I thought managers were just plain dumb. They did the dumbest things one could imagine. I was a computer programmer, fresh out of college but with some years before college already working as a computer programmer. One day, when fixing the same kind of problems that had happened in the past and we continued to repeat, it occurred to me that “the problems are management, not technical.”
The Problems Are Management, Not Technical
I got in to management because that is where the problems were and where the barriers to doing a good job were. This would be simple, I thought, get the management right and then we can get the job done right. Boy, was I delusional.
The manager’s job was hard. But not for the reasons I expected. Most of my managers had not been as technically proficient as I was (well, few people were — or so I unhumbly thought!). I figured that once we had a technically astute manager, we could really get going on these projects and do great stuff — much more than we had done in the past.
Instead, it seemed that managers were up against a whole different set of problems. It generally centered on other managers and more senior managers who had all sorts of interesting notions about how things should be done and why. A lot of it was, again, due to a lack of insight into managing technology organizations and projects. However, all too much of it was also about individuals trying to maximize their promotability, grow the size of their organizations, increase their influence and some who just had to compete with whomever stepped on the field (yes, they were often ex-athletes: “Ya got to hit everyone at the line of scrimmage. It’s not personal!”). Oh boy. How do I work with this mess?
Managers Were Up Against A Whole Different Set Of Problems
So how come I hadn’t seen this before becoming a manager? My own manager would simply tell us to do many things that were just silly and would rarely tell us why. “Just do it, because I said so and I’m the boss” was often the attitude. I had one manager tell me, after I had briefed the team on some senior management decisions that effected us, that I should not have told everyone the reasons for what we were doing. That was for us managers to know and for them to just do because we told them so. I think most managers realized it when what they were doing was not real smart. But, they did it because they were managers and this was their job and one does not keep their job nor get the next promotion by not doing what one’s boss tells them to do.
Since so many management decisions were based upon power struggle compromises and choosing the least bad solution, managers were often stuck doing things they might otherwise not have done. My nit with many of these managers, my managers, was that they did it with such enthusiasm and assurance. I recall one manager telling me that some person we were evaluating to hire as a manager wasn’t a good fit because they acted like someone who has never had to “bend their backbone.” Being able to bend whichever way the wind required was what he considered to be a good manager characteristic. Ok, again, so what am I to do besides becoming one of “them”?
Probably the key thing that I did, that was different from most managers, was I tried to tell my folks why we made the decisions that were made. Sometimes this exposed some pretty silly or frustrating compromises. Now, I recall one very senior manager telling his organisation how he fought for their concerns at corporate, but did not prevail. However, I was at that same meeting and what he had said was “yeah, we can do what corporate asks.” So just because a manager shared what went on didn’t mean they were always completely objective and many people realized this.
In contrast, I tried to make my explanations as full and as sincere as possible. If I didn’t get much of a chance to make our position known I would admit such failing on my part. Otherwise, I would try to let them know the kind of environment we were dealing with and what the compromises were. I believe my folks always felt I was giving them the straight scoop and was working in the best interest of the team (not just my own interest), even when we had to run off and do what seemed to be counterproductive things.
Make Explanations As Full And As Sincere As Possible
This trying to be honest didn’t always set well with more senior management. In one case, when our company was struggling to meet quarterly financial goals, we decided to take some actions to quickly and temporarily reduce costs. The solution was to furlough our contractor workforce for a period of time. Just enough time to bring our costs down to target so we could meet our earnings estimate. As counterproductive as this was (we were not allowed to slip any milestones, oh no!) I figured we would just do it and continue to get as much done as possible with the staff shortage. That wasn’t the end of it however.
We were instructed not to tell anyone the real reason for the contractor furlough. Instead, after some quick brainstorming, we decided on saying it was safety related. We were coming into a predicted stormy weather holiday period and so we were telling contractors to stay home during this period and a little after it for their … safety. I’m not kidding. I have a bunch of highly educated — very smart people — working for me, and they want me to tell everyone this is the reason. Plus clearly we don’t care about the safety of our regular employees, who were the majority of our workforce, because they were not told to stay home. All this was told to us by the senior HR manager who maintained a straight face. I concluded that our more senior management had stretched the truth so often and so far that they had lost all sense of how unbelievable this was or the impact to management credibility this had.
I ended up compromising in my explanation of the contractor furlough. When one of my managers asked me why we were doing this, I just just looked at him (as my other managers listened) and asked “why do you think?” and left it at that. I figured that was the best I could do at balancing between maintaining personal integrity and carrying out my “orders” as a manager.
Being a manager is hard, especially in organizations that are also struggling. This doesn’t prevent us from doing a good job or setting a good example, but sometimes we need to find the best compromise we can in a bad situation. In all my cases, I found that sticking as close as I could to “brutal honesty” paid dividends in the long run and helped our projects to be successful beyond the ordinary.
What is one of the “dumb” compromises you’ve had to make or implement as a manager?
For more see: If Nothing Else, Honesty Is Just More Efficient