how to make happier managers, unhappy managers, bad managers

Unhappy managers often disengage or quit before the company knows there’s a problem.

In many companies, the route for advancement for outstanding individual contributors is to move into management.  But many people find that the step into management, which should be a positive, leaves them less than happy.  And coaches often hear “I’m not cut out to be a manager” or “I’ll never be a great leader”. Unhappiness reduces engagement, productivity and retention, and it’s important to ask, how can we make happier managers?

Of course in some cases there are external reasons that managers are unhappy – they’re asked to do more with less, they have difficult teams to manage, they’re in companies whose values don’t match their own or, in some cases, they simply don’t like the things managers do.

But often the problems relate to the manager herself and they’re often correctable through leadership development – we can, in fact, make managers happier.  The problem is that traditional leadership development doesn’t work – classroom sessions, workshops, and online learning.  Through coaching, on the other hand, many managers realize that they actually enjoy leading, and the problem was that they simply didn’t have the development they needed to succeed and enjoy their work.

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Challenges that make managers unhappy include:

  • Lack of leadership development and guidance – Many managers simply are not prepared for the job. Being a great leader or manager is hard, and requires skills that are not natural for many people.  That’s not a great shock – few hard jobs are intuitive and easy right away.  Few people would expect to hop in an airliner and land it right away or grab a guitar and make the Billboard charts.  But many people expect that managers will be ready to go on day 1.  And they often are dropped into the job with relatively little preparation, perhaps a couple day training session.  As a result, many managers feel like they don’t know how to be successful, and they don’t know how to handle difficult managerial challenges.  As they’re overwhelmed by situations, they feel like they are failing themselves and their teams, and they develop poor habits or reactions that lock in a cycle of ineffectiveness.  It’s little surprise that they are unhappy.
  • Inability to apply management training into action – Many managers receive training or education on how to be a good manager, but find that applying that information is impossible without help.  How exactly do they look or behave to make “listen attentively” for example a reality?  And how do they respond if it doesn’t work out?  What should they do differently next time?  The hardest part of being a leader isn’t the knowledge of what to do, but the skill of how to do it, and our leadership development programs need to provide feedback on real-world work.  Many managers who have trouble translating the knowledge into action feel like more of a failure because it seems like it should be straightforward.

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  • Disconnect between value and actions – For managers to be happy, they need to understand what they value in being a manager and in a team. What do they want themselves as leaders to look like, and how do they want their team to interact with each other and the rest of the company?  Many manager don’t know what their leadership values are, have only a vague idea of what their dream team would look like and have no idea what to do to build the team they’re after.  For example, many managers say they want collaborative teams that trust each other and work well together.  But few managers actually know how to build a team like that, with the particular people and personalities they have with them.  For example, a manager who is poor at delegating and letting go, and as a result dumps projects on people at the last minute with little guidance, can hardly expect to build a team where people trust her and feel collaborative.  But few manages are able to understand what’s blocking the team they want, and how to change their behavior to move in the direction that they want.  As a result, they continue to act in ways that move them farther and farther from the team they want to build.

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  • Unhelpful expert advice – Pop culture theories of leadership often spring up that lead managers to act in ways that are not effective. For example, the idea has taken root that effective managers hire great teams and get out of the way – this is the non-leader leader  It turns out that effective teams need effective managers, and the “get out of the way” strategy will almost always fail, and the non-leader leader often feels fake and like a slacker.  In other areas, the idea of “strengths” leadership encourages people to do more of what they are comfortable with and avoid things that they don’t like, even if their comfort zone approach isn’t productive, or the things they avoid are important.  In some places, the image of a great leader is the charismatic, outspoken visionary or the strong, no-nonsense drill sergeant.  But these styles of leadership are very difficult to pull off for most people and often aren’t effective anyway.  The truth is that there are many ways to be a great manager or leader, and no one-size-fits-all model.  Managers or leaders who have a brief overview of these theories often will be led astray and will wonder why they are not succeeding.
  • Focus on our “inner critic” – Most people, managers included, tend to get hung up on the things that haven’t done well and don’t focus on the things that have. The result is that the negative things dominate our thinking, even if they don’t dominate in reality, draining us of happinessThis can be especially difficult for managers, who bear both their own failings and the failings of their teams.  Add in most people’s tendency to focus on theirinner critic, or the painful explanations we create to explain the world and ourselves, and managers can easily get bogged down in an unfair pit of unhappiness.
  • Fixable flaws – Few people are perfect managers – most have some challenge, blocker or personality quirk that interferes with their performance. In some cases, these are personality challenges, like the manager who has trouble giving up control.  In others, they are “self-limiting” stories that we have accepted but often aren’t true – like “I’ll never be a good manager.”  These challenges usually can be overcome with help, but if they are not addressed, managers either find that trying to manage in spite of the challenges makes them miserable or they cannot overcome the challenges, which limits their performance.

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Unhappiness is a terrible thing for managers – it destroys their health, impairs their mental health, and leads to a lack of confidence and disengagement, creating a painful cycle.  And unhappiness is a plague that spreads mercilessly to everyone around the person.  But unhappiness is also bad for the company – unhappy, disengaged managers tend to have unhappy, disengaged teams, multiplying the impact.

The good news is that happiness is possible for most managers – we know how to make managers happier.  In many cases, these challenges can be addressed through leadership development programs.  Effective leadership coaching, training and guidance can help managers build the skills they need to be effective and confident, and can help them get past their ways of thinking that trap them in unhappiness.  Many managers find that they are happier as they become better at their jobs and more confident in their abilities.  And better manages make more engaged and happier teams, which of course leads to happier managers.  Even situations that will always be unpleasant for most people – like providing a negative performance review – can become easier and less painful (for the manager and the subordinate) with practice, feedback and guidance.


Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350 person internet company and is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.

Careerwave’s technology-based leadership coaching service is effective and affordable enough to provide a coach to every manager in your company.  Whether you need to coach 1 leader or 100, or need a full leadership program or just an addition to your current program, we can build a program for you.   To learn more, sign up below or contact us at info@careerwave.me, or visit our leadership solutions page.

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