Monday, October 10, 2016

Don't trust me, I am a manager

Management is part science, part art. The remaining eight parts is deception. It is similar to astrology in this regard. Oh no, I can hear you gasp, astrologists are different. They suck poor people’s blood, not poor in a literal sense, but people who believe in medieval superstitions refuted by science decades ago. I wonder if there is any serious research on the effectiveness of management in general. There are researches that compare management styles and approaches, a number of business magazines (the shiny version of tabloids printed on more expensive paper) publish articles on the most successful managers of the year, of the century, of human race. But the higher price of a business magazine doesn't make it different from astrology.

Managers claim the company would collapse if it were not for them. No surprise this is what they say, no one in her right mind would say, “my job is useless, it produces no value, but luckily there are enough people around whom I can talk into paying me.” It would be a financial suicide to make such a statement, at least in the public. We don’t know what managers tell each other when they are having fun at a pretentious restaurant. Part of their fun may be how successfully they deceived their employees and employer. The higher on the rank, the more sure managers are about their necessity.

When you start to work for a company or start a career in management, you don’t understand what is going on. You feel inferior, you ask for advice, you rely on your more experienced peers and supervisor. You read books and go to trainings to improve, but you don’t feel a tremendous leap in your progress. In those dark moments of despair you should recall management is like astrology. For astrology you need elementary knowledge of how planets move, that stars are not little lamps nailed on the crystal firmament. You need basic psychology to talk with your customers, to gauge what kind of people they are and what they want to hear. You can improve your knowledge by enrolling to an astronomy or psychology class at the nearest college, but it will not help much after a certain point, because you can’t predict a person’s future. You can make certain predictions, a single mother possibly wants to re-marry, an old trader is probably closer to death than his young mistress. But other than that common sense, no amount of knowledge about the orbit of the Mars will improve your predictions. In a similar vein, managers can’t improve after a certain point, because it is based on a pseudo-science (and pseudo-art) too.

Don’t get me wrong, astrologist and managers are usually well-intentioned folks, they don’t want to deceive anybody. It would be pretty difficult for them to live a life of an impostor, they have to be convinced how beneficial their contribution is. When you meet an astrologist, you don’t want to engage in an argument with her about the usefulness of her profession. You may want to challenge her, but chances are, she will not break into tears that she has wasted so many years on such a valueless vocation. Similarly, when you enter the office, don’t challenge the importance of managers. If you want to navigate in the murky waters of office life, just nod your head and learn the rituals of the tribe. Just don’t take them too seriously. When they dance in the morning to wake up the sun, join the circle, swing your hip with them, but don’t let it lull into thinking it has any relation to the sun rising.

What keeps this whole mechanism working? The ancient motives of humanity: fear and uncertainty. We don’t understand the world around us, we have no clue about the forces of the universe that affect our lives most. We have deep technical knowledge about some mundane details that don’t matter, we know the names of great baseball or football players, we know how to switch on the light and send a message on Facebook, but we don’t even know how Facebook works, how our typing on a keyboard is transformed to a piece of text, how it travels to a far-away country. We have absolutely no idea about the ranking algorithm of messages on your Facebook wall which is still a minor detail in the greater texture of life. We have even less clue about what really matters: how to live a happy life, how to have a meaningful relationship, how to live in peace with others.

We are uncertain about the world around us, we are even more uncertain about our future. We wish there were somebody to comfort us! Oh, mommy, give me a hug, I had a bad dream of a monster, I am so afraid. And mommy came when we were children and she gave us a hug and it made the worst fears go away. We are adults now with the same squeaky voice inside us, but there is no mommy to come to the rescue. Even if she came and told us the old stories that used to be so soothing, it would not work anymore, because we don’t believe in tales. We need someone else with more credibility. They are the experts and the managers. We need them instead of mommy and daddy.

When mommy said, “no worries, this is just a little cough, you will be fine in a day”, she didn’t know it, she just made something up. Even doctors are wrong 30 percent of the time, let alone poor mothers with no medical background. It gave us comfort even when it took three days for the cough to go away. Experts and managers are no different. All they have to do is sound confident and they have to tell us a tale, because we actually believe in tales, if they are tailored for adults, elaborate and convincing tales with numbers, charts, and greek phrases. I just heard a manager the other day, he projected a slide with three data points, the sales figures of three months, and he told us about the growth tendency he saw. He said it to an audience of smart people who pointed out that three data points is nothing, you can fit any curve on them, you can whatever you fancy. He said it was a valid point, then continued with his story, “ok, it’s not for sure, but I find this trend interesting.” Numbers and charts, and greek phrases.

We are uncertain as employees, we love to have a confident boss who can tell us what to do. We have dignity too, we rebel against too bossy managers, we are grown-ups, hey, let us do the work our way. But when the going gets tough, we need daddy to take care of the mess we got into, oh, daddy, come and give us a hug. Ironically being a manager is the same, we are expected to know things we don’t know, we are expected to do things we have never done before, we have no idea how to do. But boys don’t show their weaknesses, boys don’t cry. We sit down and watch two Clint Eastwood movies in a row to numb our nervous system to the point that we can radiate confidence to our trembling underlings. There are some phrases banned in modern offices, such as “I don’t know” and “I can’t”. Pull yourself together, dude, and show some can-do attitude.

Humans have devised many ways to deal with uncertainty, we have a long history of rituals to make the world a safer place than it actually is. We had ceremonies to please the angry God, we carved protective signs in the marble, we murmured incantations in dead languages, we even sacrificed humans if that was the request of God. The tools changed, but the rituals remained the same. Now we use numbers, charts, and greek phrases projected on the screen. We sacrifice humans too, we just call it layoff (and I don’t want to go into the bigger scale political variants of human sacrifice). Of course, we think we are different, we look back at the dark centuries before us and laugh hard how primitive our ancestors were, but now we know the proven scientific method how to overcome the uncertainties our ancestors failed with. Our great-grandfathers and -mothers laughed just as hard at the dark ages before them. We can see our stupidity only in retrospect.

Managers have a good intention, they think they are a necessary part of the system. If you remove them, you have to make sure to handle the mountains of uncertainty added up by the little brown piles every one of us carries in his or her pant. There was a great king who ruled over millions of people and thousands of acres of land. He had a court astrologist whom he consulted before difficult diplomatic decisions or before entering a war. His empire kept growing. Then one day the astrologist was gone. Nobody knew what happened to the poor guy, some suspected he was kidnapped by the king’s greatest enemy. The royal PR commented the story as a step to the modern ages when the enlightened few realize astrology is a superstition of the past. That was the day when the empire started to decline and it fell apart in a year. Does this story prove astrology is a powerful tool to lead a country? I don’t think so. That astrologist had good coaching skills disguised in zodiac signs, he gave emotional support to the king, he asked questions the ministers were afraid to ask. Management may be the superstition of the twentieth century, but be careful when you get rid of managers. You have to replace them with a new magic. Or better yet, face the uncertainty of life.

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