Management Theater.

I’ve only ever been in a managerial type position 3 times in my whole life, and 2 of those were at university. The first was for the most part a success due in most part to a solid team of people with one star member who was able to complete work in minutes that took the rest of us days. The second was overall a success but my role as a manager was completely and utterly useless and the project would have done much better if I had just not bothered trying to manage my 3 team members at all. Whilst you’d think an experience like that might have turned me off management entirely I still held aspirations of being a project manager some day, only to get into said position and leave it 6 months later. So whilst I may not have been anyone’s boss for an extended period of time I’ve had a taste of the managerial world, so I know when people are, how does the Internet put it, doing it wrong.

For the most part I’ve seen 2 types of managers in my time: those who rose from the ranks of their former colleagues to become the managers they are today and those who were somehow born into management positions, either from an outside company or via qualifications. The first tend to have a good grounding in what it is like for their underlings and are usually pretty attentive to their wants and needs. However they also usually lack any formal managerial skills and tend to be too involved in day to day matters to make them decent managers. The latter are usually better at being managers in the general sense (shielding their underlings from the workplace politics) but will have more trouble interfacing with those they are supposed to lead. It then follows that these kinds of managers aren’t as liked as their rise from the ranks counterparts (and forms the basis of the Pointy Haired Boss character in Dilbert). Overall neither one is inherently worse than the other, they’re just different faces of the same coin.

Despite how they came into their position of power managers at all levels engage in what I like to call management theater. Much like its cousin of security theater, which details security measures undertaken to give the feeling of security without actually increasing security, management theater is the practice in which a manager appears to be managing a group of people but realistically they’re not. The management function that they provide is in some way usurped from either below (I.E. underlings managing their own workloads and fighting their own political battles) or up above (another manager doing the managers job for them). Whilst most won’t engage holistically in this behaviour many will in some way engage in acts that appear to be managerial when in fact that are nothing but.

Take for instance a recent event at where I work. The process was designed to give all the underlings, from the lowest ranks to the just under executive management, a voice with which to communicate their concerns to the entire section. In essence it was a good idea but as always the implementation was extremely lacking. The whole event smacked of management theater as the managers spruiked the fact that the goals set out then would be implemented by management, giving the illusion that the underlings had some power over their current work situation. Here we are over 4 months later and I’ve yet to see one of the ideas actually gain any ground or any reports from management about how all the wonderful ideas gained from the junket are changing the way we do our day to day work. The whole exercise was a pointless waste of everyone’s time that was done as a management theater exercise to make it look like they wanted to do something about everyone’s grievances, when in fact they never had any intention of following through.

I wish I could say that this kind of malarky was limited just to government agencies but it was rampant in the private sector to. A great example of this was back in my days at Unisys we were canvased for an opportunity to become CITRIX administrators with the juicy part being that we’d get sent on week long training for it. Seeing how much of a benefit this would be to both my current position and future career I put my hand up, along with 3 other people. The training was good and I was all geared up to take on some more work as a CITRIX admin but instead they hired 2 specialists to fill the role, neatly negating the need for the training I had just went through.

The management theater performed in this case was then to do with the managers wanting to look good for our client, saying that when the new system was installed they’d have 4 able bodied people ready, willing and able to take control of it. However with the project budget big enough to cover off 2 specialists when the system was in use by less than a few hundred people having a team of 6 dedicated to it was woefully inefficient and thus we were never called on to do any CITRIX administration duties. As time went on our skills in the area began to fade to the point of irrelevancy and my manager scolded me for leaving after they had sunk so much cash into me, oblivious to the fact that I hadn’t used one bit of the training since I received it.

All these reasons have culminated in the realization that I probably won’t be happy until I’m working for the one person I can’t disagree with, myself. The last 6 months have seen me attempting to build an empire out of my own skills and for the most part I’m being successful. Time will tell if I can leave the work a day world completely but when I can easily lose a day working on my own projects I know I’m doing the right thing. I just hope it will be enough to keep the bills paid 😉

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Dave you make a grievous error thinking you can’t disagree with yourself. I disagree with myself all the time. It’s part of rational thinking, ensuring that what you are doing is being second guessed. ~ minor quibble.

    Great article though. I have seen this every place I have worked.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.