Traits of a Jackass Manager

Charles A. Sennewald
Butterworth-Heinemann: 2012

Traits of a Jackass Manager is a short booklet that considers 32 management behaviors and attitudes that are detrimental to the culture of an organization. Some of them are so ingrained and widespread that they could likely be considered to be characteristic of the culture of an entire firm rather than the behavior of a single individual.

None of them are particularly astounding - it should be self-evident that a manager who is abusive, bigoted, irresponsible, etc. is doing serious harm to his staff and his company. Or perhaps it's an instance in which a person can recognize that a behavior is detrimental, but fail to recognize that he practices that exact behavior. Or worse, they will acknowledge that the behavior is bad, but then argue the reasons they do so, and intend to continue to do so.

As such, my initial reaction to the booklet was that it was superficial and unenlightening - but I found myself going back to it and thumbing through it, mulling over some of the topics the author covered in a brief and basic way, which indicates there's some good substance there after all.

Hence, these notes ...

In brief, the 32 characteristics of a jackass manager are:

Each chapter provides only a few sentences to describe the behavior, without much of an examination as to why it is a problem, what can be done to correct it, and the reasons a person might feel justified in continuing to behave in that manner.

The Manager Who Seeks to be "Liked" Rather than Respected

Wanting to be liked by others is part of human nature: we are inclined to seek harmony and avoid conflict, and accommodating others is a common and convenient way to do this. However, a manager can't please everyone, and is faced with the task of making the right decision, even when it is not a popular one.

Most employees recognize that too much fraternization can compromise a leader's integrity and credibility. A respected leader guides people to do what's right, what's fair, and what makes sense, even if it is something that his team will not like.

The Manager Who Ignores the Opinions and Advice of Employees

The manager who refuses to take input from his subordinates is generally seen as arrogant - but this arrogance is very often rooted in fear.

The old-school notion of a leader is as a sort of superman; he is a leader because he knows everything and is sure of himself. To say "I don't know" was assumed to sacrifice authority and respect.

In fact, there is nothing wrong with saying "I don't know." The leader who does so is perceived as having integrity, and it bolsters confidence that when he speaks with confidence, he really does know what he's talking about and not just pretending.

Asking the input of employees - and then actually taking it into account - also makes them feel that they are valued. But more importantly, it makes sure that the best ideas of the group are acted on, that knowledge is not disregarded - an approach that is more likely to achieve better results than a team of people who mindlessly obey an arrogant half-wit.

But the present-day notion of a leader is one who leverages the knowledge and talent of his staff, which requires him to admit that some of whom are more knowledgeable and talented than himself, and which requires him to actually and attentively listen.

The Manager Who Fails to Delegate Properly

Poor delegation is a mistake made by many managers: they give an employee the responsibility to accomplish a task, without the authority necessary to discharge it, yet still hold the employee accountable for the results.

Said another way, the manager keeps strings attached to an assignment: he is not clear about the outcome he wishes to achieve, but is very specific about procedures and inconsequential details and will nitpick relatively unimportant decisions.

The problems are:

The Manager Who Ignores the Training and Developmental Needs of Employees

Most firms pay lip-service to the value of their people, and appeal to job candidates on the opportunities for personal growth and development. But when it comes time to spend money on training, very few will behave accordingly.

A company's training budget for employees is often among the first budget that is reduced to cope with an economic downturn; it is also kept low even during times of prosperity to increase profits. However, the training budget for managers doesn't seem to suffer the same fate.

Very often, a manager will attend training courses, seminars, and conventions but denies employees access to the same opportunities because it is regarded as a waste of resources: it costs money and employees are not on the job.

Ironically, the employees would be better capable of understanding the information presented and the benefit to the organization would be more effectively, efficiently, and quickly applied if they received training directly.

The Manager Who Insists on Doing Everything "The Company Way"

The author refers to the saying that there are three ways to do a task: the right way, the wrong way, and the boss's way. This saying is so widespread because the practice is so widespread that managers insist on dictating the minute details of the way that things are done - and having things done their way is more important than accomplishing the desired results.

