuses with plans to rule the world. The vast majority of people go to work to do a good job.
But how they behave at work can be detrimental to getting the job done well, and everyone (including your manager) suffers as a result.
So, putting aside the movie-style evil mastermind, here’s what you will find.
The unconsciously incompetent
The most common kind of “bad” is the unconsciously incompetent manager or leader. They think they’re doing a great job, but in fact, are not.
These leaders or managers try their best to lead or direct, but the people they lead don’t have clear directives or priorities. As a result, you (as consultant) and the other people they lead, are typically fire-fighting, overloaded and don’t see an end to the battle.
Micromanagers not only tell you what to do, but also how to do it. Sometimes in agonizing detail.
This is a particularly vexing situation. They hired you for your expertise, but then turn around and tell you how to do the job, even when they are clearly not the experts. Very often, it’s more important to them to follow the rules and “not rock the boat” than it is to get the job done right.
The bypass manager
The bypass manager talks to everyone, bypassing other team members.
Multiple conversations that don’t include other members of the team result in different interpretations of what was said. Messages have to be relayed to the rest of the team, and in the process, lose their original context, or even meaning. Ultimately, confusion reigns because the same team have different ideas of what needs to be done - and what should be prioritized.
The helicopter manager
The helicopter manager is usually nowhere to be found (stuck in meetings). They “fly in” every now and then, give some directives, and “fly out” again (back to their meetings).
In some cases, this can be a good thing - you’re free to get on with the job and you probably have some autonomy. But because they’re not in touch with what’s happening, their decisions or directives are very often not optimal, leaving you to deal with the mess.
The mystery decision manager
Then there’s the manager who hands down decisions or directives that just don’t make sense. What seemed to be the logical or best thing to do, is overridden.
Sometimes this is unavoidable. They have perspective and information you may not be privy to, and that drives the decisions they have to make.
Most of the time, this is bad management practice. Not being transparent with your team leads to wider distrust and ultimately motivation dissipates because people don’t know “why” (with a nod to Simon Sinek).
Why do they behave badly?
To resolve a bad leadership or management situation, the most powerful tool at your disposal is understanding why they behave the way they do.
To deal with challenging managers, you have to understand why they behave the way they do. This determines which options you have for resolving the situation.
When you boil it down to the root causes, there are two reasons people don’t manage or lead as effectively as they should:
- They don’t know
They don’t know
The unconsciously incompetent and bypass managers typically think they’re doing the right thing - they don’t know how this affects the people who report to them. As we’ve seen, the results are not good.
Assuming the person is receptive to feedback, this situation can usually be resolved by making them aware of the negative consequences. Most people want to do well, and if you can make them aware (without antagonizing them in the process), they are likely to change how they lead. The results can be pretty spectacular.
Most of the time, people behave in a way because they have some incentive. There are “bad experience” incentives, and “golden apple” incentives.
Micromanagers usually had some bad experience with a direct report in the past that affected them negatively. To avoid suffering those consequences again, they’re “incentivized” to micro manage. If they can make sure everything is done just so, chances of that negative experience repeating is smaller. (Admittedly, sometimes it’s just their personality.)
Golden apple incentives are quite common. If your bonus (or raise or performance evaluation) is dependent on something, you’re going to focus on getting that thing done - never mind what the downstream consequences are.
The key to understanding why people behave “badly” is compassion. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, but most of the time intentions are good.
With that in mind, let’s see how you can handle a bad manager.
So what do you do?
It starts with yourself.
1. Recognize your own biases
In any adverse situation, you (ideally) need to start with yourself. We all have biases that shape our opinions or assessments, many of them subconscious.
Take a moment to reflect why your think the manager is acting contrary to your expectations. How much is your assessment driven by your biases?
Even if you decide your biases are not at play, always remember you have a different world view than your manager. What you regard as failure (or bad management) may be perfectly OK to them.
2. Weigh your options
There are at least 4 ways you can address a “bad management” situation:
- I need you to help me get my job done
- Empathetic coaching
- Head-on confrontation
- Go over their heads
These are not the only ones, so feel free to add your own thoughts. For example:
One way to deal with a micromanager is the “micro-ask” technique: go bother them multiple times a day to ask if you’re following their instructions correctly. At some point they’re going to get fed up with all the interruptions, and that is your opening for suggesting you do a chunk of work before you (or they) check back in.
3. Play out the scenarios
For each of the options you list, you now have to “play out the scenario”. It works something like this:
If I choose approach A, the best case outcome will be X, the worst case outcome will be Y, and the most likely outcome will be Z.
If I choose the head-on confrontation approach, the best case outcome will be lots of shouting, arm waving and resentment. The problem will not be solved and continuing to work with this manager will be strained (at best). The worst case outcome will be termination of my contract, and the most likely outcome will be a continuation of the problem and bad feelings all round.
None of these scenarios are attractive, so the head-on, confrontational approach (as well as going over their heads) is seldom a good one.
Playing out the scenarios is a powerful technique. It helps you imagine how the conversation will go, and prepare for various kinds of responses.
Most of the time (and assuming you want to fix things), the “I need you to help me get my job done” or “empathetic coaching” approaches play out the best.
4. Plan your approach
The worst thing you can do is to ask for a meeting and think you can wing it. Plan what you want to say, and how you will respond to different kinds of answers.
Here are some ways to open the conversation:
- “You know I really like working with you, but I have some challenges and I would like to ask for your help in overcoming them.” (Very indirect. You may have trouble getting around to the point where they understand this is about them.)
- “I have some thoughts on how you can utilize me more effectively.” (Better - a soft touch that leaves the door open for pointing out how they can improve.)
- “I have a few challenges dealing with some of the ways you’re directing me to do my work, and I would like to share them and see if we can find a way to work together more effectively.” (More direct and to the point. Not likely to be appreciated by controlling or Type A personalities.)
- “I’ve noticed a couple of things you do that make it difficult to work together effectively.” (Heading into confrontational territory now.)
Your opening sets the initial tone for the meeting. Craft the best one you can based on your personality and how the manager is most likely to respond.
Now write down the things you need to tell them - in the words you intend to use. Even if you know the conversation won’t play out exactly as you’ve written it, having a place to start from is better than just saying what’s on your mind. The conversation, by definition, is not an easy one to have - writing down what you want to say (and how) will help you keep calm and focused.
5. Have the conversation
It may seem like overkill to do all the prep work just to have a conversation. But keep this in mind:
You’re criticizing the person who can fire you. If you want to improve your working situation, the prep work is well worth the effort.
If you prepare well, choose the right approach, stay calm and make it about how they can help you do your job better, chances are the conversation will go well.
Ethics and contingency plans
It is our duty as consultants to provide our clients with the best advice and work we can deliver. This is (or should be) the ethics we live by. If we can no longer deliver our best work, we need to do the right thing - and the last resort is to exit the engagement.
Always have a contingency plan ready. Despite your best intentions, things can go wrong, and you may be faced with an adversarial situation. This is not good for your client, and it’s not good for you as a consultant.
It takes courage to have difficult conversations. Sometimes it works out well, sometimes not - I’ve experienced both. But when it works, your value as consultant just goes up - because you had the courage to have the tough conversations.