Top ten reasons managers become assholes

In response to some angry comments about the large number of assholes running around in management roles here’s the first in a series of posts about assholes. There is also a 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 then themselves, they didn’t separate the good qualities from the bad and copied it all. In their admiration they defend the bad as well as 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 you is inevitable. Management makes many people nervous since it’s defined by having have less direct control, but more broad influence. A huge percentage of 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. Their life sucks. 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 sucks badly 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 medicore, 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.

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36 Responses to “Top ten reasons managers become assholes”

  1. Robby Slaughter

    Lots of managers feel threatened by people who are smarter than they are, even if those people are their employees and they were hired because they are experts in a particular field.

    One easy way to hide these feelings of inadequacy is to make unreasonable demands. After all, if you are requiring people to work harder, their failure meet death march deadlines so must be their fault too, right?

    Reply
  2. Gustavo Duarte

    Here’s something else I think is a big reason: some managers do not care about employees as people, but only as resources.

    The schedule, the quarter, pleasing their superiors, all of this is infinitely more important than the well being of employees. I think this is a more pernicious type of asshole than the ‘shouting/aggressive’ type, because this type will use whatever tools to manipulate people. I think this is a prevalent mode of assholeness.

    This is related to #9, except it’s on purpose and not due to insensitivity.

    Also, I think the angry commenter was way off base and completely mischaracterized your post.

    Finally, sorry to nitpick, but it should be “negatively affect people” in #9, with an a.

    Cheers and I hope you get past the writing woes, I think your books are great.

    Reply
  3. Scott

    Gustavo: Thanks for catching the typo in 9. Fixed!

    Reply
  4. Scott

    Robby: There’s an asshole playbook to be written by someone, and making unreasonable demands would have a whole chapter in that book.

    Reply
  5. Brad

    These days you can’t mention the Peter Principle without mentioning the Dilbert Principle. It says that assholes get promoted preferentially because, basically, promotion is the easiest and quickest way to get rid of someone.

    Reply
  6. Pawel Brodzinski

    Pretty comprehensive list. I’d add a couple tweaks to reasons you’ve given.

    1a. All their bosses so far were assholes and they just don’t know they can play a different game. “Everyone does that” is their motto.

    10a. Everything was given to them with no effort. They treat commitment of their teeams as given too. They don’t have to strive to at work, do they?

    And one more:
    - They just don’t care. And if they don’t care it’s easier to be an asshole than to be a leader.

    Reply
  7. Mike the Manager

    Great list and all too true. What about ‘the appearance’ of being an asshole, though? Many times, employees don’t want to hear tough messages. In my view, the blind spot is a major reason some (I said SOME) managers get bad raps. I understand the benefits of strength based performance management, but it behooves us to remember there are ‘price of admission’ skills that we sometimes need to shore up. The view that “I’m great at X, so I can ignore Y (or worse, they think it makes Y irrelevant)” is a tough one to manage through successfully.

    Reply
  8. Steve

    Great list.

    The last sentence of #11: anatomically accurate, but maybe not what you meant to say?

    Reply
  9. dblowers

    OMG, I work for an Asshole who is 1-5 and 9-11 all in one icky package. So glad you posted this, I’m definitly going to buy the book now so I can understand the situation better. This whole time I just figured he was a General or Major in the Asshole Army!

    Reply
  10. retrogaming

    But you forgot one very important rule: “Be sure you are not an asshole yourself”

    Reply
  11. Robert

    #12: Having to supervise idiots.

    Reply
  12. Jo Emry

    I wish I had your advice when I was working for my last boss and his overly paid stooge. However, a clear head and common sense got me through. I will forward your advice to my son who works for the federal government. If you think the average workplace has assholes, you should see the feds! But of course, you already know this. Thanks

    Reply
  13. John

    OMG I have a passive-aggresasive boss who sits on his ass all day while telling everyone else what to do. He does less than two hours of real work on any given day, but he loves to walk around the workplace micromanaging everyone and telling us what needs to be done, even though we’ve all been doing it for years and do our jobs well. Whenever he’s around life feels like one big punch in the gut. After he checks up on all of us (because the paranoid little prick thinks we’re slacking like he always does), he goes back to sitting on his lazy ass and getting paid half again as those of us who do all the work. We don’t like him, but his bosses think he can do no wrong. Never mind that he has been known to “borrow” things from work.

    Reply
    • Emma

      Blimey! Do you have the same boss as me? Spooky. Mine too just sits on his ***e then comes down to the shop floor, has a go at people for not doing anything (when they are), goes and sits in the café drinking free coffee (which we are not allowed as it is ‘stealing’) then buggers off again to do nothing.

      This is the man they tried to get rid of three times for sexual harassment. We don’t call him ‘Teflon D***’ for nothing!

      Reply
  14. CaptainReality

    You missed reason number one: spinelessness.

    Many senior managers are ruthless. They amplify pressure down in the hope of increasing short-term productivity, to hell with the long-term consequences or effects on people.

    Most middle managers are spineless jellyfish. I’ve observed in the tech industry that in general, anyone who has a spine and a sense of self worth usually (but not always) doesn’t get promoted to management. The companies where these people do get promoted tend to be long-term success stories with ethical upper management. Unfortunately, most companies aren’t like this.

