The Problem With Old-School Managers

[Excerpt from The Culture Question]

Early in my career, I, Randy, worked for a manager who clearly embodied an “old-school” management style. He was full of bravado and purposely intimidating. He was a terrible listener and would frequently yell in an effort to get his desired results.

Initially, it was exciting to be around him. I felt an intoxicating energy in his presence, and my desire to please him and receive his approval was motivating. However, after a few months, his old-school management style grew, well, old! My desire to please him and excel waned. I found myself looking for the “exit door,” and I soon found my way out.

When we teach and consult in organizations, people often describe “old-school,” “directive,” or “traditional” management styles – and they don’t use these terms in a good way. In our survey, participants also used words like “sociopath,” “autocratic,” and “mini-dictator” to describe this type of management.

Most of us have a clear picture of what these terms mean. They refer to management styles where the boss says “Jump,” and employees ask, “How high?” They are approaches where yelling, barking orders, and pounding fists (sometimes literally) are considered the best ways to get results. Opinions inconsistent with those of the manager are quickly silenced, for there is only one right way: the manager’s way. One of our survey participants gave a good description of this management style: “My manager is a bully who ‘chews people up and spits them out.’ She regularly engages in verbal and mental abuse.” Another person reported: “My immediate supervisor’s management style is ‘command and control,’ and he is not open to suggestions. He has squashed my creativity and made my daily job drudgery.”

In our experience, employees in organizations and teams where this style is present either quickly fall in line or look for a way out of the organization. For those who stay, creativity and engagement are replaced with compliance and silent acceptance. Employees learn that it’s best to avoid being noticed.

It’s important to highlight that this style of management is not practiced only by older leaders. Younger leaders who have grown up under this style of management often use the same approach as those who mentored them. In addition, some industries that use chain-of-command leadership structures may encourage this style of management.

One of the reasons old-school management continues is that many organizations still hire people based on outdated practices. Take a look at some job ads for management positions, and you will often find phrases such as “highly competitive,” “independent thinker,” and “career fast-track” instead of words like “collaborative,” “caring,” and “intuitive.” The first list emphasizes individualism and competition, which align well with old-school management styles.

The problem with old-school management is that it sacrifices employee satisfaction for short-term results. Sacrificing employee happiness means forgoing long-term performance. Employees who work under old-school managers would certainly not say they have “a great place to work.”

“Don’t Judge My Bathroom Breaks”

As we were writing this book, we asked several of our staff who had previously expressed that they like working at our organization why they like their workplace. They mentioned liking their coworkers and appreciating that leadership involves them in decision making, but the most surprising response was, “I like that I’m not judged for when I go to the bathroom.”

After some laughter, we asked for a bit more context. The employee explained that he recently heard of someone who worked in an organization that limited the time and frequency of bathroom breaks.

To him, this type of micromanagement showed a great distrust of employees. In his view, such authoritarian ways would not make a great place to work. He went on to explain that when he compares that type of environment to the one he’s currently in – one in which he gets to organize his own day, make decisions about his workflow, and go to the bathroom when he wants to – he is grateful for his workplace.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Randy Grieser

Founder & Advisor

Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Wendy Loewen

Managing Director

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The authors are four members of ACHIEVE’s leadership team – Randy, Eric, Wendy, and Mike. The book is available now.

Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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