Are you killing your managers?

Psycho (Photo credit: dpratstur_IBZ)

It’s easier than you may think to ‘kill’ your managers.

I’m personally not the greatest middle manager in the world, but I’m grateful for my time as one, since it helped me understand just how painful middle management can be. And it made me realize just how easy it is to kill them. To make them feel powerless. To demoralize them.

Just remembering that makes me shudder.

At any rate, here are some things to watch for to see whether you’re going to be the cause of death to your middle managers.

Making them feel boxed in

Once, a VP of mine told me that he just wanted me to do this one thing. That’s all. The problem is that this one thing had a lot of issues:

  • It would take 30+ hours of my week
  • It was mind-numbingly boring for me
  • It would make my team feel like I was stalking them
  • It wouldn’t actually improve my team’s performance (in my opinion)

When I tried to reason with him, he told me I didn’t have a choice. I pointed out that I didn’t have 30 hours in my week and that I had the biggest team. He still said I didn’t have a choice.

Finally, I told him that I’d be looking for another job.

He backed down a bit at that point :).

But seriously, putting your managers in a box so strict they have to threaten to quit? Yeah; that’s killing your managers.

Expecting godlike knowledge

If you’ve created a working environment where you expect your middle managers to be able to explain every single little bit of behavior on their team, you’re going to be wanted for murder soon. Expecting them to be on top of every single thing without ever having to go back and check or run numbers is completely ridiculous. It also creates an environment where very little gets done.

Yup. Very little gets done.

Why? Because folks are so busy running numbers to explain every little thing that they do nothing to actually move the needle. Folks are so busy covering their butts that they don’t innovate. And because your middle managers must effectively become micromanagers in order to meet your standards, and that’s Really Not Cool.

Insisting on perfection

Once, my team made two mistakes in one week. Two. Heck, I’m lucky I don’t make two mistakes a day, but they were more perfect than I am :). These two mistakes didn’t have anything to do with each other, and they were the result of overwork (IT sucks sometimes) and bad judgment calls.

I was called into the Managing Partner’s office so that a couple of people could ‘get to the bottom’ of what caused the mistakes, and implement whatever measures were necessary to make sure they didn’t happen again. (For the lucky ones of you who don’t know law firms, this is effectively being called into the CEO’s office.)

After 30 minutes of tense back-and-forth, I said, “Hey – they know these mistakes were wrong, and I don’t think they’ll happen again. If you can find any sort of pattern for me to address, I’m happy to address it, but these were, frankly, just mistakes.

“If my team makes mistakes, it’s usually due to burnout. Burnout can either be at home or at work. If it’s at home, I’ll give them time to deal with it. If it’s at work, then we’ll ask them to do less. But there are no processes or systems that I can put in place in order to make sure that random mistakes will never happen again. If anything, I can only promise that mistakes WILL happen again.”

That shut them up, but almost killed me. So don’t do that to your managers, okay?

Promising false power

One of my favorite moments was when my VP said, “But it’s your choice. You’re the CEO of your team.”

“But <redacted VP>, if I were truly CEO of my team, I would fire three people. May I go ahead and do that?”

Clearly, the answer was no. And we did use the situation to make some massive changes for the good of the three people involved, but beyond whether I would have fired these people or not, I made the comment because I felt powerless in the face of being promised false power.

Other times, I’ve seen this when budget has been promised (and then the project revoked for no given reason) or when folks have been told to go ahead, only to have the project yanked or the game changed randomly by the boss. Don’t promise power or responsibility that you don’t mean. Just don’t.

So… what did I miss? Any other amazing stories of how you killed your managers or were killed by your bosses?