Two Types of People Managers: The Drain and The Filter

Most of us would like to work with fantastic leaders.  In practice, we end up with people managers. Those are the guys who are simply in a position above us and they manage a group of people to finish work on time with acceptable results. Depending on the stage of our career and the size of the company, above our managers there can be one, two or ten more people managers. Any maybe somewhere some leaders.

Managing people is definitely one of the toughest tasks you can get. For me, that’s at the same time a blessing and a curse. I still struggle to figure out if the lucky person is the one who has always been a specialist in charge only of himself/herself or the one who has had a chance to manage big teams. The answer I give to myself usually depends on the mood at that moment – to be 100% honest. And I guess, like in everything else, finding the balance between those two options is a win.

If I reflect on people I have met during my career: be it the people who managed me or the people who I managed and they managed others I must say they can all be divided into two categories: The Drain and The Filter. As you will see, you can debate how deep the drain is or how dense the filter is. But still, the principles are the same for each of the groups.


The Drain is the one who  simply transfers information from his/her manager to people below. By information I mean everything: tasks, goals, pressure, negative feedback, stress… Usually from Drains you can hear sentences like: “We have to do it, it came from those above” or “It’s not me, I would not ask you to stay longer, but we have this deadline…” or “We have a big problem, you have to work harder…”.

Things you can expect from Drains:

  • To be quiet at meetings with higher management and never to question their decisions – even if they have huge influence on their teams
  • To tell you what to do like it’s God’s will
  • To transfer negative feedback about team’s performance to the team only
  • To be confused when faced with issues in the team and unwilling to deal with it
  • To be totally indifferent toward development and careers of his team members, unless the system asks from him to do something

When it comes to taking credits, Drains can behave in different ways. Some will easily transfer the blame but take the credit. But some will transfer the credit and recognition to the team. Because, it’s not that all Drains are evil people who do things on purpose to  cause damage to others. In most  cases, Drains simply can’t do better. They don’t know how and they are simply in a position to manage people by mistake. Sometimes their own mistake, sometimes by a mistake of the system and company they work for.

What is the good thing when you have a Drain for your direct manager? (because, yes we always try to find something good as well) The best thing is that you can learn how not to be a Drain. If you have basic capabilities for that. And you can easily overachieve your manager and make fast career progress. You can practice your skills of managing others inside your team without being formally responsible, because when working under the Drain, people need a proper manager – at least informal one. One of their peers.

Let us move on to Filters. You would expect that in practice you can find more Filters than Drains but the thing is that once a Drain always a Drain while being a Filter is not guaranteed until the end of your career. Because Filters can be damaged and broken. They can become Drains – temporary or permanently. The hardest moment of my career so far was the one when I realized that I’m becoming a Drain.

Who are Filters? What is it they do differently and how do we recognize them?

First of all they always process information coming from above before they communicate it to their teams. If they don’t understand what they got, they ask questions and try to clarify.

  • They modify information in the way they believe their teams are going to accept it the best
  • They make reality look nicer then it is, but not for manipulation purposes
  • They manage to give a feeling of purpose even to very stupid tasks
  • They give more recognition and take more blame

The trouble with Filters is that sometime they are not very good in judging how much they can filter. If there is no one to help them with cleaning and maintaining they can easily become overloaded and broken.

What is the bad thing in having a Filter for your boss? (yes, we are looking for good things, but we should also look for bad things in a good situation – for learning purposes).  Filters can create a safety feeling for you. Especially if they are very good Filters. So, you might stop practicing certain skills and relax too much. And then they change your boss and you get one of the Drains. Or you simply stop practicing your skills relevant for career progress and transfer to higher career stage.

But at the end, sometimes it is possible to have a good Filter boss, to help him enough so that the filter keeps on working well and there’s a happy and satisfied team atmosphere and work for quite some time. Not for ever, but for a while.

And you might ask me why I’m not referring to leadership in this post. Many elements of leadership discussions can be recognized here as well. That is simply due to the fact that I see leadership as more of a complex topic that I’m going to write about more in days to come. This post can be treated as an intro to my Leadership Position Paper that starts with honestly answering a complex question: on my leadership journey, what is it that I want to reach and where does this journey ends? Because, I believe that only if we honestly set our goals and assess our capabilities we can be happy in a leadership role. And many people are forced into leadership roles without a chance to do this assessment properly.

In my opinion this is the only way to switch from a people manager to a leader. Cheers!

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