3 Early Signs of a Failing Manager

Most managers I've talked to describe their transition into management this way: "I got promoted, and nobody told me anything about what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. They just gave me a team and wished me luck." The feeling we have that others know what they're doing, but we don't, is wrong. Almost everyone else doesn't know either.

Even if we develop the skills, transitioning from managing only yourself to managing others requires a shift in values. We need to learn how to value different work and dedicate our time to other activities. The fact that shame and impostor syndrome drives us to waste time trying to prove we deserve that promotion makes it even harder to get help. New managers have it hard, but they're not the only ones. Experienced managers also start getting visibility in the company, receiving more responsibilities. Usually, at some point, you're asked to manage multiple teams and projects, and life gets that much harder.

Not having transitioned successfully into the role and being swamped with responsibilities are two of the many situations that stress-test a manager and sometimes make them fail. No one is above this. We can't be on the top of our game all the time. So knowing early signs of a failing manager allows us to act swiftly, adjust course and prevent any significant damage. These are the ones that help me:

  1. Stressed Out Team
  2. Overwork
  3. Unstable & Clogged Roadmap

Stressed Out Team

A stressed-out, overwhelmed team is a sign that the manager is currently failing to enable the team to do their best work. Usual causes are:

  • Failure to Listen: Listening is hard. We act from shame instead of curiosity. If a manager doesn't actively listen and seek information, they fail to notice what is happening, they don't hear advice from our directs, and their manager and the problems linger longer than they should.
  • Busy fixing direct mistakes rather than teaching them to do the work properly: Coaching and feedback are also very hard. At the same time, we know how to do the job. Usually, managers are very accomplished individual contributors who were promoted. So familiarity and misaligned values make us jump in to save the day. We fail to notice that everything we do is one less opportunity for the team to learn and isn't sustainable.
  • Distance from outcomes: When our values don't change, when we can't understand that our work needs to come from others, we refuse to take ownership of the success of our people. We distance ourselves from their problems and failures. We start pointing fingers.

Enabling people requires us to dedicate time to seeking information and paying attention. Monitoring what gets done and how it's getting done needs to be a significant part of our schedule. We need to ask questions and listen. Just collecting information isn't enough. We need to turn that information in coaching and feedback and guide the team.


An overworked manager is probably failing to hand off their responsibilities to other people in their team. They're attempting to do more than one job at once. Even though being busier when we're learning a new job is ok, it shouldn't be the norm. Most importantly, it shouldn't go overboard–working on weekends and extended hours every day isn't ok. We need to reconnect with our developer roots and be Lazy.

If we fail to pass on responsibilities, we don't develop the next layer of leadership. It clogs the development pipeline of the company. We can only work so many hours in a week, so it simply doesn't scale and is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Overwork can also be a sign of a Control Freak. The need to control comes from insecurity and lack of confidence in the team, leading to the need to check everything and do parts of the work yourself. Control Freaks take away the team's ability to make decisions and to take risks. They hodl all the responsibility and pass down specific work to be done with little trust. They prevent people from growing and are ineffective. What's even worse, people stuck in this mode of work go to great lengths to hide that they're controlling all the work, so it's hard to debug the situation.

Unstable & Clogged Roadmap

Things feel sluggish, are fire-fighting all the time, software quality has fallen, so the software is increasingly hard to change, there's attrition happening, but the team keeps changing focus. Everything is always an urgent must-have-killer-project. It's pretty common to dodge the responsibility in this one. We blame someone outside our organization. We blame the business strategy. But ultimately, what happens in our teams is our responsibility. We need to make the people in the team awesome. We need to allow them to do their best work, and we need to continuously ship value to our users. We can't do that if our goals keep changing all the time.

Building products is complex. We need to adjust the course constantly with what we learn about our users and the conditions. But this isn't an excuse for us to erratically change course and not provide a clear vision jumping from one MVP to the next without a strategy and a North Star.

We need to build the relationships and lines of information that enable us to stop and broaden, define and communicate a clear vision and strategy.

These are early signs, but there are others we didn't mention here that should get first class attention if they happen. These are usually lagging indicators of the leading indicators above:

  1. Team fails to meet their results frequently
  2. Low retention in their squad or closely after people move to other teams
  3. People aren't growing: Promotions don't come, or promotions do come, but the work product isn't next-level and doesn't provide better results for the company.

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