Negative management traits can take a variety of forms. Some can be really obvious and in your face. Like yelling, being aggressive, having a short temper. These are characteristics of abusive supervision. Then there are more passive negative traits, more under the radar. Like gossiping about team members, keeping certain employees out of important conversations, favoritism. But there’s also a third category that is the topic of this episode, and those are negative traits that are less obvious because they’ve been normalized.
So what do I mean by that? I mean certain mindsets and behaviors that are often so common that we associate them with day-to-day management. That they’re normal, that they’re rarely questioned and sometimes maybe even…expected. I want to call attention to these behaviors and ways of thinking.
As a general note, anyone, any employee, can have the traits I’m about to discuss, so they’re not limited to just managers or leaders. It’s just that they are especially problematic when exhibited by managers and leaders.
I’ll be going over three mishaps throughout this episode, in the form of negative management traits. The first is trying to be the smartest person in the room. The second is having a fear of missing out. And the third is being a fire hazard.
We’ve all been in a situation where someone has an answer for everything, no matter how far removed they are from the topic of discussion or how completely irrelevant their statements are. We’ve also been around people, typically during meetings, who constantly repeat what others say. Not with the intent to summarize, synthesize, or build on what was said, but rather to kind of make it seem like it was their idea all along. Or even worse are those people who claim others’ ideas as their own. Like if you talk with your manager in a one-a-one, mention an idea that’s unique or might save a lot of time and money, then later on after that meeting your manager proposes that same idea as though they thought of it.
We’ve all been there, and what these people all have in common is that in some form or another they want to be the smartest person in the room. And although the description is “smartest person in the room,” that doesn’t mean this trait is limited to just meetings or an office – it’s a mindset that influences behavior. These people want to be relevant, in the spotlight, sought after or admired for their knowledge and insights. It’s a priority for them. This is a problem because they then prioritize their own desires, their own ego, over that of other peoples’ knowledge and insights. And why this is especially problematic for managers is that they might prioritize themselves, their image, over their teams.
These behaviors and actions have been normalized because managers and leaders are often looked at as the experts in the room. That they’re in higher positions of power partially because they should have, or are assumed to have, greater knowledge and insight than other individuals in their teams. This can lead to people believing that to be a good manager, you always need to be relevant. That you always have to participate in every discussion or meeting, that you always have to have the final word. After all, you’re in a higher position of power – you should always know best, and the brightest ideas should only come from you, right? Because if you don’t participate much or at all, or if you’re not the source of the best ideas from your team, then...what good are you, as a manager? Do you deserve to remain in your position as a manager?
Why yes, yes you do. In fact I’d say that that’s an indication of a great manager, someone who doesn’t have to be in the spotlight. Someone who allows others to speak and to be listened to. If you’ve caught yourself trying or wanting to be the smartest person in the room, whether around your teammates or other managers, it’d be a good idea to do some self-reflection on why you want to be seen that way. Are you concerned your team members might wonder why you’re their manager if you don’t seem like the smartest person? So that’s a question of legitimacy. Or are you very caught up on knowledge and insights, that you’re so in the know that you just can’t help yourself from always adding to or clarifying someone else’s thoughts or ideas? So that’s a question of impulse control. Those are just a few possibilities out of...a lot, that may be why you have a strong desire to be the smartest person in the room.
Likewise, there’s a common statement, words of wisdom, that the smart thing to do is surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And then you can grow and develop from them. I somewhat agree and somewhat disagree. I agree that you should be humbled by the fact that others, including employees who report to you, probably are more knowledgeable about something than you are or have better insights about certain topics. To have that grounded approach is healthy, that you’re acknowledging and giving credit to others’ training and experiences. What I somewhat disagree about those words of wisdom, is the emphasis on a...kind of a hierarchy of intelligence. Intelligence, as a general metric, is really overrated. But beyond that, to suggest that you need to surround yourself with people smarter than you reinforces the idea to yourself that intelligence is a primary factor for being in the room or on your team. And it shouldn’t be. You should surround yourself with diversity, with people who don’t think like you, who have different backgrounds than you, both personally and professionally, whose strengths are your weaknesses or vice versa.
The main takeaway from this first mishap is that you should determine how much value you place on your own and others’ intelligence, knowledge, and insights. If that value is especially high, then you might be more susceptible to wanting to be the smartest person in the room. If that’s the case, then think about what you’ve said or done that might align with that preference, and work on changing course to minimize those behaviors.
You might’ve heard of FOMO. Eff oh em oh. It’s an acronym that means fear of missing out. That you’re afraid to not know something, not be a part of conversations, not be invited to events. As a concept it became popular in the mid-2000s to describe a condition in which people are afraid of being left out. They want to know the newest celebrity gossip, big and small events going on around town, what’s happening politically in their country or around the world, and on and on.
It became more of a psychological and societal concern when everyone started getting smart phones. Because you then had a way of knowing what everyone was saying and doing and, most importantly, knowing whether you were part of those conversations and events. There’s an unfortunate stereotype that only young adults or only Millennials or whatever can have FOMO. That’s not really true – anyone can have it in most any situation. It’s just an anxiety, a fear, of missing out.
