can bad employees and bad managers change? — Ask a Manager

I’m off for the holiday, so here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2015.

A reader writes:

I am a passionate fan of AAM and often try to guess what you would advise for my own dysfunctional job. Boiled down, my boss needs to stop avoiding confrontation and reign in his apathetic and lazy children before the rest of us give up in disgust. I was scheming how to make this happen and I realized that you would probably say that my boss is never going to mature in that way, at least within the time I’m going to work for him, and there is no way I can goad him into correcting years of indulgent parenting.

This led me to a meta-question for you: Do you think people can change? Can other people instigate professionalism and maturity in a person? As a reader of AAM, I’ve observed that your advice in dealing with bad bosses, bad coworkers, and bad employees seems to be either set up firm boundaries to keep their dysfunction from spilling onto you or terminate the relationship. It’s really tempting to imagine telling an employee that placing hexes on their coworkers is inappropriate and she would say, “You’re right, I’ve been acting completely out of line. I won’t do it again” rather than stomping off in a huff and taking down her voodoo dolls because “the boss is making me.” When dealing with a crazy person, a weak manager, or a wildly immature coworker, can another person instigate growth or are you best just doing damage control?

I think people can change — but in workplace situations, the more relevant question is whether they will change, and how well-positioned you are to get them to change.

When you’re a manager and the problematic person is your employee, you have a lot of leverage. You can say directly, “I need you to do X differently” and you can hold them to that, coach them as long as it’s appropriate, and replace them if they don’t. And some people in that situation do successfully change their behavior.

When the problem is your manager, you don’t have a ton of leverage. You can point out the impact their behavior is having, and ask for things to be done differently. But whether or not it will actually happen will depend on how much your manager cares, whether she sees the situation the same way you do or not, how ingrained the behavior is, and what her overall inclinations, tendencies, and strengths and weaknesses are. And all of those factors will matter; you can have a boss who agrees with you that yes, she really should do a better job of holding people to deadlines (or giving you advance notice of projects or not calling you at midnight or whatever it is), but if ultimately she’s too weak/lazy/disorganized/inconsiderate, it’s likely that she won’t follow through. Or she might improve for a while, but then backslide because she’s doing those things for a reason and no one with authority over her is forcing her not to.

On the other hand, there are managers who hear input from staff members, take it seriously, and make changes. So it’s not impossible — but you need to be clear-eyed about who you’re dealing with and what evidence you’ve seen that the person is or isn’t open to feedback and self-reflection.

What you really don’t want to do is to continue to see evidence that the person isn’t going to change and stick around waiting for them to anyway. At that point, you need to either accept that this is part of the deal with working with them and find a way to live with that reasonably happily, or decide that it’s not for you and start making plans to leave.

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