How to tell if your manager believes in “heads I win, tails you lose”

In my last post, I went over some of the ways to tell if you have a bad manager. I received a lot of feedback asking me for some specific examples of manager behavior that, while bad, may be harder to detect.

In response to that feedback I’m going to present a conversation I had with a colleague in regards to what is sometimes called the “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy of management.

Me: How are things going?

Tom: Not so great.

Me: I’m sorry to hear that. I heard you just got promoted so I would assume you would be in a good mood. What’s going on?

Tom: Well, I was just given a new project to build a QA testing lab from the ground up.

Me: Isn’t your background in QA though?

Tom: It is! However, my background is in manual QA testing. I don’t have a technical background and I’ve never built a QA testing lab.

Me: Hmm. Did your manager give you any resources or get someone with less QA experience but with a good technical background?

Tom: Not really. When he gave me the project he said, and I quote, “I just received this project from the department head and, Tom, you were the first person I thought of. You’re so good with QA testing this is a perfect fit.”

Me: Does the department head have a background in technology and/or QA testing?

Tom: No, actually, quite the opposite. They have more of a business background.

Me: What happens if you are able to complete the project vs not being able to finish it?

Tom: Well, the department head is really tough. They usually takes credit for projects that succceed. I’ve also seen them demote or even let go people who don’t finish projects on time.

Me: So let me get this straight:

  • your manager gave you a project both they and you have little experience with
  • they didn’t give you the right resources to complete it
  • if you succeed they take the credit and if you fail you may be let go?

Tom: Wow! I never put it together that way. No wonder I was feeling down about this.

Me: This sounds like a pretty bad deal for you, Tom.

Tom: But I’m the kind of person that gets stuff done!

Me: Of course you are. It sounds like your manager was given a project they think isn’t going to work and then went through the following thought process:

Given how this company works, this project is probably going to be a disaster. Who do I know who:

  • Gets things done and may actually be able to pull it off
  • I can plausibly claim was the “best person to handle it” in the case that it fails
  • Tom, while you are certainly someone who gets things done, I would keep this in mind: a good deal is where both parties feel like they benefitted from being a part of the deal. This sounds like a lot of upside for your manager and lots of downside risk for you.

    Dealing with “heads I win, tails you lose” managers

    You will often find this type of person at large corporations and in middle management positions. These types of firms often give lip service to rewarding risk taking but in reality severely punish any failure. The best operating strategy for managers in these situations is to “hot potato” risky projects onto either others or subordinates.

    One way to handle this situation is to create a guaranteed positive outcome for yourself. e.g. In Tom’s case, if he were to take the project, he should negotiate in a technical resource as a direct report. This is a win-win for him as he gets an additional team member which is good for him as a manager (more direct reports) and good for the success of the project (he has technical assistance).

    Career Coaching

    If you would like to hear more about dealing with bad managers, one of the services I offer as career coach is helping you “manage up”, better deal with difficult bosses and create positive outcomes for your career.

    You should check out my career coaching service.

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