The irony of it is that a manager who s a stickler for doing things "by the book" generally does not have a book - he is, to be blunt, a liar. Few companies document such minute details because they realize that doing so prevents and discourages employees from discovering more effective and efficient solutions to problems.

In some instances, such rigidity is a pronounced sign of autocracy and egomania. In other instances, it is fear of rocking the boat by taking risks - doing what you are told, or following what has been done in the past, means that you are not responsible for poor results ... which means you have not taken on any responsibility.

The Manager Who Fails to Give Credit When Credit Is Due

Among the most "deflating, disappointing, and demotivating" things an employee can suffer is for their boss to take personal credit for work that they have done. Second to that, but equally demotivating, is a supervisor who doesn't necessarily take the credit, but doesn't give credit either.

Giving thanks and praise to employees who have done good work is not expensive: a simple "thank you" or note of appreciation costs little time. Failure to do so is often unintentional - the boss doesn't take the time - but the message the employee received is that the boss doesn't think it's worth his time to recognize their work.

Ironically, the same manager who is reluctant to give praise is often eager to criticize and nit-pick. "Slow to praise, quick to criticize" is one of the hallmarks of the jackass manager.

The Manager Who Treats Employees as Inferiors

The author mentions that everyone regardless of their present station in life has self-esteem, and that a manager who looks down on his employees as being innately inferior to himself is destructive not only to morale, but also to performance. An employee who does not feel valued also does not feel the need to give their best, and being constantly treated as an inferior makes them doubt in their own ability.

(EN: It's occurred to me that leadership and management course often train managers to this attitude, largely because leadership theory derives from European, mainly British, philosophy in which there were defined social classes: "managers" are nobility and "employees" are mere peasants, and each is chained to their lot in life by virtue of their birth. The American culture is egalitarian: a person in a low-level job is not less of a person, merely performing a less glamorous role, and is often doing so only for the present time.)

The Manager Who Ignores Employees' Complaints

Turning a deaf ear to the people is a common trait among dictators, and a common failure among narcissistic leaders. They wish to hear that everything is fine, regardless of the actual situation.

The problem with ignoring problems is that they do not go away: a manager who turns a deaf ear or discourages employees from saying anything negative will find himself constantly blindsided, usually after a problem has festered to the point where considerable damage has already been done.

The author specifically mentions unions and trade legislation: unions are formed and laws are enacted because companies turned a deaf ear, and had to be forced to do something they likely should have done on their own - but refused to listen.

It's not always that dramatic: low morale, absenteeism, and high turnover rates often proceed a dramatic change - or sometimes, they persist for a long period of time without an obvious crisis.

The Manager Who Does Not Keep People Informed

People spend most of their waking hours on the job than at home or anywhere else. To be kept constantly in the dark is unacceptable - and lacking a reliable source of information, they will take whatever information they can get in order to make sense of something that is such a significant part of their lives.

As such, wherever there is a highly productive grapevine or rumor mill, it is a clear signal that information is being withheld. And a firm that routinely withholds information finds it has lost credibility and trust with its employees - the rumors have more authority than the official word because people perceive that the organization is hiding things and covering up.

Switch to the notion of esteem: there is also the perception that an employee is kept in the dark because they are regarded as unimportant. Or worse, withholds intelligence is a tactic of a firm that regards its own people as hostile - and having been declared an enemy, the employee soon adopts attitude of someone who is in an adversarial relationship.

The Manager Who Holds an Assistant Back

The author clarifies: but "assistant" he does not mean clerical support, but an "assistant manager" or "assistant director" - i.e., someone he ought to be grooming to step into his own position when he leavers, retires, or is himself promoted.

Every person in a position of importance should have a "backup" employee that can step into their role when necessary and, when the time comes, to succeed them.

Poor managers purposefully do not develop their people so as to make themselves seem necessary - if no-one else is capable of doing their job, they feel a sense of security. Sometimes, it is motivated by fear that their successor might seek to supplant them.

There is also the problem of managers seeking to hang onto their best people: if they develop an employee, that employee might leave the team to join management of another group, or he may be more attractive to other companies that will hire him away.

As such, it's undeniable that a talented person who is unable to advance will be poached, or may leave on his own if he is unable to put his skills to good use. The alternative, to make sure that employees do not develop their skills, is far worse.

