Pathology

Nik Knight
Jan 10 · 4 min read
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

During a Twitter discussion with Charity Majors this week (about the various challenges and pitfalls associated with Engineers becoming Managers), I dashed off this tweet:

I hate the “people leave bad managers, not bad jobs” trope. People leave for all sorts of reasons — sometimes it is because they have a bad manager, but that is far from the whole story. Sometimes the org is *rewarding* poor management. Sometimes it is wrong place, wrong time.

It seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and since it’s peak job-hunting and recruitment season, I thought I’d expand on my thinking a bit. Buckle up, kids.

First of all, full disclosure. I’ve been a manager for around 10 years now, and in that time, a number of direct and indirect reports have left my team. Each of them had their reasons for leaving, and I will freely admit that for some, I was at least part of that reason. So this is not a defensive reaction on my part — I haven’t always been the manager people have needed or deserved, and I’m not too proud to admit that. It was all part of my development as a leader (see my post on resilience for more about failure and learning), and I can only hope that I didn’t do too much damage to others in the process.

Having said that, there were a good many other reasons for people deciding to move on that were beyond my sphere of influence . Partners got job offers in other parts of the world. Some people — especially those in the early stages of their careers — worked out that actually, this wasn’t the right path for them. Or the right city. Or the right salary. For some, opportunities arose that were just too good to turn down. The greatest line manager in the world would struggle to compete in these scenarios.

Deciding to change jobs is rarely due to a single root cause — what ever is, really?— it’s often a multi-dimensional thing, even though there may be a catalyst that finally tips people over from ‘meh’ to ‘outta here’. This is the space where a “good” manager can make a difference and pull someone who is wavering back from the ledge. A line manager who is interested in their team members’ well-being, is checking in frequently, is taking morale temperature checks and so on stands a far better chance of spotting the warning signs of an impending flight risk, and can therefore choose to try to address problems early. An opportunity to learn a new skill, a change of project, a tweak to working hours — there’s a million things that could make a world of difference to someone struggling to find the joy in their day-to-day. Well, duh. Of course, there’s nothing to stop any manager doing this — those who don’t aren’t necessarily “bad” managers though, they are just not yet proficient at this skill.

Sometimes though, even when you have a diligent, caring manager who’s totally on top of where their team is at, what they need, how to keep them engaged, people still opt to take the path out. To me, this generally points to a bigger problem — perhaps the team culture is healthy, but the organisational culture is not. Jim Lambert described this beautifully in the same Twitter thread that sparked my original train of thought; “Good mgrs know when to amplify or dampen corp leadership”. I subscribe to his view, and have seen the more talented managers I’ve encountered do just this — but there are limits to how much one person can dampen the effects of a toxic environment. Does this make them a “bad” manager? Not so much.

So is there such a thing as a “bad manager” at all? Well, there are people who are not naturally suited to management, for sure. There are some for whom it is a skill they will never quite master, and some who don’t even see the need to try. There are teams and organisations where developing these management and leadership skills just isn’t a priority, or where command-and-control is still seen as the standard way to manage. It’s exhausting swimming against that kind of tide. That’s not to say it’s impossible to change these things, but there has to be the will to change in the mix somewhere.

Do people leave people who are (currently) doing a not-so-great job of management? Hells, yes. Is that the only reason they leave? No. Not by a long way. The best thing we can do as managers is to take a long, hard, clear-eyed look at ourselves and ask, “Am I being the manager this person, this team needs me to be?”. If the answer is yes, great — good for you, keep it up. If not, maybe it’s time to think about what you could change that would make a real difference to the team you serve.

Nik Knight

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Chief Release Wrangler working in fintech | On call since 2008 | Coach-Mentor | DevOps can change the world | Never planning to be old enough to know better