Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Those who can do. For the rest there's always middle management

As Tolstoy himself would no doubt have observed, had he not been too caught up on boring subjects such as marriage and land reform, all good managers are good in the same way (more about this later) but all bad managers have their own peculiar brand of badness. And  bad management, specifically bad middle management, rather dominates the field.
I’ve only been working in various careers for 20 years so it’s perhaps too early to judge. But in all this time I've had perhaps two bosses a decade who had some clue  about how to their primary job: optimally to manage the people and resources trusted to their leadership and supervision for the accomplishment of a common goal. This strike rate doesn't bode well for my next 45 years of work.
So, let's see, I’ve had the misfortune of working for bullies and skivers, self-interested and ferocious careerists, bumbling incompetents, kisser-upper -kicker-downers, neurotics  micromanagers and negligent don’t-give-a-toss-ers, ‘good Germans’ obeying orders, conspiracy theorists , zealous turbulent priests hunters and the kind of fools who look at the finger when you point to the sky (what’s the name for those?).
It’s hard to discriminate among this rich and varied fauna but if I had to rank them , from downright evil to merely hopelessly bad, I’d say the worst kind of bad manager is not the ambitious careerist who’s comfortable firing people and shouting at them to accomplish a set goal. That by itself doens’t make them the worst at the job,  although they are doubtless scary, stressful and unpleasant to work for.  But they at least display a scintilla of direction, will and pride in accomplishing something, which might sometimes translate into leadership qualities capable of carrying others with you towards the realisation of something that might turn out to better than nothing or the status quo.
So, no, I think the worst kind of bad manager is the nincompoop who deliberately chooses to stay well clear of any direct knowledge of what is actually involved in the jobs performed by people under him or her as ‘too much information’ of the wrong kind might lead them to have to make intelligent (and not just easy) decisions, to raise uncomfortable objections to misguided policies rained down to them from their hierarchy, or to have to admit that the work they manage is harder and the world it’s taking place in is more complex than they wish to believe, in their (universal to all managers) urge to tick boxes, juke stats, stretch goals and so on for their sake of their own personal advancement.
The thing they emphatically do not teach in business school is that most normal people are intrinsically motivated. They would, if it wasn’t beaten out of them pretty early on in the workplace, respond to incentives other that greed and fear: a feeling of one’s own usefulness, the satisfaction of using one’s skills and talents, the possibility of personal growth, social interaction, team spirit, seeing a project through, constructive feedback and a modicum of encouragement are all tremendously important to most normal people.
But managing such people, i.e. most normal people, i.e. people would then involve a sense of personal responsibility towards their wellbeing, respect for their efforts , awareness of their skills, cognisance of how the wider world works and finally – last but not least – a desire on the part of the managers to themselves perform  a job well done, accomplishing those aims instead of disingenuously misconstruing  them,  lying about their results and so forth.
Managing people, in other words, would turn out to  be a job in itself -  imagine that - and not just a desk and comfy chair from which one is allowed to further one’s own career, or sleep behind one’s newspaper, or harass one’s intern, (whatever your particular brand of manager evil might be). But frankly, who’s got the time these days?
The nincompoop is the most dangerous because people with specific skills who’ve somehow managed to rise through the ranks still find it difficult to completely fool themselves and others about what it takes to get from A to B or achieve X given Y, or turn off all sentient reasoning about the desirability of Z.
The nincompoop, refreshingly unencumbered by any knowledge of otherwise, can carry on living in, and leading others, in a Wizard-of-Oz, Emperor-without-clothes-type alternative universe where all his/her other bosses already live. He/she will then select  and  promote similar nincompoops to make sure that this never ever changes. They are in fact the perfect managers: they make life easier for the people above them , sustaining their Soma-induced optimism, their corporate blindness and, as the lying takes care of the truth, they are - TA-DAH! -always on target .
And when they are not they are wonderfully  efficient and unsentimental about getting rid of (lesser) people once the blame-storming has subsided. They are the perfect expression of a deadly but resilient ecosystem , the cockroaches of all dying civilisations, no matter how advanced, including finally our own, I fear.  Those Mayan temples did not tear themselves down, you know?  And who do you think persuaded  Easter Island dwellers to cut down that last tree?
Finally, a word on good management. Good managers are all the same: they regard the people above them with healthy scepticism and treat those below them with respect. They come in early, leave late and work at least as hard and preferably harder than their worst paid underlings. They are curious, engaged and reactive.
Good managers want problems solved, sure, but crucially they want problems to be identified and brought to their attention. They are more interested in accomplishing the stated aim of the thing they do/run/represent than in covering their asses or paint the world a pretty pink colour for their bosses. When you point to the sky they look at the moon/that plane/ the freak asteroid hurtling your way not, I repeat not, at your finger.
Helpless pensioners will never die of thirst on a ward under the watch of a good manager. Libor rates won't be fixed. Hacks won't hack into phones and policemen won't sell stories in return for posh spa stays. Soldiers won't torture and tax men won't cut international corporations obscenely cushy deals. Trust me. It's true. It's just hard to close your eyes and believe because there are so few of them around.