The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Manager AntiPatterns

We’ve all heard of the “No Asshole Rule”, which applies to individual contributors as well as management staff. Assholes notoriously treat their subordinates differently than their superiors, and so can be wrecking havoc but be unnoticed in the organization since the people who can coach or dismiss them are unaware.

There are other anti-patterns of management, and specifically, anti-patterns of manager as well.

The one that I’d like to mention today is The Cynic.

In WW1, during the last German push into France before their lines collapsed, the Germans rounded up their most crack soldiers and least cynical officers to create shock troops at the front of this push. I found this interesting that they’d be so interested in rooting out cynicism, especially in a war that rebirthed the whole cynical movement, and in particular, rooting it out in their officers.

A cynical infantrymen who also happens to be a crack shot and know to keep his head down, he might still be asked to be in this shock troop. But a cynical officer, no matter how veteran, was asked to stay in the reserve. Why is this?

Cynicism, especially in a managing role, is corrupting and contagious.  When individual contributors see managers who are cynical, they quickly become cynical too. And often, they become more loyal to their cynical manager – who “gets” it – than to the cause or organization they ultimately work for. When people become cynical about their project, it’s not mere disengagement, it’s philosophically rooted disengagement.

In reverse order, the disengagement you see in cynicism isn’t simply remedied. They no longer want to work on the project because they no longer believe the project is worth while, and are intrinsically skeptical of any attempts to persuade them otherwise. Compare this to disengagement caused by over work, or some set backs, or stress at home. These can all be solved. Cynicism is far harder to pull back from.

Secondly, loyalty to a front line manager is not necessarily a bad thing. But this loyalty comes at the expense of the organization. There are techniques which would endear loyalty from an individual contributor to a front line manager and ultimately to the organization as a whole. These techniques don’t draw a dividing line between the organization and the manager, who is ultimately always the representative thereof in the individual contributor’s eyes.

Cynicism, however, drives loyalty to a manager by drawing a line between the manager and the organization. “Us versus Them” grows, with the front line manager trying her best to make sure she’s on the “us” side. A non-cynical manager would not draw this line, and try to fight us-versus-them mentality by ensuring people on either ‘side’ talk to each other and understand each other’s perspective. By talking repeatedly about the shared goals, and shared hardships. Cynical managers do not do this.

Cynics can actively drive away good people. They’ll advocate to folks under their spell hat they should leave, that things really are that bad. They’ll chase away new hires by airing dirty laundry. They’ll attempt to convert other managers to their cynical viewpoint. They’ll be difficult to work with for their superiors, but drive the loyalty of their subordinates.

I am not arguing that a slip of cynicism or sarcasm here or there is going to ruin your career and poison people you’re supposed to be serving. That’d be impossible, and moreover, a sarcastic comment now and then helps people remember you’re human like them. It’s just important not to make a habit of it. There are more effective ways of seeming human like being a good listener that doesn’t require you to bad mouth anyone.

Also take note, I’m not arguing against cynicism in individual contributors. Indeed, a negative attitude can often spot risks early, combat group think, and keep others challenged to improve – so long as it doesn’t become contagious. A little cynicism, especially in the front line workers, can help keep negative information flowing upward, and let difficult news out rather than trying to hide it.

Anyway, I don’t have any answers – try not to hire them. But they’re about as hard as Assholes to detect. And try to coach them out of it – I know early on, I got some key advice to be less sarcastic because people were going to take me too seriously. But there are some die hard cynics out there who may not respond to coaching.




July 5, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment