When You’re the Boss, It’s Always Your Fault

I spend a fair amount of time working with some pretty miserable people. They see incompetence everywhere they look. They despise their staff and let it show. Working with these people is one of the many joys that comes with the organizational and leadership development work I do. And, I mean it. It’s a joy–not as much for them–but it is for me. Here’s why.

I was miserable too. I held the title of the World’s Worst Manager for several years in the 2000s. Only after a little HR crisis did I find a path to a happier, more productive, and satisfying place for myself and my team.

On the other side of that experience, I gravitated towards managers in a similar place to where I’d been. Crossing paths in the hallways and break rooms, exchanging emails, and on conference calls, I could see and hear the pattern of anger and frustration. I wanted to help them, so I made one of those sharp right turns in my career. I left big data problems in search of big people problems–I made bad leadership behavior my focus.

Not only are the patterns of bad leadership behavior the same, the blame game is the same too. The most common refrain I hear when first meeting with a leader in crisis is all about how truly awful, insubordinate, entitled, disrespectful, and ungrateful their team is. And while there is usually a kernel of truth in their complaints, the common denominator is always the leader themself. They’re the problem. The sooner they see that, the faster they can fix it.

The challenge is that it’s really hard for most people to see themselves as the root of their problems. There are many years of excuses, justifications, and thought patterns that have led to where they are. These beliefs aren’t reprogrammed quickly, but doing so is the key to moving forward.

If you’re a manager in the midst of your own little HR crisis, here are some signs that you’ll find the culprit of it all in the mirror.

  • More than one person has raised concerns to you or your boss.
  • People stop talking when you walk into the room.
  • You’re getting similar feedback to what you’ve heard in a prior position.
  • You were promoted based on your technical skills.
  • You were professionally “raised” in an environment where you did what your boss told you to do.
  • You think leadership training caters too much to people’s softer sides.
  • Because they’re paid, you believe your team should just do their jobs and stop complaining.
  • You’ve heard yourself think something like, “If they’re so unhappy, then they can just leave.”
  • Your name is on the door.

I include this catch-all at the end because this is the reality: If you’re in charge, the team’s culture and compatibility is your responsibility. This includes the team dynamic, morale, and the staff’s attitude about you and the work. It’s all you. I’d argue that when you accept a leadership position, you’re also accepting responsibility for all of your team’s outcomes. You can’t have the glory, title, and compensation without owning the challenges that come with it.

It’s not an easy conversation to have with someone–especially a client who is paying for advice on how to get their team in line. But it’s one that I often have to have. The faster you accept that it’s you and not them, the faster you can find the help, resources, mentoring, and training needed to get yourself out of that miserable place.

It’s ok that you’re not a perfect manager already. Despite what some people believe, great leaders and managers aren’t born that way. They make themselves through intense self-reflection and behavior adjustments over time. You can do the same.

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