When a place goes to shambles in the absence of a manager, whether his absences is temporary (went on vacation for a week) or permanent (took another position), it is not a sign that he was a competent and indispensable member of the firm - but just the opposite: he failed to develop his people, and as such has wasted opportunities and damaged his firm.

The Manager Who Views the Disciplinary Process as a Punitive Action

The word "discipline" derives from a Latin term, "disciplus," which connoted learning - it is an action taken to teach a lesson. Too often, though, disciplinary measures are taken merely to punish, often to scapegoat an employee or to retaliate against him for other reasons, and provide no educational value.

Even when his failure is, in fact, a result of poor judgment on his own part rather than external constraints, merely punishing him does not give him an indication of what he could do differently in future.

To be effective, discipline must focus on the behavior, not the person, and identify not only what did not work, but what could be done differently to achieve better results.

If discipline fails to teach, the employee will not learn, and will repeat his mistakes or find new ways to make different mistakes, and will be in a downward spiral where they are constantly being punished.

Some managers seem to enjoy constantly punishing employees, as it makes them feel more powerful to keep others disempowered. These are not the kind of managers employees care to work for, nor are they the kind that achieves good results for their companies.

The Manager Who Fails to Back Up His or Her Staff

When something goes amiss, some managers will hang their employees out to dry, or even proactively scapegoat them to avoid taking any personal blame.

The employees of such a manager know that when trouble arises, they will stand completely alone. Worse still, they know that so long as their manager can throw someone under the bus, he will not do anything to fix the problem.

The author notes that this quality seems to coincide with an earlier one he mentioned: taking credit for the work of employees. When things go well, he takes the credit; when things go poorly, it's always someone else's fault. The word "jackass" is too gentle to describe such a person.

The Manager Whose Word Cannot Be Trusted

Honesty and trust are prerequisite to any social contract - and a person who is routinely disingenuous has earned neither.

Disingenuous managers are experts with language - whether they communicate in vague terms that provide no clear indication of what they mean, or whether they are experts in finding loopholes in the language they used in the past to change the meaning.

Typical tactics of a disingenuous manager are to speak in vague terms; to accuse others of not listening, not paying attention, or being too stupid to understand what they actually said; or arguing the precise details and shades of meaning of a statement in order to redefine it in arrears.

Ultimately, the result is the same - even though the manager has the satisfaction of being able to prove himself right in the end, people recognize this quality and refuse to trust them.

The Manager Who Avoids Making Decisions

Failure of a manager to make a decision can bring a workplace to a dead stop, particularly when he also withholds authority from his people to make the decisions that he fails to make.

This flaw exasperates employees who are poised to take action but cannot do so, and it ripples outward through the organization, as the parts of a business are interdependent: ultimately, a manager's failure to decide will impact the entire company and not just their own department.

It's suggested that a manger who is unable to make decisions, or to do so in a timely manner, lacks self-confidence or fears making the wrong decision, and avoids doing so. The same qualities and attitudes soon spread to the employees.

(EN: This author's discussion of this topic seems more superficial and functional than the rest. It's a valid point, and not uncommon that a person will delay or avoid making a decision for no reason other than their own reluctance, but the explanation isn't entirely satisfactory.)

The Manager Who Decides Too Quickly

(EN: I've moved this item closer to the other one about failing to act quickly enough, as there seems to be some potential for contradiction.)

The need to be decisive motivates some managers to make hasty decisions, without discussion or consideration. Aside of being a mistake unto itself, making an uninformed decision for the sake of haste, it is also demoralizing to employees whose input is ignored because the manager wished to act quickly.

It's with some bitterness that managers who make bad decisions due to haste often scapegoat the employee who failed to make them aware of the facts - the facts that they did not want to take time to consider.

Another demoralizing factor is that mangers who make fast decisions often fail to consider where one decision contradicts another they have previously made, interrupts work in progress, and generally causes a constant state of chaos and uncertainty.

The Manager Who "Plays Favorites"

A manager who entertains personal likes and dislikes for specific employees is regarded as unprofessional, and his staff harbor resentment because they feel they are being treated unfairly.

