Fear of Micromanagement:
How stereotypes and policies have combined to produce this generation of lackluster managers
In Laurence J. Peter’s seminal work, The Peter Principle: Why things always go wrong, he gives a much-quoted principle of business: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. This is not cynicism, but rather a fact of life: people who do a job well tend to get promoted until they no longer perform above average.
Scott Adams added the sociological factor in his book, The Dilbert Principle: The most ineffective workers will be systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage — management. While this is not as set in stone as the Peter Principle, it does make sense: a manager is judged by the productivity of his underlings and by comparison to his peers. Even managers who have the company’s best interests at heart would be reluctant to promote good people out of important projects. (The good people, seeing their incompetent coworkers promoted ahead of them, usually leave anyway. Adams nicknamed this effect brightsizing.)
There is another sociological force at work in corporations and that is corporate culture itself. American companys foster — even encourage — hostility between the workers and management. (Adams has made a carrer from this pandemic hostility.) This lack of understanding leads to some very distinct breeds of bad managers:
- The Retiree
- The Retiree is the most prevalent of the bad managers out there, and is most often found in large corporations. He views management as a well-deserved rest; he worked hard before and has been rewarded by getting more money for doing less work. The Retiree adopts a laissez faire approach to management: if it doesn’t bother him, he doesn’t bother it. The underlings are rarely hostile to the Retiree: any hostility is in the form of jealousy. Projects run by the Retiree and other “hands-off” managers are plagued by deviation from the specifications and slippage of schedule.
- The Displaced
- The Displaced manager results from overpromotion. He fears for his job, so he performs tasks that he knows he can do well; in other words, his old job. The Displaced occurs frequently in the socially-inept technical world, where new managers find out that they are expected to deal with — shudder — people. A large number of the Displaced means the Peter Principle has been hard at work in that company, or that there is a counterproductive salary cap on engineering talent forcing people onto the management track. Underlings are often hostile to the Displaced: “He is doing my job, dammit.”
- The Coward
- The Coward is bred. He and his coworkers slaved under a bad manager, ridiculed him, and made his life as hellish as theirs. Now he is in charge, and he won’t make the same mistakes. He’ll respect their jobs and they’ll leave him alone (as with the Retiree). He doesn’t want to be treated like the Displaced, so he avoids making strategy decisions on projects. He doesn’t want to be viewed as a micromanager, so he doesn’t manage at all. The Coward is the worst kind of bad manager for the company because he appears to be working out. His underlings tend to protect him because he allows them to have fun. Otherwise, he shares the same problems as the Retiree.
- The Jerk
- What else can be said? Some people are just wrong for management positions. There’s very little that can be done for this kind of manager, except listen to them when they say they do not wish to be promoted. The Jerk tends to be self-aware of his problem and will only accept a promotion if it means the only way to get a better salary.
It’s difficult to avoid the Peter and Dilbert Principles because all of the parties involve think that it is the right thing to do: the companies want competent managers and the employees want the rewards. Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. (The Mythical Man-Month) might have the right idea: instead of manditory promotion, how about an equivalent increase in salary and a job title displaying the company’s gratitude?