All Articles Leadership Management Avoid getting blindsided: Turn your managers into leaders

Avoid getting blindsided: Turn your managers into leaders

Managers can act differently around leaders than they do their team. It's up to leaders to watch for 3 big red flags.

4 min read


Avoid getting blindsided: Turn your managers into leaders


Sign up for SmartBrief on Leadership today, free.

If you have managers or supervisors below you, it’s important to bring awareness to how your managers are leading. I’ve worked with many senior leaders blindsided by toxic behavior that eventually led to litigation, simply because they thought their managers were doing a great job.

Here’s what happens: The midlevel manager manages up very well, gets along with the upper echelon, getting things done in a polished professional manner. Yet in their own departments, they show up differently. They have control issues. They micromanage their supervisors. They contribute to gossip, throwing others under the bus in front of colleagues, or they allow and participate in profanity.

In short, you are seeing their best, but they set a bad example for their front-line supervisors and managers. Sometimes a consultant can shine light on why internal issues don’t get adequately resolved. If you’re not ready to work with a consultant, you can start meeting informally with employees at various levels to hear about their experience.

Listen for red flags that highlight three areas of concern: Psychological safety, autonomy, and growth.

Psychological safety

When I worked in manufacturing, workplace safety was a priority. Earplugs protected us from hearing loss, and goggles protected our eyes when cleaning equipment. We practiced lock-out-tag-out if we had to fix a jam, and we had yearly OSHA meetings.

But we never talked about the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety is more than about trust. Psychological safety is the freedom to express yourself and to learn without feeling the threat of judgment, harsh criticism or threats to your identity and value as a person. As a top-level leader, you need to be able to quickly identify threats to psychological safety.

Red flags

  • Criticizing out loud instead of in private
  • Emails with all-caps or name-calling
  • Using sarcasm to shut someone down
  • Confusion about performance

In today’s climate — where employees have to adapt to uncertainty, survive threats of a global pandemic and navigate through the ever-changing political and social climate — creating an environment of psychological safety has never been more important.


Command-and-control leaders often struggle to provide autonomy to the leaders reporting to them. Autonomy is the ability to make decisions without always having to constantly seek agreement or get something to be “signed off” on.

I worked with a leader who simply didn’t trust the decision-making abilities of his supervisors, and even though the supervisors had the title, they had very little authority to get things done. On the surface, this seemed like a lack of clarity in role and job description. In reality, it was the inability of the director to let go and to trust the decision-making processes already set in place.

Red flags

  • Micromanaging
  • Frustrated managers
  • Lack of engagement
  • Bottlenecks (always waiting for approvals)

One way to leverage resources is to formalize a decision-making process first. Then, make sure the front-line and midlevel leaders are skilled, fully understand the decision-making process and that their decisions will be supported by their boss.

Growth opportunities

Leaders who get elevated to a higher level sometimes struggle to let go of their old identity where they were brilliant and gained a reputation for their expertise. It’s awkward letting go to allow others to shine. Often, there’s an inner conflict about teaching someone else all the secrets, then watching them get the glory. It’s especially difficult if the newbie has some disruptive ideas and excels quickly.

No matter how enlightened, sometimes we human beings simply struggle with the green-eyed monster of envy.

Red flags

  • Negative evaluations
  • Unwanted turnover
  • Lack of coaching
  • Redundant rework

Part of good leadership is fostering an environment where employees get opportunities to grow. If you’re seeing too many negative evaluations that never improve, pay attention. What’s required of the leader in charge is the ability to coach others and to let go of certain things that once brought personal recognition and value.


The higher up you are in an organization the easier it is to be blindsided by a complaint that eventually turns into litigation. Staying in touch with various levels through the organization ensures accountability.

You can offer mini-surveys or 360-degree management evaluations, as well as intermittent one-on-one conversations that tell you where you need additional leadership development and outside support.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadership and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.