Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 2/5/2004
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Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers
Can Poison the Well
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Every year, the results of contests on “The Worst Bosses of The
Year” are published, and it never ceases to amaze me how truly badly some
people “mis-manage” others. I
wish it could be said that things in engineering are different from the rest
of the world, but, alas, that is not true.
Engineering organizations have more than their fair share of horrendous
There is, however, a difference in the impact of
bad managers on engineering organizations from that on some other types of
organizations. Since the managers
in engineering organizations “manage” engineers, and engineers are really
different from other people (see eN-031106 –
Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Engineers), bad
engineering managers can truly poison the well in an engineering organization
and virtually destroy the morale and effectiveness of that organization.
Further, since engineers (at least until recently) tend to be in higher
demand and are able to bring their skills more readily to other companies
without such bad managers, companies with bad managers tend to lose their
engineers, and with their loss, the intellectual knowledge and strength of the
organization goes out the door with them.
With bad engineering management, the best and brightest engineers are
typically the first to go, because they simply refuse to put up with the
garbage that bad managers hand them. They
know they will be in high demand elsewhere.
So, since good and effective Managers are truly critical to engineering
organizations, the Managers of those Managers must clearly recognize this,
right? One would certainly think
so, but this is often not the case. How, then, do Mis-Managers find their way into the
leadership and managerial roles in engineering organizations?
The blame for this can most directly be placed on the Manager’s Managers
(and their Managers), as these are the folks who make the decisions to promote
people to management positions. Most typically, a strong technical contributor is recognized
for his/her exceptional performance as an individual contributor or team
leader by being promoted to a Manager position.
This moves such people from a technical career track, where they excel,
to a managerial career track, where they may or may not belong.
Some people, while technically brilliant, are simply not cut out to
manage others. Another approach
may be to promote a non-engineer with supposed “people skills” to
manage a group of engineers, only for them to find that engineers are indeed
really different from other people. In
some cases, such decisions may be very good and the person promoted performs
well in managing the activities of others. In other cases, this results in the Peter Principle, where a
person is promoted up to “their level of incompetence”.
When it is realized that a Manager has “reached his/her level of
incompetence”, most often little or nothing is done, as there is a great
reluctance to demote that person because such a move reflects badly on those
who recommended the promotion in the first place, and they don’t want to
admit any failure on their part.
Further, it is often difficult for the Manager’s Managers to
recognize this incompetence, because they have an entirely different view of
this Manager than the Manager’s subordinates.
Think of the Manager as a sailboat sailing on the ocean.
The Manager’s bosses tend to see the Manager from above, as a
beautiful sailing craft with polished brass hardware, gleaming decks, and
billowing sails sailing in a pristine sea. Whatever flaws the sailboat (the Manager) may have, they are
not at all evident.
Now consider the view of the subordinates.
They see the Manager from below (from below deck or from under the
water). In some cases (good
managers), this view may also be very good, with a clean and well-cared-for
boat interior and a hull with no obvious defects.
In other cases (bad managers), this view may be one of a disorganized,
unkempt boat interior, or an algae-coated, barnacle-encrusted hull that can
slice you badly if you approach it the wrong way, with fuel, oil, and other
effluents leaking into and polluting your waters.
Obviously, the views from above and from below can be very different.
When a Mis-Manager is put in place, the effects are most often
disastrous. Engineers may be
over-managed, under-managed, or not managed at all.
Strong individual and group performances may be unrecognized, or even
punished. The Mis-Manager
may claim credit for the work of others.
All manner of bad behavior may occur which will result in the potential
destruction of the efforts, value, and knowledge of the team.
If not corrected, this poisons not only the group of this Mis-Manager,
but the entire engineering organization and potentially the entire company.
In the next few e-Newsletters, we will do for Mis-Managers what we
recently did for Engineers in the Herding Cats series.
We will examine the characteristics of some specific Mis-Manager
personality types, and will talk about the best Employee Approach – that is,
how Employees can best cope with such people, recognizing that these Mis-Managers
control their destiny. As with
the engineer personality types, these will be purposefully exaggerated to make
a point. Effective management of
an engineering organization is a team effort that is greatly influenced by the
Engineers and the Managers. Groups
and Managers cannot be successful without each other, and that means coping
with and dealing effectively with a variety of issues and a variety of people.
Clearly, however, Mis-Managers can badly poison the well, and
destroy a company in the process.
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