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  • Harriet Willmott

QUIZ: Do you have a bad manager?

Statistically, the answer is probably yes. Most engineering managers are bad. Most engineering managers are good engineers that reached a certain level of seniority where the only way up was to become a manager, or they were forced to be a manager due to a lack of willing and available managers. The skills required to be a good engineer are not the same skills required to be a good manager and most engineering managers have had no people management training at all.


Your one-on-ones

You should be having 1-1s every week. Is your manager consistently late to them, rescheduling them or skipping them? That is NOT good. Your manager needs to regularly chat with you to know what you’re working on and how to help you grow.


Does your manager spend most of your 1-1s talking, or do they listen to you? Are they really listening? I once had a manager that could listen to me ramble for 20 minutes and then concisely summarize what I said to her, but with more clarity, and then have advice for how to tackle my current problem. I walked away from every 1-1 with more optimism and clarity about my career than 30 minutes before. That’s what you want.


Does your manager interrupt you? That is the opposite of listening, BTW.


Does your manager have an agenda for your 1-1s or is it just 30 minutes of banter? Your manager should be taking an active role in your career development and that means helping you set goals, which doesn’t happen when you’re small-talking.


Do they remember what you told them? I once had a manager who asked me the same question 3 weeks in a row, until I asked him if I should write the answer down for him. He was the worst manager I’ve had SO FAR.


Does your manager follow up with action after you tell them something? My current manager has said to me many times: “I thought about what you said last week and now I am going to do X”. It means a lot to me that he listens carefully and follows up: it makes me feel supported and comfortable bringing up my concerns. This is what you want from your manager.


Career goals

Does your manager know your short and long-term career goals and are they helping you work towards them? Short term is 3 months, medium term is 1 year, and long term is 5 years. If you haven’t yet, have a conversation with your manager about where you want your career to be in those timeframes and outline a plan to get you there (it doesn’t have to be very detailed for the 5-year goal).


Are they tracking those goals? Do you revisit them together? How is your manager investing in your personal growth?


If your goal is to get promoted, you should be able to map out with your manager what you need to do in the next year to get that promotion. Your manager should be able to tell you what you need to deliver to get your next promotion. If they’re vague about it, keep pushing back until they tell you something measurable.


Feedback

How often do you get feedback? Once a year is NOT enough. Twice a year is hardly better. The more frequently you get feedback, the faster you grow. And you should NEVER EVER be surprised in a performance review. If you think you’re doing great all year and then during the annual performance review, your manager tells you you’re just not meeting expectations, it’s your manager’s fault, not yours. Do NOT blame yourself. You have a bad manager.


Do you only get “constructive” feedback, or do they also let you know when you’re doing a good job? I am a YUUUGE fan of real-time positive feedback. It’s so easy! When you notice someone doing something great, tell them immediately! It is extremely motivating and a great way to influence someone’s behaviour without stressing them out: “do more of this!” instead of “do less of that!” Unfortunately, real-time positive feedback is rare.


Is their “constructive” feedback actionable? “You took too long building that one feature” is not actionable feedback. This is actionable feedback: “Next time you get handed a project like that and you feel like it’s going to take longer than anticipated, flag it early and let’s figure out how to cut scope and deliver it on time, or adjust expectations.”


Side note: working longer hours is NEVER the solution. You can’t work more hours: your brain only has so much productivity it can expend every day. If you try to work longer days, you will just waste more time procrastinating or just do everything more slowly, but you’ll be more tired at the end of the day. If you’re being pressured to work evenings or weekends, you have a bad manager.


Do they respond positively to your feedback? You may not feel comfortable giving them feedback directly, so don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to this, but a GOOD manager wants feedback in order to learn how to be a better manager and help the whole team feel comfortable and productive.


Inclusion

If you ask your manager what they’re doing to build a more diverse and inclusive team and their answer is along the lines of “it’s a hard problem” or “we don’t lower the bar”, you have a bad manager.


Does your manager use gendered language in reviews (“pushy”, “bossy”, “complains too much”)?


Does your manager always ask you to do the “woman’s work” (note taking, organizing team events, taking communication skills as an interview focus area)?


Does your manager keep asking the same question until a man answers? Even if it’s the same as your answer?


I’ll leave it as homework for the reader to figure out if this is bad manager behaviour or not.


Support

Does your manager know what you do all day? Do they understand why it’s hard? If you are telling them about something that’s challenging you, do they help you work towards a solution or do they tell you that it isn’t that hard and you should figure it out? If you’re not already familiar with the term gaslighting, familiarize yourself now because recognizing it when it happens to you is critical for maintaining your sanity and sticking up for yourself. If you walk into a 1-1 feeling like you need help, and you walk out feeling confused, upset, and inadequate, you are being gaslit. If your manager is denying your experience, you’re being gaslit.


Here are some examples of gaslighting:

You: “I was offended when Bob said X”

Bad manager: “Bob’s a good guy and you are overreacting”

Good manager: “I’m sorry about that. I could have a conversation with Bob and keep your identity out of it. Would you be comfortable with that?”


You: “I never get an opportunity to speak up in meetings”

Bad manager: “There are opportunities all the time, you just need to take them”

Good manager: “I’m sorry about that. In our next meeting, I will make sure everyone gets a chance to speak their mind. If anyone interrupts you, I will ask them to wait until you’re done speaking.”


You: “This project I was assigned is bigger than we expected and I don’t think I can get it done on time”

Bad manager: “It’s not that complicated, you can figure it out.”

Good manager: “Oh dear! Let’s talk about how we can adjust scope, get you some help, or change stakeholder expectations about when this will get delivered.”


You: “When I reach out to teammates for help, no one responds.”

Bad manager: “You’re not trying hard enough”

Good manager: “Let’s have a discussion as an engineering team about how we can support each other and grow together.”


You: “Carl is being super nitpicky on my design and making me run circles before he approves it”

Bad manager: “You should have written a more detailed design doc”

Good manager: “Send me your design docs and I will go through the comments and back you up where I think it’s appropriate”


If you haven’t had conversations like this yet, you will. The key is to recognize it for what it is (gaslighting) and NOT internalize it. Your feelings are valid. Your manager is not understanding and supporting you. You have a bad manager.

Summary

If you read through this whole list and you can confidently say to yourself “I have a great manager,” GREAT!! You are one of the lucky few.

If, however, after reading this you’re starting to think you have a bad manager or a manager with at least some shortcomings that hold them back from fulfilling their job of helping you advance your career and getting your work done, WORRY NOT!! Well, worry a little, then read my “What to do if you have a bad manager” post. Even if you like your manager as a person and you’re telling yourself “they’re really not THAT bad”. There are ways you can make up for your current manager’s shortcomings--you don’t have to pack up and go somewhere else.


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