What is Bad Management?

“Lots of folks confuse bad management with destiny” – Kin Hubbard


Kin Hubbard was a 19th century American journalist and humorist, declared by no less than Will Rogers as “America’s greatest humorist.”  Obviously he was going for the laugh with this quote, but there is a seed of truth here, and his quote led me to wonder – just what is “bad” management and how can you avoid it?


The effects of bad management are obvious to everyone – wealth destroyed, jobs and pensions destroyed, and entire communities or even whole economies disrupted.  One of my clients is going through a major contraction, with all the predictable negative effects, because of a course of action that many people have labeled “(CEO’s last name) folly!”  Unfortunately, many people still describe this situation as if it was the company’s destiny– “shrinking industry, tough R&D challenges, difficult unions” – but so much of this devastating impact simply seems to be the product of poor decisions made by a bad manager.


Following are several factors that I believe are characteristic of bad management.

  1. Insular Decision Making – Many managers insulate themselves from conflicting viewpoints.  After the Bay of Pigs, Robert Kennedy vowed that his brother Jack would have access to all relevant views – especially conflicting views.  He stressed that disagreement should be discussed at the table, not away from it.  Many people believe that this approach was a key factor in the successful resolution of the subsequent missile crisis.
  2. Rigidity of Viewpoint – The need to appear capable to reports can lead managers to be rigid in their views.  Too many managers associate openness and flexibility with weakness.  Unfortunately, this rigidity can cause a person to defend a previous decision, even as new and possibly conflicting information becomes available.
  3. Arrogance – A common companion to discretion is extreme arrogance or hubris – defined as overestimating one’s own competence or capabilities.  A common example of hubris in managerial decision-making is an almost willful ignorance of unintended consequences.  Some managers are so certain that they can create a desired outcome that they overlook even the most obvious risks.
  4. Illusion of Control – The final factor is what I call “the illusion of control” – an untested belief in authority that leads managers to assume that any decision will be implemented exactly as directed.  This illusion is a common cause of execution delays, false starts and rework, and conflicts about methods or approach.


So, what steps can you take if you want to avoid bad management?  Following are some suggestions I give to my coaching clients.

  • Seek out conflicting viewpoints and make sure to arrange for at least one colleague who will always test your assumptions and decisions.
  • Share relevant information with your own managers, and make sure to describe its importance to the other person – don’t assume they know.
  • Set the expectation that you will adapt your decisions – if people share new information in a way that you can test for its validity and relevance.
  • Always look and ask for unintended consequences to your decisions – related to both organizational and personal interests.
  • Never assume that others will understand or commit to your decision without some dialogue, and don’t treat disagree as a personal attack.
  • Disagree openly with your own managers, but make that disagreement relevant, by sharing information that is relevant to their interests.