Bad Managers Don’t Want to Become Better Managers

Bad managers are bad news. Among other things, their behavior can reduce efficiency and productivity, lower morale, and increase turnover.


The problem often begins with how managers are hired or promoted

  • Previous high performance in a relevant job role
  • Tenure with a company or overall years of experience

These might be great reasons to hire a candidate or reward an employee. But they are not good reasons to make them a manager.

A good manager needs to have managerial competencies. Things like interpersonal skills, the ability to set goals and standards, and the ability to coach and develop others.

These aren’t competencies that any high-performing or long-time employee necessarily has.


The problem continues because bad managers don’t know that they’re bad managers

Research comparing self-perceived managerial competency to objective indicators of managerial competency has found that they are barely even related.

  • Overall, self-perceived competency explains less than 1% of the variation in actual competency.
  • The numbers are a little bit better for interpersonal skills: self-perceived competency explains about 4% of the variation in actual competency.


Part of the problem is a lack of feedback. People are often reluctant to tell a bad manager that they are a bad manager.

But they probably find out eventually, right?

Here’s what tends to happen when people do find out that they are lacking in a competency

  • Devaluing: Found out that you’re bad at something? You can just decide that being good at that thing isn’t actually important.
  • Discounting: Can’t find a way to deny its importance? You can just decide that the feedback isn’t valid. Maybe it’s a biased opinion or a bad test. You’re actually good at that thing, so they must be wrong.


This is exactly what happened in a series of studies where researchers gave emotional intelligence tests to several large samples of MBA students at top business schools.

The students on average overestimated the percentile they thought they would score by nearly 40%!

Once they found out their actual scores, the low performers either devalued emotional intelligence, or discounted the validity of the test they just took.

It gets worse. The low performers—now believing that emotional intelligence is unimportant or that they are already competent—expressed the least desire to improve. They showed the least interest in coaching and training, and were least likely to buy a book that might help (it was actually offered for purchase at a discounted rate, as part of the experiment).

Who did express interest in coaching and training? Who actually bought the book? The people who were already good at it.


Lessons learned

Bad managers don’t want to become better managers. In their own minds they are doing just fine, and that attitude is unlikely to change.

This means that it is incredibly important to find the right person to be manager in the first place.

Personality is often the best predictor of performance on the job because competencies are largely determined by personality. Personality assessments can be one of the most valuable tools to help fight the scourge of bad managers.


Photo credit: Kenny Louie

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