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"Management screwed up"? [Nov. 30th, 2006|12:33 pm]
I have heard plenty of stories from friends or acquaintances about working at places that could have been stellar, but everything went to hell because people in management were a bunch of wankers.

I've never heard any stories of things being the other way around: management was great, and they almost did some spectacular things, but all they had to work with were a bunch of incompetent slacker jerkoffs, so nothing good ever came of it.

I'm wondering why that is.

There are a number of possibilities:
  • Sampling bias -- both situations are equally common, but I don't know the right people to hear the stories about good management, lousy workers.
  • Observation bias -- people blame bad management when things go to hell because it's visible, even though the root causes are often something difference
  • It's accurate, in which case there are a number of different possible reasons:

    • It happens for structural reasons -- hierarchy magnifies the effects of any individual manager's failings, while minimizing the individual weaknesses of the rank-and-file.
    • It's an intertial effect -- the higher up someone is, the harder it is to replace them if they do badly.
    • It's rooted in corporate culture -- people who are good at their jobs get promoted until they're not good at them, and the upward path generally leads to management.
    • It's a personality thing -- wankers are attracted to positions in management.
    • Other reasons.

  • Confirmation bias -- complaining about your supervisor is socially approved; complaining about underlings is not.
  • Something else entirely.
  • Several or all of the above.

What's your experience? I'm curious to know what people think.

[User Picture]From: navrins
2006-11-30 07:50 pm (UTC)
I thing one major aspect of great management is the ability to hire competent underlings. Great managers don't get stuck with a bunch of incompetent slacker jerkoffs; they either hire better people, improve the people they have, or change jobs.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-11-30 08:14 pm (UTC)
I think there is something to this: a good manager can help her employees work better, while a good employee can rarely improve the performance of his boss.

Also, related to this, the more experience you have the more mobility you have, within reason. This is mostly true for middle management, as there are fewer high-level jobs, but at the highest levels of management you can afford to be out of work for a bit and you can probably crony your way into something relatively quickly.

I was in a situation where a really poor-functioning employee was there and it was difficult to replace him--everyone knew that, by the time it was clear he could not improve, hiring someone else before the project ended was unrealistic. So they gave him specific tasks he could handle, reduced his responsibilities, and otherwise made sure he couldn't screw anything up. But that was a poorly-productive seat at that point, so it did negatively impact the project.

The point of the anecdote was merely to demonstrate that I think the "intertial effect" doesn't accurately explain what you're observing, as it varies widely from culture to culture. In some places, management is changed like socks but the rank and file will be there until they die; other places, employees are a dime a dozen but the managers have seniority and job security. I expect your observations hold true across both these types of organizations.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-11-30 08:17 pm (UTC)
a good manager can help her employees work better, while a good employee can rarely improve the performance of his boss.

I should say that this assumes a bit of the problem with the bad seed is the inability to communicate or learn from mistakes. Bosses can force an employee to listen or get out; employees can't do that for their boss unless the culture allows for it.
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[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2006-11-30 08:19 pm (UTC)
Well, my pal Alasdair MacIntyre would say that the modern conception of a manager is flawed, as he's a man with expertise in nothing but getting his own way. That might explain it. Without experts in useful areas (i.e., those under him), he could never accomplish anything. And his own contribution--getting his way--is unpredictably beneficial.

In my experience, the best a manager can do (and it's not insubstantial) is get rid of bad people, bring in good people, and let those good people do their thing.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-12-01 04:49 pm (UTC)
This is interesting, as it suddenly calls to mind the question of what a manager's responsibility is. When I think of a manager (and I don't want to apply any more importance to this than my subjective semantics) I would add a couple of things to your list of what a good manager can do:

Goal setting--what is the team trying to accomplish and how does that make progress toward the highest level organizational goals?

Prioritization--given a conflict between the resources available for n projects, decide how to balance these resources between the projects

Integration--help define how the work of the members of a team or different teams comes together to form a product (assembly line vs. continuous integration vs. parallel workflow aka branch & merge etc.)

Scheduling--determine constraints, deliverables, status monitoring, dependencies, and from all that come up with targets to measure success

Decision-making--when the project moves beyond the scope of the plan (client decides they want to make a huge change, a competitor comes out with a product almost exactly like the one that you're building), management is usually the only one who can determine how to react because they have the high-level awareness of the market the business is trying to operate within.

Deal-making--Finally, management are always the ones who are trying to position the organization with other organizations--partnerships, clients, vendors, etc.

You could certainly say that scheduling and integration are "project management" and so not technically the responsibility of the kind of executive management dr_tectonic is referring to. However, the rest is clearly the responsibility of executive directors, CEOs, et al. Depending on the size of the organization, the scope where they're operating will change, but even at IBM the executives are operating in these areas.

I think it's clear that success or failure in these areas impacts the performance of the company greatly. But I don't think any of this is really just bringing in people, kicking out the bad ones, and sitting back and watching what happens.
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2006-11-30 09:26 pm (UTC)
My experience is blissfully small. I don't really have a boss.

