Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well

Every year, the results of contests on “The Worst Bosses of The Year” are published, and it never ceases to amaze me how truly badly some people “mis-manage” others. I wish it could be said that management of knowledge workers (see Knowledge Is Power!) is different from the rest of the world, but, alas, that is not true. Knowledge worker-based organizations have more than their fair share of horrendous managers. 

There is, however, a difference in the impact of bad managers on knowledge worker-based organizations from that on some other types of organizations. Since the managers in knowledge worker-based organizations “manage” knowledge workers, and knowledge workers really are different from other people (see Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers), bad managers can truly poison the well in a knowledge worker-based organization and virtually destroy the morale and effectiveness of that organization. Further, since knowledge workers tend to be in higher demand and are able to bring their skills more readily to other companies without such bad managers, companies with bad managers tend to lose their knowledge workers, and with their loss, the intellectual knowledge and strength of the organization goes out the door with them. With bad management, the best and brightest knowledge workers are typically the first to go, because they simply refuse to put up with the garbage that bad managers hand them; they know they will be in high demand elsewhere. And the remainder tend to lose all motivation.

So, since good and effective Managers are truly critical to knowledge worker-based organizations, the Managers of those Managers must clearly recognize this, right? One would certainly think so, but this is often not the case. How, then, do Mis-Managers find their way into the leadership and managerial roles in knowledge worker-based organizations?

The blame for this can most directly be placed on the Managers' Managers (and their Managers), as these are the folks who make the decisions to promote people to management positions. Most typically, a strong technical contributor is recognized for his/her exceptional performance as an individual contributor or team leader by being promoted to a Manager position. This moves such people from a technical career track, where they excel, to a managerial career track, where they may or may not belong.  Some people, while technically brilliant, are simply not cut out to manage others. Another approach may be to promote a non-technical person with supposed “people skills” to manage a group of knowledge workers, only for them to find that knowledge workers are indeed really different from other people.  In some cases, such decisions may be very good and the person promoted performs well in managing the activities of others. In other cases, this results in the Peter Principle, where people are promoted up to “their level of incompetence”

When it is realized that a Manager has “reached his/her level of incompetence”, most often little or nothing is done, as there is a great reluctance to demote that person because such a move reflects badly on those who recommended the promotion in the first place, and they don’t want to admit any failure on their part. 

Further, it is often difficult for the Manager’s Managers to recognize this incompetence, because they have an entirely different view of this Manager than the Manager’s subordinates. Think of the Manager as a sailboat sailing on the ocean. The Manager’s bosses tend to see the Manager from above, as a beautiful sailing craft with polished brass hardware, gleaming decks, and billowing sails sailing in a pristine sea. Whatever flaws the sailboat (the Manager) may have, they are not at all evident. 

Now consider the view of the subordinates. They see the Manager from below (from below deck or from under the water). In some cases (good managers), this view may also be very good, with a clean and well-cared-for boat interior and a hull with no obvious defects. In other cases (bad managers), this view may be one of a disorganized, unkempt boat interior, or an algae-coated, barnacle-encrusted hull that can slice you badly if you approach it the wrong way, with fuel, oil, and other effluents leaking into and polluting your waters. Obviously, the views from above and from below can be very different.

When a Mis-Manager is put in place, the effects are most often disastrous. Knowledge workers may be over-managed, under-managed, or not managed at all. Strong individual and group performances may be unrecognized, or even punished. The Mis-Manager may claim credit for the work of others (see Stolen Credit - It's Not Just About Credit Cards). All manner of bad behavior may occur which will result in the potential destruction of the efforts, value, and knowledge of the team. If not corrected, this poisons not only the group of this Mis-Manager, but the entire knowledge worker-based organization and potentially the entire company.

In the next few blog posts, I'll do for Mis-Managers what I recently did for Knowledge Workers in the Herding Cats series (see Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge WorkersHerding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist BastardHerding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social ButterflyHerding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima DonnaHerding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Chesire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole).  I'll examine the characteristics of some specific Mis-Manager personality types, and will talk about the best Employee Approach – that is, how Employees can best cope with such people, recognizing that these Mis-Managers control their destiny (see also Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old Yeller, Mis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-Downer, Mis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & Process, Mis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder and Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole). As with the Herding Cats knowledge worker personality types, these will be purposefully exaggerated to make a point. Effective management of a knowledge worker-based organization is a team effort that is greatly influenced by the knowledge workers and their Managers. Groups and Managers cannot be successful without each other, and that means coping with and dealing effectively with a variety of issues and a variety of people. Clearly, however, Mis-Managers can badly poison the well, and destroy a company in the process.

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