Sunday, January 22, 2012

Are managers evil?

First, many have said that there are a lot of bad managers in the US, and in the world.

Peter Drucker worked on this.
W. Edwards Deming had his ideas, and worked on this.

And many many business gurus have had their say, trying to improve the managers.

On the other hand, there is in the agile community a bunch of people who feel that managers are evil.

OK, maybe that is an exaggeration, most of them do not think all managers are evil.  But in general, they feel that most managers are evil.

We think that virtually all managers are not evil.

Equally, it is less than useless to think of the workers as bad or lazy. Or evil.

But let us stay with the managers today.

Yes, there are many managers who do not manage well. And some may even manage in a negative or bad way.  But I think the main reason is that they have been badly taught.  No one has taught them or they were wrongly taught. Or they have wrongly learned.  For example, that it is useful to be a command-and-control manager. And we have tempted them with ego rewards, and many have succumbed.

There is, for some of them, and for some of "us", the notion that no one can correct a manager. At least no one who reports to that manager.  This also is an un-helpful notion.

So, to replace this notion, we offer a few suggestions:
* managing people is very hard, and probably requires different skills depending on the situation and the people involved
* hierarchy and power are probably not that helpful. At least in most situations where you have knowledge workers.
* with knowledge work, knowledge creation and motivation are quite important. Perhaps yet another reason to look for a different kind of manager than we used to have.
* we speak of leadership, and some say that we need no managers, only leaders. Certainly leaders who lead us in the right direction and do it well are rare.  And we need more of them; more Steve Jobs we might say.  But I think we still need managers.

We are in the process of changing the management culture throughout the world. This will be a long conversation. There are so many dimensions. We need to talk and fight and argue about how to manage better. And, if we over-simplify things into managers and workers, the workers are very much part of this fight.

But calling one side 'evil' is not helpful.


john miller said...

Great post. I have thought a lot about this recently. I was not an evil manager, but, I was definitely operating out of a command and control paradigm. I seeked knowledge to be a better manager and mastering my field by getting the PMP and ITIL certs. Not until I discovered and converted to Agile did I not really start becoming a great manager. Agile is the only approach that integrates a value system with the framework, and is transformative in nature. It aligns the theories and values with exactly what you do on a daily basis. With the right training and perspective, it can make managers great.

Joe Little said...

Hi John,

Not much more to say. You said it so well.

And thanks for the compliment on the blog post.


Paul D said...

I don't know if you know the book 'Illusions'. It's just a nice little story, but there is a great definition of evil in there. It says evil is simply a measure of the amount of time it takes to become good. So, just to be provocative, and I guess a bit tongue in cheek, I'd say using that definition, a high proportion of managers are evil.
Management trainers exist in abundance because there is such a demand. And why is there such a demand? Because a lot of people need a lot of training.
Some managers seek training because they want to become good, some take the opportunity if it arises, some have to turn up because their company requires it, some do it to get out the office. And those are only the ones that actually seek out training, there are probably 3 times as many need training as gets it.
So if not what we generally call evil, lets just say there are a lot of managers out there who are a long time off becoming good.

Sannette Coetzee said...

Hello Joe, I used to be a developer but at that the notion of project manger's was still rather new and we had none in the company. I become one at the same company and have to agree with John Miller that since we started doing agile it opened up doors in terms of communication and understanding.

I believe in close relationships and a very supportive environment and had many a very enjoyable projects. Moving around as contractor has made me aware that in general developers see managers as a blocker. This was until you make them part of the process and gain their trust, easier said than done but a lot of enthusiasm and passion helps.

On the flip side I have recently worked with a manager that did not know how to lead and understand the decisions being made. It concerns me that some managers does not want to get their hands dirty, commit to the team and product and really get to grips with the project.

A good manager has to lead from the front and have a tremendous passion to drive the team.

Joe Little said...

Well said.

I will add this, as a minor comment. I used to think there were was a clear right and a clear wrong way to lead or to manage (or both). I no longer think that. I think that people are much more complex, and how you (as a leader or manager) work with one group is not how you work with another group. Although two or three groups (teams) in a row may be roughly the same.

Still, I agree that the good ideas you suggested are good and the bad ideas bad.


Joe Little said...

Hi Paul D,

Umm. Well, my POV is like yours, that none of us are good enough. ie, that the scale from extreme bad to extreme good is quite long. And none of us mortals is anywhere close to perfection. So we may all say "and forgive us our trespasses" quite honestly.

Still, there is a badness and a bad intention for which I reserve the human word evil. I do think evil requires bad intention as well, not just bad action. (In God's view, perhaps evil begets good, and so is useful, and in some sense no longer evil. But I am not so wise as to really understand this POV.)

Colleagues say that some managers are so bad, they must be evil to allow themselves to continue to be bad. But having been stupid myself for long long periods of time (probably including now on some subjects), I want to not call them evil. And to forgive them. But this does not mean we should not call the kettle black, if it have a black badness. And call it loudly. But our attitude is different if we have compassion. We tend to say it more gently, and actually it tends to be heard better. Or so I think.


gothandy said...


Great post, I'm a business owner and in all the discussions on what it means to be an agile manager, the issue that appears to be swept under the carpet and that issue is who do people get paid?

With a few notable exceptions most agile teams will get paid, whether they deliver on commitments, continually improve or not and their expectation is to get paid.

Now in large companies with a cash cow not connected directly to the agile ecosystem in question that might not matter, however in smaller businesses where team output is the only cash generating activity then there is a different dynamic.

Is there an implicit contract between manager and team that can result in lots of conflict and the kind of negative behaviours from managers we're all trying to avoid.

How can this underlying issue be brought out into the open and discussed so that both sides* get what they want/need and the bad management behaviour is avoided?

* I don't like the term "sides" but like it or not when a team isn't generating cash there will be sides.