In some instances, the favors granted to certain employees are done at the expense of others - such as when raises and promotions are drawn from a fixed budget - but even in instances where there is not a fixed pool of resources, such as favoring the ideas of one employee over those of others, it creates disharmony among the staff.

(EN: Strict adherence to equal treatment creates a different problem: if everyone is treated equally, then high-performing employees are not rewarded. Likely this notion requires more careful consideration.)

The Manager Who Fails to Stay Current in the Field

A manager who is behind the curve on current practices in his industry is (rightly) regarded as incompetent and lazy. He does not know the current trends in his profession, and cannot be bothered to learn them, or even consider them.

Especially when a manager adopts a hostile position toward anything "new" proposed by his staff, he is holding them back and preventing them from being as efficient or effective as they are capable of being.

Reversal is possible, by simply taking the time to study and learn, but in practice it is quite rare.

The Manager Who Enjoys "Pouring on" More Work than an Employee Can Handle

The desire to make good use of resources becomes the foundation of jackass behavior when employees are already being used to the maximum of their ability, but additional work is piled on to squeeze more out of them.

There is some argument that employees will malinger - but consider the signs: there is clearly a problem when employees are constantly struggling to manage their time, when they regularly work overtime or work off-the-clock, when they come into work sick, when they come in on the weekends, when they do not take vacations, when they take lunch at their desks, etc.

Invariably, quality is sacrificed for the sake of quantity. Employees are required to do more rather than do better and take less satisfaction in their jobs. This leads to burnout, low morale, and a high turnover rate.

The Infallible Manager

A problem, particularly pronounced among managers who are newly-promoted or newly transferred into a department, is the "white knight" complex: the assumption that things are going poorly, and that he alone has the knowledge to put things right.

The first assumption is often wrong: in rare cases a manger is given clear evidence that there is problem to be solved. Most often, he is stepping into an operation that is already running well - to step in and proclaim how poorly things are going alienates his new staff, and to invent problems to solve wastes effort and can damage existing performance.

The second assumption is also often wrong: chances are that the staff who has been performing a function for years are far more knowledgeable about it than a manager who is completely green. If there are problems to be solved, they probably know exactly what they are and a new manager gives them the opportunity to say things their former manger was unwilling to hear. If a new manager disregards their input, this opportunity is closed immediately.

More importantly, an arrogant and dismissive manger alienates his staff immediately. The morale of the employees is damaged, and the manager has fostered hostility in the people best equipped to support him.

The Manager Who Is Moody

The notion that a manager must be devoid of emotion has been discarded, but it remains true that while managers are permitted to show emotion, they should not allow their judgment to be clouded by it.

When an individual is so driven by emotions that staff are constantly concerned about "what mood is the boss in today," it is clearly problematic. The decisions that will be made and the way employees will be treated depend not upon a consistent and objective standard, but what that is changing and subjective. They do not know what to expect from one day to the next.

A boss who is governed by his emotions does not command respect and earn trust, but instead fosters a cynical disdain: an enfant terrible, with emphasis on "enfant."

The Manager Who Lacks Emotion and Empathy

(EN: Another item shuffled next to one it seems to contradict.)

Repeated: The notion that a manager must be devoid of emotion has been discarded, and in fact when most people are asked to describe the "best boss I ever worked for," they generally describe a person who is warm, nurtured their career, cared about them as a person, and showed great confidence in them.

Those bosses who are cold and mechanical, whose behavior is like a machine, generally treat their people as if they are machines: disposable tools that perform a specific function and receive little maintenance.

Relationships among people, even in the workplace, are largely based on emotional responses. To dismiss a person's emotions is to dismiss the person himself.

The author's take on this is that many managers are technically sharp, but lack people skills. They focus on doing what they do best and avoid anything that is awkward and uncomfortable.

Managers Who Fail to Plan and Put Priorities on Their Work

A common statement among managers is "I didn't get anything done today. All I did was put out fires." The author extends the metaphor, to suggest there is a difference between a fire fighter and a fire chief - and that when the chief is putting out fires himself rather than directing the efforts of his squad, he's not doing his job.

There are valid instances in which a manager must become personally involved - either to handle a critical task quickly, or as a method of educating his people to do it themselves the next time. But these should be rare, especially if the manager develops his staff effectively.

The author provides a list of aberrant reasons:

The need for managers to be available to employees when needed is very important, and the need for a manager to provide direction and guidance is also valuable - but the fire-fighting manager steps in where he is not needed, and micromanages employees who are competent to do the work without "assistance."

The Manager Who Hires Friends and Relatives into the Organization

Nepotism has been almost universally regarded as dysfunctional: a manager who hires relatives and friends gives them preferential treatment not because of their performance on the job, and often in spite of their poor performance.

Even when care is taken to avoid letting personal relationships cloud a manager's judgment, there is still the perception among the rest of the staff that the manager is playing favorites. The staff doubts the integrity of the manager, and takes a cold or hostile stance toward the members of their team who got their jobs through connections.

Per the author, "enlightened organizations prohibit this practice." (EN: It tends not to be a problem except in "family businesses" where, by definition, the core of the business consists of a family and employees are hired help. Even then, it's a problem, but not one that is likely to be solved.)

The Manager Who Faithfully Practices the Art of Pessimism

Some managers are flawless in their pessimism: there's nothing that is done that is being done well, no idea that will work out in the end, no cause to be enthusiastic that they can't find some way to squelch.

From a perspective of morale, they sap the enthusiasm of their team and create a morose working environment in which employees follow their cue to be glum about the future.

From a functional perspective, their ruthless pessimism crushes any new idea, and discourages employees from even suggesting ideas, knowing that the reaction will be negative regardless.

Mindless optimism is generally not respected, but mindless pessimism can be even more destructive.

The Manager Who Steals Employees' Ideas

(EN: This is a good topic, but the author gets a bit too clever for his own good and presents the concept as "a four-act play," creating a scenario but lacking any additional development of the topic.)

The Manager Whose Style and Authority are Based on Absolute Power

In spite of the shift toward management as coaching and coordinating, there are still "officious little dictators" who use psychological intimidation and outright threats to demand mindless obedience from their employees.

The problem with this is fairly self-evident: employees who are bullied in this manner are thoroughly demoralized and unable to contribute their expertise to the work. As such, the organization suffers a loss of productivity, a loss of efficacy, and a high turnover rate, all to feed the ego of a power-hungry manager.

The Manager Who Seems Oblivious

Effective mangers realize that they cannot pick and choose what they want to see, but yet there are many who maintain a rosy outlook by developing blind spots when it comes to certain things. It may be worse than blind sots - it may be tunnel vision or total blindness.

Managers can sometimes be ignorant situations that seem to be recognized by everyone else. They will accuse their staff of hiding things from them - when in truth the employees know that the boss will be hostile to anyone who tells him something he does not want to hear. A person who points to an obvious problem is considered to be cynical and negative, not a "team player."

Many companies find that calling in outside consultants can be helpful to getting an objective perspective, tuning management into the truth that they refuse to see. Many consultants meanwhile find that the companies they hire they are less than delighted by a report that does not agree with their preconceptions.

The Manager Who Loves to "Sack" Employees

A specific breed of despot is the manager who seems to delight in firing employees: they will terminate given any excuse, and are constantly keeping files on each employee's failure to build a case for termination.

In some instances, the executioner is simply feeding his own ego - firing an employee is a demonstration of his power, and an effective way to intimidate the rest of the staff. In other instances, he may feel that his behavior is helping the company by weeding out the weak employees and dead wood.

The main problem is that this creates a situation in which there is constant employee turnover in such a manger's department, which result in high recruiting costs to provide a fresh supply of victims, as well as a staff of people who are constantly inexperienced. A lawsuit for unlawful termination is also a distinct possibility.

Firing employees, even when they make a serious mistake, is the easy way out for a manager: it's a lot harder to help them learn from their mistakes and to avoid making the same mistakes in future. Most employees are salvageable and eager to learn and grow - if given good leadership, they will, and it's to the benefit of the firm to retain those who learn from their mistakes rather than replacing them with those who do not know what mistakes to avoid.

