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When you’re interviewing for a job, you want to know what kind of manager you’d be working for.
Here’s a question that isn’t that likely to tell you: “How would you describe your management style?”
That question shows up over and over on lists of questions that job seekers should ask their prospective managers in interviews. But it’s not likely to get you solid, reliable information about what that manager is really like to work for.
Most people — and especially bad managers — are notoriously bad at accurately assessing their own management style.
I’ve sat in interviews where chronic micromanagers have described themselves to candidates as “hands-off” and giving people lots of autonomy, or where absentee managers painted a picture of themselves as involved and engaged. I’ve heard managers describe thoughtful, supportive performance management systems that they didn’t ever actually use. And I’ve heard an ear-numbing amount of platitudes like “open door policy” and “servant leadership” and other catch phrases that revealed nothing about how the speaker actually operated in practice.
Even when it sounds like you’re getting specifics, you can’t assume you’re getting the whole picture. A manager might tell you about the structured performance system the company uses to address problems, but what you won’t know is that they only make use of it in the most egregious situations and only after being pushed to for years. Or they might tell you about an appealing-sounding system of recognition and rewards for great work, but you won’t know they rarely use it and in fact regularly make people cry with their feedback.
There’s just an incredibly high chance of getting answers that sound reasonable but don’t reflect how things actually work most of the time.
And it’s not that bad managers are deliberately trying to deceive you; it’s that many (most?) bad managers are convinced they’re good managers! Many of them truly believe they’re kind, fair, thoughtful, and well-liked. Many of them also know the “right” things they’re supposed to say in response to this question, and they say them.
Instead, the best way to find out about how a manager actually operates is to ask other people. If you have a chance to talk to other employees on their team, ask those people about the team’s management. (Don’t just ask about management style though or you’re likely to get vague answers. Ask things like how mistakes are handled, how problems are addressed, how much support they get in their jobs, and what they’d change if they could.) And if at all possible, use your network to find people who have worked at the company or with the manager before and talk to them. You’re far, far more likely to get candid, accurate information that way.
There are also other ways you can assess a manager in an interview that will be revealing. For example, pay attention to whether your interviewer can clearly describe what success in the job will look like, since a manager who can’t name what you’ll be expected to achieve in your first year on the job hasn’t thought through what they really need and is more likely to surprise you with different expectations than what you thought you were signing up for. Pay attention, too, to how you’re treated during the interview: Is the person who would be managing you polite, respectful of your time, and actively interested in you? Do they answer questions head-on or give vague or evasive responses? How up-front are they about the downsides of the job or the culture?
But ultimately, to know what a manager is really like to work for, you’ve got to talk to people who have worked for them. And if you can’t do that — since admittedly it’s not always easy — at least make sure you take anything they tell you about their own management style with a high degree of skepticism.