I think part of it, also, is that everyone can complain about their boss (except me). Even people who have underlings can complain about their boss. (Moreover, one's underlings are one's fault, if one hired them.)
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[User Picture]From: nehrlich
2006-11-30 09:40 pm (UTC)
I think another aspect, of which I am most certainly guilty, is deciding that it's all the management's fault. If things aren't going well, everybody has a share of responsibility, not just the management. But it's much easier to whine and complain about how bad things are than it is to step up and do something to improve the situation. Unsurprisingly, the friends of mine who did step up, even when they were just engineers, are now all high-level managers, VPs and the like.

So I'm trying to cultivate this habit of responsibility and persistence and patience in myself. It's hard.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2006-11-30 09:44 pm (UTC)
Having never been a boss without a boss, (though I have supervised on several occasions) I have to say that anecdotally I am not prepared to complain about employees. However, I have heard plenty of bosses blame their employees for errors, even to the extent of "it's so hard to get good help these days."

However, given your choices, I think I'm going to go with:

It happens for structural reasons -- hierarchy magnifies the effects of any individual manager's failings, while minimizing the individual weaknesses of the rank-and-file

except that I want to emphasize that hierarchy magnifies the impact of managers and minimizes the impact of rank-n-file regardless of whether it is winnings or failings.
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[User Picture]From: helava
2006-11-30 10:21 pm (UTC)
In my experience, the reason a manager will get singled out is that an employee, who nominally is an expert in whatever field they're dealing with, will have one idea of how to do something - some internal prioritization of how things should be. The manager may have a different one, perhaps based on a wider view, or less expertise, or whatever - the reason the viewpoints are different isn't the issue.

Now, if something fails, the employee, the expert, probably was right *within their scope*. So they bitch and whine and say, "See, I told you so!"

Now, the difference, IMO, between a good manager and a bad one is that a good manager can give that employee either a view into the picture that *they* keep internally, promoting some level of understanding within the employee, OR the relationship between the manager and the employee is such that the employee trusts that the manager's decision was the right one, even if they don't understand the reasons that they made the decision that they did.

It's management's faulr because they have the power to generally override most peon's decisions, which comes with the responsibility to own up to those decisions.

IMO, the reason most managers are bad is that they're not actually "managers." It'd be like taking the best fry cook at McDonalds, and saying that because they should be promoted, they should be promoted to software engineer. Most fry cooks make terrible software engineers. Most software engineers make terrible managers.

I think people just don't realize that being a good manager requires a different skill set than whatever they were doing before they became a manager. And it's not a skill set that's easily trainable. It is, in some measure, an art - you have to know how to understand people, and how they're communicating. While there are a variety of techniques and tools that people can use to improve their skills, in some measure, I think, you're either a good manager, or you're not, because most of the lessons that you need to become a good manager are the social skills and relationship building tools that you develop throughout your entire lifetime. No job is going to radically change that. If you're bad at it, you're extraordinarily unlikely to get any better.

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From: thetarnishedowl
2006-11-30 11:38 pm (UTC)
In my experience, it's the third option. Folks do well at what they love to do, then are "rewarded" by having those tasks taken away so they can manage others doing those tasks. I've been there. It's miserable.
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From: detailbear
2006-12-01 02:24 am (UTC)
A few bits:

  • Corporate structure as we know it generally will only increase compensation within a job classification to a certain point. If you want to go up more than a few percent a year at most, you have to take on more responsibility, and different skill sets. Corporations also generally expect everyone to be in a line position, on their way to becoming VP of something at the least. Staff positions are minimal and not usually valued. People doing adequate but not spectacular jobs get to stay in their positions. This leads to...

  • People moving up to a new position rarely get the training or support that they need to gain new skill sets. Promotions are also difficult to reverse. The concept of "Acting Manager" is greatly underused. This tends to reinforce the Peter Principle. Your best technical person becomes a technical manager. If they fail at that, they leave or are pushed out, taking the technical expertise with them and leaving a management hole as well. If they stay, you end up with poor managers bungling their jobs and the technical work being done by someone with less skill/experience/efficiency.

  • Bad employees can be shaped out or shipped out. Bad managers are harder to get rid of. There has to be a good manager above them to notice that they're the problem.

  • One bad manager will affect many employees' lives. One bad employee usually only affects his/her immediate boss and closest co-workers.

  • Almost everyone has a boss. Very few people are a boss. Sample bias is definitely a factor.

  • Managers generally can't speak ill of their employees publicly. They have a legal responsibility to keep employee information confidential. Employees have less responsibility in that area.
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2006-12-01 02:43 am (UTC)
I've noted my own experiences. #include those. :-)

That said, I'll add one factor: Suceeding is HARD. You can overcome idiots at any part of the process up to a point. However, you waste energy whenever something is inefficient. Enough lost energy, and you never make the proper "escape velocity" to move into "success".
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