So turn that toward the workplace. Managers with workplace FOMO are those who need to be in every single meeting, to be forwarded or CC’d on every email, to be part of every project. These behaviors are somewhat normalized because managers are assumed to be those individuals who should know everything that’s going on in a team. Yet some managers take it to an extreme by needing to know every. Little. Thing. That goes on.
There is quite a bit of overlap between FOMO and micromanagement. In fact I’d suggest that micromanagement is, among other things, a combination of FOMO and needing to be the smartest person in the room. Micromanagers and managers with FOMO both feel a need to insert themselves in most tasks conducted within their teams. However, micromanagers take it a step further and are generally gatekeepers. That it’s not enough to be informed of what their team’s doing, but rather these managers always need to have the final say, that they need to be the ones to sign off on things. There’s a lot more that could be said about micromanagement, but I wanted to clarify that it’s related to FOMO, but not the same.
Ultimately, if you have workplace FOMO, what you’re communicating to your team is that you don’t trust them. That you don’t trust them to handle themselves well, to make good decisions, to have the team’s or organization’s best interests in mind. Now again, that’s what you’re communicating to your team, even if you actually do really trust them and believe that they’re competent in their jobs. Another side effect of this workplace FOMO is that your productivity as a manager suffers because you’re spending too much time reading things or sitting in on meetings that don’t really need your opinion or input. So not only are you communicating that you don’t trust your team to be competent, but ironically your own productivity and competence may suffer due to all of that monitoring.
The main takeaway from this second mishap is that if you tend to feel like you’re missing out by not being part of all communications or meetings within your team, you may have workplace FOMO. The important thing here is to take a step back and determine whether you actually need to be in every meeting, every piece of communication, etc. Given your specific role or function, you may very well need to be on everything. But chances are pretty good that you don’t. Learn to trust your team, to be more okay with uncertainty.
This one has more of a cutesy label than the other two, but it doesn’t make it any less counterproductive. I’m not talking about a literal fire hazard, like starting fires that could damage or burn down a building. I’m also not talking about fire in the sense of job termination or layoffs. Instead, I’m talking about a mindset of seeing metaphorical fires.
This mindset relates to a high sense of execution urgency. That everything is on fire, and you’re a walking fire extinguisher. If you listened to the previous episode of this podcast, this’ll sound similar to maximum output, shiny object syndrome. That you want to do everything, now.
If you’re a fire hazard as a manager, it can go two ways. The first is that you have a strong desire to fix things, to fix problems. In your mind you view these problems as fires that need to be put out before they get larger and consume an entire strategy, process, team, department. Others may not see the fires, but you do, and it’s your number one priority to put them out and make sure they don’t happen again.
The second way a fire hazard can go is that you make fires. You haven’t been able to find enough problems across your team, department, or organization to keep your urgency in check, so you kind of…start making your own. This doesn’t mean you sabotage your team or anything like that, but rather you make things bigger than they are just for the sake of having a fire to put out. Like viewing a candle as though it were a roaring bonfire or seeing flames where there really are none.
This behavior is a bit more extreme than the other two mishaps, but I believe it’s still partially normalized in the sense that managers are often expected to be…organizational fire fighters. That they are the main line of defense to snuff out flames before they become too big. Unfortunately, some managers take that expectation and crank it up to 11, likely coupled with their own personal inclination to see problems wherever they look.
Now there’s nothing wrong or counterproductive with fixing problems. In fact that’s productive and what should be done with issues – they should be fixed. But it’s how you view problems and non-problems that makes this a concern. It becomes counterproductive when you start over-engineering issues, when you perhaps work with other teams and it starts to get political with boundaries about who owns what. Or even within your own team, it can be very stressful if everything is high priority.
The main takeaway from this final mishap is that if you as a manager are like this, then I would say to slow down. Some jobs and functions require a constant mindset of fixing high priority issues. If it’s part of the function or industry, that’s one thing. But it’s another matter entirely if you’re not in a situation that has a lot of critical events going on or a lot of hustle and bustle. Relax. Trust your team. Think about whether you’re a fire hazard more because of the position or if that’s how you operate as a person. If the latter, that it’s more a function of your personality, maybe stress-reducing activities like yoga or meditation could be beneficial to gain a different, perhaps less urgent, outlook on life.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the mishaps of normalized negative management traits. The first is wanting to be the smartest person in the room, the second is FOMO or fear of missing out, and the third is being a fire hazard or having a high sense of execution urgency.
The interesting thing about the three mishaps I reviewed is that you may think the exact opposite of how I framed them. You might think that they’re pretty obvious, and you might also think they’re not all that negative. The main thing I want you to take away and think about from this episode is that even if certain behaviors, certain actions, are obvious to you, they may not be to others.
Likewise, what may seem negative to me may not seem negative to you. Same goes for you and your team. This last point is crucial and is kind of the main reason for this episode – it’s easy for well-intended actions and mindsets to become negative or counterproductive over time, but the change can be so gradual or so ingrained in an organization’s culture that no one stops to question those actions. Ultimately this set of mishaps is about doing things too much, of being too focused on being relevant, or being in the loop, or being a problem-solver. There’s always a balance, and it’s up to you to have a good sense within yourself and within your team to know when something that you do becomes imbalanced.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss the GAP model of conflict.