Question: High-performing manager with behavioral issues

One of my directs, is a committed and skilled professional. Her work output is timely and very dependable. Since, I have little expertise in her area (project finance), this is really good for our team.

However, I have heard complaints that she is a very tough and micro-managing boss. She has a high-bar for quality, and is impatient with people who stumble. We have seen a high churn in her staff which might be related to this fact.

Since, her performance has not been impacted by any internal dynamics of her team, at what point is it right for me to intervene? What should that intervention be?

(Her loss will be a serious blow to our team.)

9 Expert Insights

Since you have heard complaints but haven't witnessed the behavior yourself, it is challenging to give her feedback about her behavior. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Do 360 degree feedback for all of your direct reports as a development opportunity. They will all get feedback that is anonymous and then you can work with each individual to reinforce their strengths and help them with any weaknesses.
2. Hopefully you or your HR department are doing exit interviews of her departing staff members. If they are honest about her behavior, you can use that information to give her feedback and coach her. Sometimes an outside coach can help too.

I have found that some managers micromanage and maintain a high level of control because they don't know any other way to manage or lead their teams. So some development in the area of leadership might be appropriate for her.

A few thoughts:

- It sounds like you are happy with the work she does. You could let her know that

- You have some questions about how that work is getting done and, perhaps, about what the cost to the organization is if her leadership style is contributing to the churn you mention. Without accusing her, as you don't know if there is a relation, you could ask her about this

- You could also ask her about how she sees her leadership / managerial style and what her expectations of her staff are

- As Judy suggested, you could do a 360 degree feedback and use exit interviews. Even if it turns out that the churn has nothing to do with this member of your team, it would be helpful to understand what is behind it

- Also, as Judy mentioned, often micromanagers don't know another way to manage and may have received positive feedback about their approach (from above) in the past. She may well need help exploring how to manage differently and how to cope with the potential anxiety of not micromanaging and of trusting others to do the work appropriately.

both my colleagues have a great approach...however I would recommend something different. Go to and pick up the book "No Asshole Rule:Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't " by Robert Sutton

Despite the language, there's a high cost to having one in the workplace. Sutton points out what the cost is, including even establishing a cost to the company  with a formula for what the ongoing presence of one is draining from the workplace in terms of money in addition to morale, work effort, the distraction of people having to manage their lives on a daily basis. It's got some practical real world examples. Read it and then bring the question again, I'll bet you see the scenario dfferently.

what I know from working with many organizations is that behavior that persists, is always in some way rewarded, or it would go away. that's a culture issue

Here's one review From Booklist
"We all know them or know of them--the jerks and bullies at work who demean, criticize, and sap the energy of others, usually their underlings. It could be the notorious bad boss or the jealous coworker, but everyone agrees that they make life miserable for their victims and create a hostile and emotionally stifling environment. Fed up with how these creeps treat others and poison the workplace, Sutton declares war and comes out calling them exactly what they are--"certified assholes." these brutes are too often tolerated until irreparable damage is done to individuals and the organization as a whole. Sutton's "no asshole rule" puts a stop to the abuse in no uncertain terms. Similar rules have transformed such companies as JetBlue, the Men's Wearhouse, and Google into shining examples of workplaces where positive self-esteem creates a more productive, motivated, and satisfied workforce.. David Siegfried
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

I agree that you have had good suggestions from my colleagues above.  What strikes me is that although her output is timely and very dependable it doesn't speak to her team's output.  That she experiences an high churn within her staff represents a large real and potential cost to the organization and it is important that you consider this when evaluating her value.

If one way we evaluate an effective leader is their inclination and ability to work with their reports to train and educate them so be able to function to her high level of performance ... in her absence, then it appears this is not happening and thus, the company is at risk.  I would encourage you to have conversations with this person to focus on the job being done in all of its' aspects ... as to the knowledge she possesses, her reliability of performance, the management style she demonstrates in building her 'bench' and the areas for continued growth.  This is an ideal opportunity to convey your willingness to help her development as a manager and bring in a leadership coach to work with her to help her develop the skills that will increase her value to the company.

I have witnessed too many situations within companies wherein a problem area such as this was not addressed in the name of saving the talent.  Rarely does it lead to a beneficial outcome.  I applaud that you question this.

One of the most common realities of the business world -- just as in the world of sports -- is that the best "players" don't necessarily make the best "managers," "coaches," or "leaders." We see this time and time again. High performers who succeed based on their talents often have no patience or tolerance for those who cannot keep up or perform at their level. Having someone like Michael Jordan, one of the best -- if not THE best -- basketball players of all time, trying to coach a team just by saying to his players, "Just do what I do!" is not going to get him anywhere...which is why he failed as a coach. As have many other talented players. As well as top sales people who become sales managers; top IT people who become IT managers, etc.

