Top 5 Manager Failure Modes

A list of common pitfalls for managers.

Top 5 Manager Failure Modes

Originally published on LinkedIn on February 16, 2024.

A first-time manager asked for advice on a discussion forum. I started writing a response, then found myself drowning in words. The topic is huge. The more I wrote, the more I saw that I could add. So I stopped. Even if I finished writing that magnum opus, it would be too much to read.

But then I realized that there was something I could fit into a short piece: how to tell when things are going badly. Over the years I’ve seen a pattern of failures that inexperienced, and sometimes experienced, managers make. Including me. (Especially me.) Knowing the pitfalls that others have fallen into could give a new manager some signposts for when to ask for extra help.

So I searched my memory for the worst management fails I’d seen, been subjected to, and committed. It boiled down to a top five list. So without further ado, here is my top five list of manager failure modes.

Failure Mode #1: Micromanaging or Helicoptering

In this failure mode, the manager consistently tells their report exactly how to execute, gives nitpicky feedback, or intervenes on their behalf.

Deena* vented to me: “Every time I submit another draft of this document to Sam, he nitpicks it to pieces. I’m scared to send him another draft. But he’s my boss. I can’t just ignore his corrections!” I’ve seen other similar cases in other contexts: Bo, a mid-level programmer, had a change that took weeks of back and forth exchanges with Alice, the lead, before it was merged. Comment by comment, Alice forced Bo to implement the solution her way. Bo’s approach could have worked, but Alice wasn’t interested in exploring how. She had a particular solution in mind that she railroaded Bo into. In another case an executive administrator had to get her boss’s approval on every detail of a planned party, down to which brand of cookies she should buy.

Similar to a micromanager, a helicopter manager hovers in the background and jumps in if they sense their report is about to make a misstep. I’ve been guilty of that. One of my team members, Carl, and I were together in my office on a conference bridge. He was the primary speaker, so I was mostly quiet. But I kept passing him notes with suggested wording. After three or four of these notes, he put the phone on mute and said: “It is incredibly distracting when you do that. Can you wait and tell me what I did wrong after?” I intended to be helpful, but I was actually undermining him. (I apologized immediately and didn’t pass him any more notes on any calls ever.)

Failure Mode #2: Abandoning

At the other end of the spectrum is the manager who leaves an employee with only vague goals and no guidance. They expect the employee to figure things out, then blame the employee if they don’t succeed.

Effie’s manager George rarely had time for her. When they did have 1:1s, he gave her very little feedback other than “you’re doing fine, keep going.” She was responsible for a key initiative, and she kept going. Suddenly George called her into his office, took away the initiative, and demoted her. George had swung the spotlight of attention in her direction, didn’t like what he saw, blamed Effie for what he perceived to be shortcomings, and took action. Effie was devastated. To this day she still doesn’t really understand what happened.

Failure Mode #3: All Work, No Career Development

A manager failing in this way spends 100% of their time and attention on getting the work done without regard for helping the employee grow their skills, prepare for a promotion, or find opportunities elsewhere in the company. In the worst cases of this failure mode, the manager will also hold the employee back so they can selfishly keep the employee on their team.

This happened to me very early in my career when my manager at the time prevented me from moving to another team. That team had an opening, so I talked to my manager about it. I was excited because it would have been more in line with my longer term career goals. It turned out my manager wanted to keep me on her team. She felt I was too valuable where I was. So she intentionally blocked any possibility of a transfer. (Of course, she didn’t actually tell me she’d done that. All I knew was that the manager of the other team went from excited about having me join to cold and distant. I only found out what my manager had done a week or so later. It backfired on both her and the company. The day I found out what she’d done, I contacted a recruiter and started interviewing for other roles. I had a new job and was gone in a matter of weeks.)

Failure Mode #4: Mushy Performance Management

A manager failing in this way struggles with giving critical feedback. They have an employee who isn’t meeting expectations, but they don’t address the issue directly. Instead they tell themselves things like: “Maybe it’s my fault; I should have been more clear.” Or “Maybe it will get better…I’ll just wait another week…” Or “They’re already having a hard time and I don’t want to upset them more.”

Hal was a first time manager who struggled with this. A member of his team, Issa, was performing far below her level, was frequently late or absent, and always had an excuse. Hal talked to me about the situation, but waffled about how to address Issa’s performance issues. He didn’t like confrontation, didn’t want to hurt Issa’s feelings, and tended to blame himself. So each time she came up short, his response was to try harder to help Issa do her job. Later he told me that his team almost didn’t deliver on their goals all because he was holding out hope that the situation with Issa would resolve itself if he just put in enough effort. (Spoiler: there was no amount of effort that Hal could put in that would fix the issues that Issa was having.)

Failure Mode #5: Pattern of Surprises or Disappointments

When a manager is failing in this way, their team members can point to multiple instances of becoming upset due to being blindsided by news and/or disappointed by unmet expectations. The key to recognizing the problem is seeing the pattern of surprises. Things happen in business, so occasional surprises or disappointments are inevitable. But if it happens over and over again, something is wrong.

There can be any number of causes behind the surprises or disappointments. It might be systemic failures in communication, like the team that kept being surprised by requirements changes communicated weeks after a decision had been made. Or it could be that the manager is too overwhelmed to live up to their commitments, like one of my early managers who consistently canceled our 1:1s or just failed to show up, even when I told him that I really needed to speak with him. Or it could be that the manager is not adjusting plans when conditions change, so their team has the frustrating experience of completing project after project only to find out the work they did is not on target for what the stakeholders needed. Whatever the source of the surprises / disappointments, if it’s frequent enough to be noticeable it points to a problem that needs to be addressed.

Detecting Failure Modes

The point of understanding these (and other) failure modes isn’t to say “you’re doing it wrong.” It’s also not to suggest that you should “try harder” (Hal fell into that trap, as you’ll recall).

No, the point of understanding failure modes is so you can recognize when it might be time to pause, consider the possibility that something is going wrong, and then get extra help.

Pausing and reflecting is a critical step. Everything is relative. If you have a junior team member, you’ll spend a lot of time teaching them how to do their job. At what point is it no longer teaching but micromanagement? If you stopped teaching them, would they feel abandoned? Or in a volatile context, every week brings new surprises. Is there anything a manager can do? Or is it just the nature of the business?

Don’t just rely on your own perceptions. Ask your team members for feedback. “How are you feeling about how much of our time we spend talking about the work versus talking about your career? What do you want more of? Less of?” or “It seems like you’ve had a bunch of surprises recently. Does it seem that way to you too? What can I do differently that would help you feel like you have better visibility or are less likely to be caught off-guard?”

When you detect an issue, ask for help from a trusted mentor, advisor, peer, or friend. They can be a sounding board and thinking partner. They can also tell you when you’re doing everything right, celebrate your successes, and reassure you that you are not alone.

And you are definitely not alone. Everyone makes mistakes, new and experienced managers alike. Managing is hard because it’s all about people, and people are hard. It takes time to learn how to do it well, and also to have the self-awareness to recognize when you’re struggling. Ultimately you’re not just learning how to manage others, but also learning how to manage yourself. You’re learning how to tell when you’re fooling yourself, when you’re avoiding difficult conversations, when you’re not thinking ahead, and when you are causing harm even if you mean well.

And learning to manage yourself? That’s the work of a lifetime.

[*] all names have been changed