    Reply
  15. Ron

    One of the things I found in the tech industry was that even competent people who became managers lost touch with the technical end of things because they weren’t working with it. In time, they end up managing people who know more than they do which leads many into #2.

    Reply
  16. Jack Silver

    I am a medical practice management consultant and do get calls by employers (mostly physicians) to resolve issues their practices face. I’d love to provide every employer with the above 11 reasons as the starting point of assessing any systemic company/personal problems.
    For instance, I worked with a solo practitioner (physician) in Tomball, Texas whose office consisted of 4 employees. Within 12 months, this physician had hired and fired about 24 individuals. When I asked the physician what he thought the problem was regarding high staff turnover. He said “there are no competent employees in the area”. For those who are not familiar with Tomball, it is about 15 miles from Houston. I stopped by the hospital the physician practiced medicine and met with the medical affairs officer. As soon as I dropped the physicians name the medical affairs lady gave me a sad look and said the doctor is rated as the worst mannered physician in the hospital. This comment confirmed my suspicion that this physician is an asshole. I tried to communicate to the physician that he needed to improve his behavior toward others, but it didn’t work. Sometimes, it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

    Reply
  17. Mr. B

    Very insightful! I’ve been in management within food service all my life…a tough line of work, and the pay really is crap.
    I am nealry retired now, so I took a job as a prep cook 3 days a week, just to keep busy. This asshole cook who had been there forever was very insecure, and I think my experience in the biz was a threat to him..like I really wanted his throne of hamburgers and western sandwiches.He perpetually bitches, yells at servers, and yells at me. The other day he spit in a burger
    that was ordered for the boss’s wife. I tried to reason with him, and was told to forget I saw it. So, I went to the dining room and took the burger right from under the boss…he asked why obviously…when I told him, he initially flipped. Arriving to work the next day, boss called me a liar and fired me on the spot, stating that this cook would never do that, and how dare I say such a lie. This asshole convinced the boss he was an angel one more time…and everyone but the boss hates him. That’s the pinnacle of an over-bearing, insecure and bitter asshole.

    Reply
  18. Asha Fotos

    Ever read Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”? I’ve had the pleasure to encounter the reign under TWO of these individuals at once and have seen the havoc they wreak. The reasons you describe under 7-11 mirror sociopathic traits and that personality type generally seeks out positions of power. Dr. Stout rationalizes that there may be a ratio as high as one in twenty-five, in American society, afflicted with this pathos that can neither be reasoned with nor cured. The term “Asshole” is counterproductive and an understatement for this very real and dangerous menace.

    Reply
  19. Carol Cartwright

    My sense is that #11 covers the vast majority of cases. ;D

    Reply
  20. Angry Nerd

    I’d like to offer another suggestion for why managers often turn to assholes:

    Being a manager means not being needed for 2/3rds of the time.

    I found this website while covering for my manager while he’s on vacation. Things were going well, my team of developers was working, sometimes there was some chatting as people exchanged ideas, and then they returned to their desks to try new things. It was a productive day. And I was utterly useless. I answered a single question during the entire morning.

    It was, to me, a good day. But I can imagine sitting around reading Scotts blog is not, in the long run, the path towards a successful career in management.

    So what is the average manager to do? Unless things are seriously broken, there isn’t going to be too much management to do. And unless he works for “the next big thing” (it was microsoft until it was google until it was facebook), there probably isn’t all that much money he can request for special projects to keep himself busy. If he does nothing, he’ll likely be replaced because the board wants someone more “hands on”. Or he will have his budget cut because the departments with constant emergencies need more funding.

    What any manager with any sense of self preservation will do in these cases is MAKE something happend. It might not even be to get promoted or flex their power. They just need to do something to show that their salaries are not a complete waste to the company. But micro management, reorganizations and starting a few fires does tend to come naturally to managers who need something to give their existance meaning.

    Reply
  21. Karl Asshole

    To be a good manager, you have to be a good person (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Virtues). You also must be a good leader. Leadership can neither faked nor learned – you’re born with the Zeus juice or you’re a pretender. If you have said juice, you won’t lie to, blame, shout at, threaten, intimidate or corn hole your people. You’ll treat your people like work is NOT the most important thing in the universe, which it isn’t. Non-assholes typically organize their priorities something like: 1 – God, 2 – Spouse, 3- Children, 4 – Friends, 5 – Work. The majority of employees are people who like their work and want to do superior quality work. Assuming they have the basic qualifications for the position, if they aren’t working to at least an acceptable level of quality, it’s your fault as their manager anyway. Non-assholes don’t believe everyone and everything they do must be excellent. Consider it for a millisecond or two; an essential quality of excellence is “exceptionalness” and the more excellent a thing is, the more exceptional it is also. Lastly, if you haven’t paid each and every one of your people a compliment on their work in more than a couple of weeks, you are a brown, seething, puckered, 3,000 degree Celsius flaming asshole and everyone who works for you knows it. I’d like for such assholes to reply to this and let us all know what the satisfaction is that you derive from being that way.

    Reply
  22. Walter Mahler

    I am writing poetry on punctuation, physics, math and management. One of the poems is on HiPPO management. I would like to have a reference to the origin of the term so that I may give proper credit.

    The HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion is sacrosanct
    In the HiPPO style of management
    Those who beg to differ soon face banishment
    And enjoy an early retirement.

    Yours,
    Walter Mahler

    Reply

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