Top ten reasons managers become assholes

In response to angry comments about the large number of assholes running around in management circles, here’s the first in a series of posts about them. (There is also a positive follow up post on the top ten reasons managers become great):

The top ten reasons managers become assholes:

  1. A boss they admired was an asshole. In trying to emulate someone more powerful than themselves, they didn’t separate the good qualities from the bad and copied it all. In their admiration they defend the bad along with the good (note: people do this with their parents too). See The Jobsian Fallacy.
  2. They are insecure in their role. The psychology of opposites goes a long way in understanding human nature. Overly aggressive people are often quite scared, and their aggression is a pre-emptive attack driven by fear: they attack first because they believe an attack from others is inevitable. Management makes many people nervous since it’s defined by having have less direct control, but more broad influence. Many managers never get over this, and micromanage: a clear sign of insecurity and confusion over their role and yours.
  3. They prefer intimidation to leadership. If you have a gun, the fastest way to get someone to do something for you is to threaten them with it. But if you take away the gun, you have no power. However if you take the time to convince someone to do something for good reasons, those reasons can last no matter how armed or unarmed you are. A person who has confused intimidation with persuasion, or leadership, behaves poorly all the time. They rely on their guns, not their minds, which enslaves the people who work for them out of using their minds either.
  4. They are unhappy with their lives. What percentage of people are miserable in the corporate world? I think 20-30% is a safe bet. If you’re miserable, you tend to inflict your misery on those who have less power than you do. If your life is miserable enough you won’t even notice how rude you are to waiters, assistants, and sub-ordinates. It may be nothing personal, or even work related, these people simply have a volcano of negative emotions that must escape somewhere, often in eruptions that they can not control. Just be glad you’re not their spouse or offspring.
  5. They lose their way. Management is disorienting. You are not in the real world in the same way front line workers are. Everything is meta. Decisions become abstractions. People are numbers. Getting lost in middle management is common. Unless they find a guiding light to keep the bearings, and stay low to the ground, good people get lost. It’s smart when taking on a new role to ask someone closer to the ground to be your sanity check. Telling you when the front lines thinks you’re not the same guy anymore.
  6. Promotion chasing. As you get further from front line work, the goals of promotion become clearer than the goals of the projects. Often what’s right for the project, and the people working on it, isn’t lined up with what’s going to get a manager promoted. This creates a moral dilemma, do what’s right for the team, or do what’s best for me. By spending more time with other managers than with front line workers, it’s easy to forget where the high ground is.
  7. Their management chain is toxic. If you are a manager, and your boss is inflicting blame, disorder or pain on you, there are two choices. Either pass the pain on down, or suck it up and shield your team from the pain. Will you pass the blame on to your team, or take all the heat? The latter is much harder to do than the former, and the former will often be taken as being an asshole. Even if no solution is possible, one gutsy thing to say is “I don’t agree with this either, but I was unable to convince my boss, so we’re doing it anyway”. This takes guts as it makes you seem powerless. You must choose between seeming powerless vs. seeming like an asshole, and the latter often wins.
  8. The Peter Principle. A 1968 book described this principle as the fact that in any hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. It sounds like a joke, but makes total sense. If Bob is a great marketer, he is soon promoted to senior marketer. If he does well, he’s promoted to managing marketers. What happens now? If he’s mediocre as a manager, he can likely stay there forever. He may not like the fact he’s not getting promoted anymore and doesn’t like being mediocre, but is afraid of going back down the ladder, even though he might excel down there. He’s trapped. People who are trapped feel insecure (see above).
  9. They’re not assholes, they’re just insensitive or oblivious. Would a Vulcan make a good manager? Not really. He’d make smart choices, for sure, but empathy is a huge part of what a decent manager offers their team. Managers are often faced with tough decisions that will negatively affect people, and they make the best choice they can. But they forget to empathize with or explain their decisions such that those negatively effected by them understand. Or even better, forget to involve those people in the decision so they become participants and not victims. The failure to do this is a fast way to earn a reputation as an asshole, even if you’re doing what’s best for the team / company / world.
  10. Madly in love with themselves. Perhaps their Mom doted on them too much as children, or they got picked on in high school, whatever the reason, some people become infatuated with their power and fall in love with themselves. They put themselves in the center of everything because, emotionally, they need to be. The hole in their ego is so big, nothing can fill it, despite their pathological attempts to stuff bonuses, rewards, kudos and perks others deserve more into their stash. Megalomania is tragedy. It’s a good sign a person you despise has bigger problems with the world, than you have with them.
  11. They always were assholes. I knew a kid in elementary school who always seemed like a jerk. Even then it wasn’t quite his fault, he just naturally annoyed and bothered people. Why? I don’t know. Anyway, I met him recently, 25 years later, and guess what? He’s still a jerk. Some people have been, and probably always will be, assholes. They have to work somewhere. Better managed companies hire fewer of them.
  12. They took the promotion purely for money and status. In many organizations the only way to get higher status and more income is to become a manager. What if managers didn’t get paid more than the people they managed? Perhaps then more people would take the role simply because they wanted to be in that role, rather than because they primarily wanted more money.


63 Responses to “Top ten reasons managers become assholes”

  1. Dina

    Let me do the right thing: I just came here for the first time to express my feeling about bad managers. I love the USA and I know how many people with families are being humiliated at their jobs by assholes. This is unacceptable. I prefer to spread the word because everybody has the right to have a job to keep their families or because they live without a family and need money to survive. NOBODY could to have the right to abuse a worker.

    I loved this article because we can talk about this problem here. I will try to compare the article with my experience with Mrs. T (her first name starts with the letter T)
    1- They become assholes because the boss they admired – Maybe I agree but I believe she is an asshole herself. She does not need to get inspiration in someone else.

    2 – She is insecure in her role. I agree. She is very insecure. She is afraid someone will take her job or discover she is not able to do her duties (she had my position before and I just came because she was promoted to be a manager . The manager that worked there before quit and someone told Mrs. T manipulated situations to get that position without having great experience before).

    3- She prefers intimidation..? I do not think so. Sometimes she used intimidation to another lady that works there. In my case she prefers MANIPULATION.

    4 – She is unhappy with her personal life. I do not think so. She always says she has a happy life. She likes to travel and stays in nice hotels. She shows her children pictures all the time. She wants everybody know she is a happy person but I believe this is a kind of extreme behavior. I do not know if she is really happy or not. If she pretends to be happy or not. She seems to be pretty happy.

    5 -She loses her way? All the time.

    6- Promotion chasing. Yes. When I arrived to work there she already got what she wanted. She was promoted. She was in heaven and become an asshole.I think she never was a manager before and she was feeling like a queen that was going to sit in a throne. She kicked the prior manager out.

    7 – Her manager is toxic ? No. The big manager is the best manager I ever saw. He only has more important departments to watch for. He does not care about what she is doing so much. He just needs someone there. This is the problem.

    8 – Peter Principle . Not the case. She got the higher position she could there. She is trying new jobs in other companies but nobody wants to hire her.

    9 – No way.She is an asshole. Total.

    10 – Megalomania. Yes. Very narcissist person. Very worried about appearance.

    11. Yes.

    12 – She got the position for money and status. The department I was working is the lower in status. Under that department (sorry to say that but….) only the housekeeping. So..she was the manager for 3 people only. And she treated us like she was the Queen of the managers. And we were he subjects. A queen in a micro-tiny-universe inside a macro-universe.



Leave a Reply

* Required