Changes in management

March 29th, 2009

When I wrote here more frequently, one of my inspirations was watching the interaction between management and workers. My first work for hire was alongside workers, and the cultural background of my family would have a blue collar if it wore collared shirts at all. But I have always favored ideas that look neat on paper, and preferred clever schemes to reduce repetitive labor over unhesitating engagement of the actual work. Since I left for college I have hovered at the periphery of the white-collared world, not yet fully immersed but further than ever from the rough hands and rough jokes of the fellowship of hard labor.

More than anything else about work, I dislike its repetition. I will try to lend a hand to just about any work, but when the days ahead look to me much the same as the days gone by, I get impatient. I’m always looking for change, for a challenge, for a chance to find some solution never before seen under the sun.

It is said that the working class doesn’t like change. I don’t know about that. It is probably true, to an extent. I myself like a steady frame of reference to keep my constant changes in a rational relationship. But I think there’s a deeper root to working class obstinance. Working people hate hypocrisy. There is nobody more frequently the footman to aristocratic changes than hypocrisy. When some change is announced, look for any of these trademarks:

  • The new right way is the same as an old right way, two or three changes ago.
  • Group (department, business) A is told that it is absolutely essential that this be done, but Group B doesn’t have to do it.
  • Objective A is obviously at cross-purposes with Objective B.

It is marvelously easy to spot one of these smirking sycophants fawning along any time somebody important comes through announcing changes. More wonderful still is the ability of the white-collar class to ignore these hypocrisies; sometimes they will feign they do not exist, but more often they just politely ignore them for the greater good. After all, the essential purpose of the new change is valid; it’s not productive to quibble about the details. Better to pretend they don’t exist. In public, at any rate; plenty of griping goes on behind closed doors. But no matter how much it outrages common sense and decency, the middle management always comes out smiling saying, “We can do this, we should do this, we will do this, it’s a wonderful idea.”

It’s all they exist to do. Working people don’t have to be managed into doing something that makes sense. They must be corralled and herded and cajoled and threatened into things which do not appear to be good ideas at all. If middle managers didn’t support the policies they didn’t like, they would be simply more obstinate cows to be herded along. It’s marching to the beat that distinguishes the soldier from the criminal.

The duplicity runs deeper, and at every level it disgusts the worker. To succeed in management you must ask for a favor when you deserve a reward, call compromising on a good idea improving it, attempt to ingratiate yourself with your enemies and call on the goodwill of your friends. The natural shape of virtue and vice is turned inside out; humility is the cloak of treachery. The working man would rather damn his enemies and reward his friends promptly and with sincerity; and if he wanted to be somewhere tomorrow he’d start walking in that direction today.

Ethically I am much inclined to agree with the working man. It is possible to be a manager in true humility, obeying and supporting decisions you do not agree with up to the moral boundary of conscience. But it is a very difficult thing, akin to walking through a maze while keeping your gaze fixed above on the north star. You can never focus on what is right in front of you; either you will smash yourself against the wall in front of you, trying to get straight through to your goal, or you will become lost in the twists and turns of the labyrinth.

The struggle to maintain personal integrity while fulfilling the managerial responsibilities fascinates me, since I don’t want to plod in the circle of routine work but neither want to surrender the ethics of justice. When I worked with the shipping department I saw this drama played out almost daily. Shortly after I moved back to the front office I sat in meetings at a higher level than I ever had before and was especially cautious of saying too much. Particularly with the critical theme of my remarks, I do not want anything too personal or commercially confidential finding its way onto this blog.

With the recent changes in leadership in the levels of Acme above me, my role appears to be settling toward something more routine with very little opportunity to observe the management conundrum (other than as it is applied to myself personally). I have been reorganized to report up to my former manager through a new supervisor (this is not related to the much larger changes in leadership mentioned in previous posts). In prior months, when my manager was discussing my current and future career, my interest in possibly entering the ranks of management came up. I have always been happy with my manager and I wouldn’t lightly discount his advice, so when he suggested that I read The One-Minute Manager, I thought I ought to.

Aside from some appalling, smarmy gimmicks about touching people to show you care, the gist of the book was the same as any other advice I have ever seen. It can be reduced to two points:

  1. Respect your people.
  2. Communicate clearly your expectations, what was well done, and what is not satisfactory.

It’s not the concept of good management that is hard to grasp, it’s the practice. In my experience of being managed, the hardest of all is communicating expectations. But some are still better than others. And I think the manager I have now gets lost in the maze of blending the facts you know with your own opinions and with what you are allowed to say; the result is a blend of indirect, non-judgmental, incremental statements and questions that do not seem to be built around any central purpose. I throw him an issue and he looks at both sides, drives for root causes, considers the consequences, looks at ultimate goals, and comes back with some kind of intermediate step which admittedly doesn’t solve anything but is hopefully a step toward making things better eventually somehow.

I sympathize with him–I often feel like I am in over my head when I have to balance my strong opinions and known facts with the subtler arts of working with the powers that be. I think that while I was in the indeterminate position of possibly being in the chain of management in shipping but possibly just an auxiliary I sometimes was too blithe in accepting some new policy as if there were nothing objectionable about it, too quick to expect anyone who wasn’t going along of just being perverse. We’re trying to make things better, people! What’s wrong with you, why don’t you cooperate?

There are managers who lack one or more of conscience, perspicuity, or common sense. But there are also managers who haven’t figured out how to get these virtues to cooperate with the directives they have to carry out. I am not ready to put my new manager into that former category. I only hope he quickly learns that applying management techniques such as promulgated in The One-Minute Manager is not managing. The use of a technique is not the same as the accomplishment of a purpose.

If you are sailing a boat and the wind is not blowing the direction you need to go, you cannot simply ask the wind to cooperate and expect results. You have to tack, to take a diagonal course that is a compromise between the direction the wind is blowing and the direction you want to go. But let us say that you have two possible destinations: one is north and one is south. The wind is blowing westward. If you ask your manager, “Where are we going?” and his answer is “We should tack,” he has given you the right technique from the textbook but he has not answered your question at all.

I think in extremes. I know I think in extremes and I know that limits my ability to adapt. When I have job situations that seem to require totally opposed solutions, I need my supervisor to explain to me how to reconcile them. And when his answer is, “We need to tack,” I’m lost at sea.

Sell me my own hat, will you?

March 14th, 2009

I had pulled up a sales order for one reason or another when I notice on the order header:

Sold To: Friendly Neighborhood Distributor
Ship To: Recently Acquired Subsidiary of Acme

When I say “recently,” I do not mean last week. I mean a major acquisition that was announced, reviewed, and has been in place for at least one financial quarter. Our part of the business operates under Acme’s flagship name, so there is no possibility that a buyer ordering the product would not realize it is made by their new parent company. No, for whatever inscrutable reason, we have chosen to pay a distributor their markup for them to sell us our own product–without their ever touching the item, at that.

Clearly I am in the wrong business. I wrote an short e-mail to my boss pointing out this nonsense; I said we had an opportunity to drive an acquisition synergy.

It was a week for sarcastic e-mails.