Executioners are easy to spot because of the high turnover in their departments. To be more proactive, you can spot the behavior of an overt executioner (who openly threatens employees) as well as those of a covert one (constantly noting mistakes and eyeing weaknesses).

The Manager Who Embarrasses Subordinates in the Presence of Others

Discipline is a necessary part of instruction - to learn, a person must be made aware of their mistakes and given instruction as to how to correct and avoid them. A good leader knows the proper way to provide negative feedback: in private.

The manager who disciplines employees in front of others is motivated by the same psychology as the executioner: dressing an employee down in front of others feeds his sense of power and intimidates even those who are not the object of his criticism.

Even where a manager thinks that public shaming is a form of reinforcing the point, the sense of humiliation often drowns out any instructive message that follows. Not only does the victim harbor resentment, but other employees may tend to identify with the victim, laying the ground for mutiny.

There is simply no positive outcome for this behavior.

The Manager Who Follows "Double Standards" in the Organization

Preferential treatment of certain employees has been discussed earlier - in this instance, the author means "double standards" in the sense of "executive privilege." The manager who feels that their role as a manger entitles him to certain privileges.

The manager who flies first class while insisting his employees fly coach, who saunters in late in the day while demanding his employees show up early - or worse, who leaves at five on the dot while demanding everyone else work overtime, etc. are examples of a double standard.

The author concedes that rank has its privileges and everyone recognizes that management and executives are given certain perks: but when it is done in so overt a manner, and so easily contrasted, it rankles workers and feeds the ego of management.

The Manager Who Does Not Treat Women as Equals

Chauvinism seems an anachronism in a workforce where women have been included for more than half a century and companies have been supportive of their equality: but chauvinists still exist. It still holds true that there are far more men than women in executive positions, and the compensation and career advancement of women still show statistically valid deficiencies.

(EN: The problem cannot be denied, but there have also been studies that have taken into consideration other factors that suggest that the disparity is not as pronounced as some would suggest - but even these studies do concede that there is a gap.)

These general statistics are evidence of widespread behavior, perhaps skewed by a small number of egregious offenders, in which women are regarded as inferior, receive less development, less compensation, and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.

Clearly, an enlightened organization values capabilities and behaviors that lead to success for the organization, none of which are necessarily tied to gender. While considerable attention is given to the most outrageous behaviors (such as sexual harassment), it should also be given to more subtle problems that remain.

(EN: Ironically, the author seems to take the passive assumption that it will die out over time - which may be true, but also gives firms an excuse not to be more proactive.)

The Manager Who is a Religious or Ethnic Bigot

The author describes bigotry as being something separate from sexism (or racism, for that matter): a bigot is not necessarily a person who feels another group of people (defined by gender or race or whatnot) is inherently inferior - but one that feels that people who match his own demographics are superior. He does not treat other groups poorly out of hatred, but may not recognize that he treats members of the preferred groups with undue preference.

Instead of focusing on a person's characteristics, the bigot focuses on attitudes and behaviors - specifically, any attitude or behavior that is not in line with his own is wrong or inferior. He may claim to support diversity in the workplace, but criticize people of different cultures and ethnicities for behavior that is not in line with his own cultural and ethnic values.

Ultimately, the problem is the same: the bigot devalues people who do not fit the right profile, regardless of their capabilities or job performance, merely because they are different to his own culture, and in doing so denies them the rewards they have earned, and the organization the value of their service.


The author ends with a concession that his portrayal of the managerial flaws may have been exaggerated to the point of seeming comical - but the point is not to poke fun, but to illustrate certain behaviors that should be reconsidered.

Ultimately, the flaws of a manger are visited upon his staff and his company, and in light of the damage they do to morale, productivity, and effectiveness, they should not be casually accepted, but aggressively discouraged.

Taking a broader perspective, the front-line managers of today will become the senior mangers of tomorrow, and they will matriculate into positions where their flaws do much broader damage.

Moreover, senior managers are taken as the model of success by middle mangers, who are role models for lower ranks of management, who are models for the entire corps of a firm - failure to address these behaviors is tantamount to encouraging employees to adopt them, creating generation after generation of jackass managers.