But that doesn't mean that your situation is unfixable...not at all! Because "managing," "coaching," and "leading" are skills. And they are skills that can be -- and must be! -- developed.

My suggestion would be to either get her a coach, or, if there are others who might benefit, bring in an experienced consultant/trainer/coach who can deliver a management/leadership development program for your entire management team so they can all go through the experience together. There are also tons of great books, articles, and videos out there that might help (let me know if you would like suggestions).

The key is to make this manager aware of the impact her poor management is having, and get her to take ownership and be willing to do something about it. But she's got to see the "WSIC" (Why should I care) and the WIFM (What's in it for me) if you want to gain her buy-in. Conducting a 360 assessment or doing a Manager Scorecard survey of her direct reports will give her the feedback she needs to make her aware of how she's doing as a manager.

Yes, there are costs associated with doing all this (assessments, training, coaching)...but what is the cost -- to her, to her team, and to your organization -- of not doing anything?

With only hearsay to go on, and the strong desire to retain her abilities, the first step would be to collect the kind of behavioral examples that would enable her to see what she apparently cannot see for herself -- what she does is terrific; however, the ways in which she does what she does are problematic for others.  I don't want to oversimplify what is no doubt a tough situation, but this sounds like a perfect opportunity for an external coach to conduct an interview-based, 360-degree multi-rater assessment, aggregate the data, present it to her and then assist her with correcting whatever is below standard, enhancing whatever is at standard yet should be extended, and sustaining whatever is above standard.  Having been involved in these types of situations frequently in the last 15 years, I can assure you that the return on your investment in having her coached by someone who can be impactful on her behavior, reinforced by your managing her in ways that are supportive of what changes she'll be making, will be nothing less than extraordinary.

Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood of The RBL Group defined leadership as the product of attributes X results. Most of what we read about leadership deals with desirable attributes, e.g. honesty, integrity, communication, etc., but people who have the whole portfolio of leadership characteristics yet never get the job done are not great leaders. Your situation is the reverse: a leader who gets results, but is creating a high level of turnover on her team because of her style. This type of leadership is not sustainable.

It seems to be time to have a very frank conversation. It would be good to know what your direct report wants from her career. If she aspires to leadership, she needs to know how her leadership/management style could be career limiting. If she's open to coaching and development you should create a mutually acceptable development plan. On the other hand, she may not be that interested in managing people, and you may want to find a way access her valued expertise as an individual contributor, but an individual contributor who still has an attractive career path.

I think it is important that these behaviors be corrected for the following reasons:
1) If she corrected them, her organization could likely be even more effective.
2) Organizations should care about the “how” of the way work gets done. It helps define the values & culture of the organization. To the extent that her behaviors are not dealt with, they become an acceptable part of the culture
3) These behaviors, carried to an extreme, could leave you susceptible to lawsuits alleging that you have created a “hostile work environment.”
She seems the ideal candidate for a coach. For that to be successful, she needs to want to change & appreciate the help of a coach. That leads to 2 questions: Is she aware of the behavior and does she want to change it? Every leader is successful because of several attributes and in spite of some others. If she thinks she is successful because she is a tough, micro-manager, then you may need a club to get her attention.
I would not advocate doing 360 feedback on all your managers to prove she has the issue. I think a lot of money is wasted on 360 instruments to produce data that fails to lead to positive change. Also, I do not advocate 360 feedback being shared with the boss in its raw form (in most organizations.) It can affect the honesty of the input. If you think you need evidence, I would talk to your HR representative or do some skip level interviews.
Coaching should be presented as a positive process to help her become even more effective. There is no downside, only upside. If it turns out she is not a micro-manager, I’m sure she & the coach can find something else that would make her even more effective.

Intervene soon.  

1.  Prepare:  Identify specific instances (time,place, situations, people) where here performance has been unacceptable.  Then determine exactly what you want her to do or not do. Anticipate her reactions (conciliatory, combative, surprised, etc.) and prepare for how you will deal with her.  Notify her of the meeting at least 24 hours in advance and specify the purpose for it.

2.  Meet:  In a private place.  State the purpose, provide specifics.  Ask for her reaction and perspectives.  Discuss.  Move into a plan of action that she develops for rectifying the situation.  Be clear about the potential consequences of her not improving.  Remember, it has to  be her plan, not yours.  Set action steps and dates and follow up time

3. Follow up:  Monitor performance, recognize improvements.  Set a follow up meeting.  If improvements are achieved, document and thank her.  If improvements are not achieved, discuss specifics and next steps (i.e., formal performance improvement plan, etc.)

Your job is to manage the performance of your people and the organization.  Be respectful, but confront this as soon as you are able.  These issues do not improve by themselves.  

Good luck.