Does Your Team Have Previous Manager Trauma?

As an agency owner, I’ve hired and overseen the hiring of many people over the years. A large number of them have come from roles at similar agencies. When you hire someone who has worked at a company similar to yours, you often think about the positives of this – they probably understand more about your business model and what the day-to-day work probably looks like.

But there are negatives too. Some are obvious, such as seeing examples of learned behaviours that were connected to the delivery of work, such as quality of work or the ability to receive feedback on deliverables.

Others, to me at least, were less obvious. These included things such as how they’d been managed and the environment they were working in previously. 

If I’d been more aware of how their experience with their previous workplace and their manager could affect how they work at my agency, I’d have been far more proactive in trying to spot when this was happening and make a concerted effort to help them overcome the challenges they’d be feeling.

Assessing the seriousness of the issues

It’s worth saying that workplace PTSD is a real thing and there are a number of things that can trigger it, not just someone’s manager. Even societal issues can play a part in someone’s relationship with their workplace, so exploring all of these is well beyond the scope of this article. Not to mention that the vast majority of us will not be qualified to diagnose and fix such serious issues.

If you suspect that someone has serious issues that have arisen out of a previous (or even their current) workplace, then the best course of action is to know how to signpost them to professional help. If you’re in the UK, this is a good starting point from MIND. If you’re in the US, then this resource is worth bookmarking

Even if an issue isn’t quite this serious, experiencing trauma which is then carried over into a new role and workplace can hinder someone’s ability to excel, so it’s something that all managers need to be aware of.

With that in mind, there are a number of ways that you can spot whether someone has had a negative experience at their previous workplace and to then support them in their current role.

Causes of previous manager trauma

A number of things can negatively affect someone’s experience working with a manager. Here are some of the most common that I’ve seen over the years.

Unrealistic expectations

This can apply to things such as the quality of work, the deadlines that are set, or the amount of time that a piece of work should take. If a previous manager has consistently berated someone for missing unrealistic deadlines, or doesn’t give enough time for a task to be done to the right standard, these expectations are likely to stick in the mind of the individual.

Lack of trust

Not being trusted by a previous manager is incredibly damaging to someone’s confidence. This may have manifested itself via checking in far too often on a piece of work or by not letting someone lead projects on their own. Whatever it may be, this feeling of not being trusted will have hindered someone’s progression and they could definitely carry this feeling over to a new role, leading to them questioning whether you trust them or not.


We talked about micromanagement recently and it’s worth repeating a little here because micromanagement can be a learned experience that affects a number of aspects of someone’s day-to-day role. It can lead to a feeling that someone has zero autonomy or isn’t able to lead projects themselves, right through to feeling like you can’t deliver feedback to your manager

How to overcome previous manager trauma

Like the causes of previous manager trauma, the solutions are far reaching and complex, but let’s look at some of the easiest ways to understand whether this has happened and how to start to solve it.

Ask about their previous experience of being managed

Don’t be afraid to ask them directly about their previous experience of being managed and what the environment was like at their old company. Even if they had a positive experience and enjoyed your old role, it’s likely that there will be things that weren’t perfect and that they’d like to improve.

On the other hand, you may discover that they didn’t have a great relationship with their old manager and you can dig into why. Try to find out why this happened and what they tried to do to fix things, what worked and what didn’t.

Whilst it’s important to understand any negative experience that they’ve had previously, try to avoid this turning into too big a vent about it. It’s fine to vent, but you need to steer the conversation towards a positive outcome, so try to keep this in mind and focus on what you can do to support them.

Ask how they prefer to be managed

Following on from this, ask them what worked for them when they were managed previously and see if you can continue this in some way. This can range from how they prefer to be communicated with, how they like to receive feedback, how they like to structure their day etc.

Again, there is a need for balance here because you also need to introduce ways that you feel you can effectively manage them too, so it’s not about moulding yourself 100% to what they have asked for. However, it is about learning what they prefer and seeing if you can accommodate and adapt to this.

Provide wider support systems

Yes, you are their primary manager, but don’t put all of the pressure on yourself for providing the support and environment that they need. It is also the role of your team and wider company to create a culture that is supportive of individual development and gives someone the right environment to progress and thrive in their role. 

Things such as mental health support, providing flexible working hours or committing to personal development time, can all help provide a strong working environment that can sometimes be very different to someone’s previous experience.

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