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Posted on: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Have you ever had a discussion with your manager where you felt that there was something wrong?

On the face of it, things are normal and you guys are just having, what can be classified as, a difference of opinion; but somewhere at the back of your mind; it feels like you're being pressured to give in and accept what you are being told to do without any further discussion. You've not been given a direct order or asked to shut up. On the face of it, things look like you're just having a 'logical discussion' except one tiny little problem; you don't feel like saying much or even presenting your point. Maybe it's just you; or maybe it's your managers body language. 

 

At Multiplitaxion Inc, during my early management days, while working at one of our client's place, we stumbled upon a couple of individuals who were basically monkeys needing to be sedated or removed from the project. When I walked into the cabin of one of one of their Vice Presidents something told me that things would not work out.  After quite a bit of soul searching, convincing myself and telling myself that I was just being paranoid I decided to have the meeting with him anyways.

What followed was a free lesson of management with nuggets of wisdom on how to increase efficiency of team members, how some people need to be 'managed', some people don't need to be managed, how some people cannot work without the pressure of a deadline, how a strong process or documentation can make some people work harder and how I need to pay a much more proactive role at keeping people under pressure. Put simply, I was being told to follow up with disinterested paycheck programmers much more frequently and get them to work by keeping on top of the status of their tasks.

To give due credit to this gentleman what he was saying may not have been outright stupid, but that wasn't my fundamental problem. My fundamental problem was this; the free lecture on management had started even before I had completed explaining my problem. I had been cut off and the nuggets of wisdom, often found in chapter-one-of-any-management-book-out-there were being thrown at me in no particular sequence. After wasting two hours of my already busy day I walked out of the cabin. During these two hours I wasn't even given a decent chance to explain my problem, leave aside expecting some help on it.

For the first thirty minutes as I heard him go on and on about how some people need motivation and how I should try to motivate these individuals rather than removing them from the project, there was a very soft gentle whisper deep down in my head. I couldn't quite hear what it said, but something seemed wrong.

I continued listening; and opening my mouth every now and then, under the expectation that I would be allowed to speak. soon. For every-thing that I said, I was being cut off, asked for facts, numbers, matrices and then I was being scrutinized to see if I had tried hard enough to 'monitor' these guys. After some time if felt like a police investigation to check if I had followed proper 'management processes'. 

Then as he moved on, about how I should objectively assess individuals based on their technical qualifications and how penalizing them for their laziness was a part of my job, the whispers only went louder. After I while I knew and I could say it to myself; confidently; and then I finally did it. I told myself - 'this guy is a prick'.

During my next six months in the project, as I spent more time with the rest of the client team in the project I learnt how this individual had a reputation of being an asshole. This guy, who for the purposes of this post, we shall refer to as Fred, had been give names ranging from 'The Mafia' to 'The Undertaker'; by his team. Each of these names had an interesting supporting story that the team would be more than happy to share with you at length over lunch if you cared to mention this individual's name.

At times I did feel sorry for Fred though. He was neither aware of his multiple names existing nor did he remember any of these stories which he had himself been a part of. I'm sure Fred felt that he had done an amazing job at motivating his team; just like he felt he had motivated me by teaching me how to 'manage' my team when I walked out of his cabin. I was of-course, utterly confused and intimidated by his indirect interrogation and body-language. If there was anything about management I learnt that day, from that meeting, it was that prickdom works on stealth. If you are an asshole or have acted like one in an isolated event, chances are, that you don't even know you are one.

Are you a Micro-Manager? Are you encouraging prickdom and creating Micro Management Zombies?

If you are reading this chances are high that you shook your head hard and said - 'Who me? Heck, no way!' - and you probably did it as soon as you heard the question.

Being fair to the question however, requires some solid soul searching and some serious conscious effort because if you happen to be a Micro-Manager, an asshole or a prick, chances are you don't even know it.

Kathy Sierra provides a sensible litmus test to figure out if you are a Micro-Manager or in danger of becoming one:

Do you have a micromanager? Or are you a micromanager? If you demonstrate any of these seemingly admirable qualities, there's a big clue that you might be making zombies.

1) Do you pride yourself on being "on top of" the projects or your direct reports? Do you have a solid grasp of the details of every project?

2) Do you believe that you could perform most of the tasks of your direct reports, and potentially do a better job?

3) Do you pride yourself on frequent communication with your employees? Does that communication include asking them for detailed status reports and updates?

4) Do you believe that being a manager means that you have more knowledge and skills than your employees, and thus are better equipped to make decisions?

5) Do you believe that you care about things (quality, deadlines, etc.) more than your employees?

Answering even a weak "yes" to any one of these might mean you either are--or are in danger of becoming--a micromanager. And once you go down that road, it's tough to return. A quote from Dune (can't remember exactly) applies here, and goes something like:
"Be careful of every order you give. Once you give an order on a particular topic, you are responsible for always giving orders on that topic." 

The questions provide a very good litmus test to begin with, but not being a micro-manager and not being an asshole requires constant checks at each step of your life. It is a way of life that needs discipline, commitment and above all a thick-skin to accept your fault and apologize when you act like a jerk.

Success-Factors CEO Lars Dalgaard has a particularly interesting CNBC feature on this on topic. The interview ends with a funny but rather profound note:

Dalgaard says - 'it takes one to know one' - and he says he sees on in the mirror about ten times a day; but when he acts like a jerk; and we all do once in a while; Dalgaard says he tries to immediately apologize; Becky & Lissie says he had to apologize just about forty minutes before our interview.   

We all act like jerks once in a while. If you don't believe me, pause and look back at your life. Chances are, you'll easily spot a couple of incidents where you may have acted like one too. If you can't think of any such incidents, you might be acting like one right now; unknowingly. What sounds obvious and is the title for the first chapter of Michael Loop's book, is often not missed out by most people.

What separates a thick-skinned-life-long-learner from a certified asshole is the relentless ability to question yourself; answer the question honestly; apologize when you make mistakes and move on with a persistent desire to change. The trick is to, slowly evolve and morph into a better manager and much more importantly, a better human being, with every passing day.

It is with this spirit that we start a series of posts with an attempt to, every now and then, bring from the real life battlefields of software development, stories that will help you constantly ask yourself the important questions; Are you an asshole? Are you starting to take your first steps on the path of prickdom through micro-management?

Your direct reports or colleagues may indulge in mitigated speech; they may not be able to break the bad news to you as easily as you think they should; but I do hope that the stories or incidents will hopefully help you (and me) pause, step back, realize and recover, before it's too late to turn around. After all, you might be walking the path of prickdom through micro-management and you may not even know it.