Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Telling People What They Don't Want To Hear

Nobody Said it was Easy
Nobody said management was easy. If it were easy, then people wouldn't pay managers very much and they wouldn't be able to spend money on all the non-essential essentials like a sat-nav for the BMW which takes them at high speed from their cushy homes to their cushy offices every day. The very thing which makes management difficult is the fact that it's so easy, yet its status is based on the fact that it's difficult. So, the pretense must be maintained or order will dissolve into chaos, governments and bank balances will fall, and managers will have to stop watching their expanding waistlines and do some real work for a change.

There are exceptions to this rule. Usually in the early days of management, the manager will realise that the only way to get results is:
  • Treat all the people with respect
  • Don't ask someone to do something that you couldn't do yourself with that same degree of instruction and empowerment
  • Don't dodge problems
  • Don't tackle problems too heavy handedly
  • Keep your temper and keep objective about what's going on
  • Don't use status to force outcomes
  • Don't forget status and confuse people
As a result of these early-days managers, some people form expectations that management are a jolly nice bunch who are interested in everyone having a nice life and making a living. This is not where managers end up. In some ways this is a shame. However, if you're the sort of person who intends to make their money from being a manager, or being a consultant that managers rely on, then you're going to have to learn some hard lessons.

The Isolation of Management
Being a manager is never having to say you're sorry. If you did that, then that would be a sign of weakness, right? Well, probably not, but let's assume that your illusion of power is all that's keeping you in employment and that you're no longer able to do any of the actual work that the people on the ground are doing. What you have to do is wield this power through will alone. Sure you can sack people, but that won't get their work done - it might get the work of other people done, if they then come to fear you, but that's not necessarily a good thing, as you'll have to recruit someone to fill the shoes, desk, cubicle, or Audi of the person you sacked. The recruitment process takes effort and you're going to have to put that effort in. Since the person you fired is probably someone you recruited in the first place, you can't go through too many of them before people start to remark that perhaps you wouldn't have had to sack this now-vilified waster if you hadn't hired them in the first place. This logic is impenetrable and self-reinforcing (being that it is, basically, correct) and will give you more problems then if you somehow were able to avoid taking any action over anything.

The threat of an unspecified penalty is always greater than the reality of your semi-impotence.

This is where management starts to isolate you. There are reports up to higher management/shareholders/board/your god. There are demands back down to you and you have to convey those demands to your underlings in a way which somehow causes something to be delivered. The problem is that you don't necessarily know what, how, or when. This increasingly starts to isolate you. The more isolated you become, the harder it is to get anything done, and the more you have to work to keep your role as manager - a role which requires only the maintenance of the illusion that you're doing something. Ironically, the longer this goes on, the more you have to do to make it possible for you to hold a role in which you do nothing.

Dealing With Other Managers
The worst part of being a manager is that you have to have managers around you most of the time. Since they're all doing the same sort of thing as you, they're harder to fool. They're also harder to work with than your underlings' colleagues. Those managers above you are more extreme examples of what you're trying to do, and so they're either going to bully you, or act in such a conniving way that you feel physically sick, partly with fear and partly with jealousy that they appear to be getting away with it and being paid even more unjustly than you are.

To win in this game, you have to be good.

It's All About Image
Again, the aim of being a manager is to maintain the pretence that you're managing. You could try actually doing the managing, of course, but that simply involves going round explaining things to people and asking them if they're okay to do things which they're most definitely capable of doing and that soon gets a) boring, and b) obviously not worth paying a manager to do.

So, you have to project the managerial aura which makes people treat you as a manager. The way to do this is to use psychology. The way to do this well is to use testing, constant maintenance and short cycles:
  • Testing - you have to try people out - they may not react as you expect, so be prepared to push a little way here, a little way there and see what happens. Sometimes someone is easier to fool than you expected, or has triggers in a different area than you expected. Rather than waste your effort pushing the wrong buttons, probe this and spike that and you'll soon find out what you're dealing with. Once you've established a particular behaviour which they find testy, be sure to keep redoing it, just to be sure that their personality hasn't changed. If things have changed, either change your behaviour, change your test, or give them the apparent support they need to return them to the state they were in.
  • Constant maintenance - this is a sort of refactoring for management. The idea is that you keep on top of problems in your image as you go along - keep the effort involved in management at a constant, rather than sit back and let imperative-debt grow. Imperative-debt is a residual resentment that builds in your employees making them less and less likely to respect you enough to do as you say. This can be replaced by reflexive-resentment, the process of making your employees believe that the only people to blame for their terrible lives is themselves. While they're busy hating themselves, they won't have time to build proper resentment of you and you'll find it consistently easy to managerise them.
  • Short cycles - the key to good management is to move the goal posts as your underlings are getting close. If you do this too often then they'll never have any aims, but if you do this after too long, then it will look more obviously like you're making it impossible for anyone to achieve anything, as you snatch a defeat from the jaws of each and every victory. So, by short cycles of imperative, you create a near-term target which looks hard to hit and then change direction once people have grasped how they might just be able to hit it. This creates a sense of despondency and reflexive-resentment, as the peons feel that their efforts are being rewarded with tolerance, but that they're regularly missing what seems to be presented as realistic goal-setting. Genius!
This sort of Agile-management is exactly what you need to keep things ticking over balanced between doing so little that you're bored and doing so much that you feel stressed and cross and likely to be one of the first to get fired when the inevitable shit hits the fated fan of destiny.

Breaking the Cycle by Confidently Delivering Bad News
With a self-hating workforce, held together by your apparent tolerance of their failure, all you have to do now, is report this to upper management with confidence. With a bit of luck, they're using the same techniques on you and so are expecting bad news. However, if you compromise your image as a manager than you are nothing, so there needs to be a way to report failure positively. In addition, you have to report failure positively to the underlings in order to continue to foster their believe of your boundless tolerance. This is where the confident delivery of bad news pattern comes in. Essentially, you need to smile and say what nobody wants to hear in a way which tells them that they need to hear it. You have to be unrelenting, uncomplaining, positive and measured with your delivery. Ask questions. Of underlings you're asking them to answer that they accept their failure. Of upper management you're asking them to redefine their bounds of success for you then and their - this should tie in anyway with their regular re-goal-posting and so meets their own requirements.

In addition to delivering bad news, you need to present a story of a similar occurrence in another company and why none of the bad news is a surprise or indeed anyone's fault except those few people, who know who they are, who have failed themselves. You have to find the positives in the bad news and describe them as a lesson to be learned for the future.

As someone once wrote:

If you can keep your job when all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
If you can keep trust when you doubt yourself and are acting in an untrustworthy manner.
If you can keep your salary when all you do is lie and hate.
If you have no wisdom, dreams, thoughts of your own, triumps or tools.
If you can win when all around you are losing.
If you can talk with anyone and keep your smugness.
Then yours is the company and everything in it.
And what's more, you'll be a manager.


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