Why Management is Tough

by Krishna on March 4, 2007

I am a great fan of the Dilbert cartoon strip by Scott Adams. Its jokes closely resemble real-life dysfunctional organizational behavior, particularly on the part of managers. Stories of idiotic management decisions and poor managers are ubiquitous and the term “bad managers” is a cliché. But why so? A couple of important reasons why people are frustrated with and joke about poor management are

  1. The right decisions, which are not taken, seem so obvious, but are ignored by the managers.
  2. Managers never seem to accept their decision making mistakes or explain why they did it in the first place.

Of course, this is not restricted to business environments. For example, in sports, every game gets its post-mortem and the mistakes of the losing coach or captain are discussed and pilloried.

The question I want to discuss in this essay is this: On average, managers are likely to be more skilled, talented and educated than the people they manage. Yet, they make decisions that their subordinates can clearly see will lead to failure. Why do managers make them anyway? Here are some thoughts.

The most important problem is that there is no single right answer that applies to every situation. There are different techniques, tactics, strategies and methods available to managers, but their use depends on the particular situation faced. Many managers have pre-conceived notions of what must be done. They blindly apply what has worked for them in a previous situation only to be rudely disappointed.

Reality does not lend itself easily to silver bullets. For example, each employee is motivated differently — some by the work they do, others by wealth/charity, power/collaboration, prestige/community, jet-set/laid-back lifestyle, challenge/familiarity, etc. There may be many right decisions or even an assortment of small custom decisions.

Sometimes, managers do spend the time to carefully analyze the state of affairs. They use their theoretical knowledge, past experience and the feedback of subordinates and bosses to come up with a right decision. But that only reduces the possibility of failure, not guarantee success. This is not very visible to someone outside the decision-making process. (Think sports and Monday morning quarterbacks.)

Also, even if a manager does everything right to the best of her knowledge, she may still fail. There are many outside factors (economy, consumer preferences, support of external groups) that the manager has little control over. This is very difficult for some managers to accept. They treat any failure as a reflection of their capabilities and are discouraged to follow similar practices in future. But there will always be winners and losers in business and not always for the right reasons. For example, a small manufacturing company’s great product may be crushed by the brand name of a larger competitor’s poorer one.

Management involves hard choices. A manager has to choose strategies that can yield benefits both short-term and long-term. This was discussed by Jack Welch in his book “Winning” and a recent BusinessWeek column where he says that it is easy to do one or other, but it is tough to do both. Here is an excerpt:

… anyone can manage for the short term — just keep squeezing the lemon. And anyone can manage for the long — just keep dreaming. You were made leader because someone believed you could squeeze and dream at the same time. They saw in you a person with enough insight, experience, and rigor to balance the conflicting demands of short- and long-term results. Performing balancing acts every day is leadership.”

This is difficult for some managers to digest. They are unable to deal with more than a few variables at a time. They think everything has a simple and painless answer. For example, some managers find it really difficult to tell a non-performing employee about their shoddy work. Instead, they jump through all sort of obfuscation and hoops like creating elaborate processes and systems instead of just speaking a few words of truth. Yes, it is tough, but that is why you are there.

Finally, managers are human. I read this amazing blog post by Michael Wade where he attempts to show the sincere thoughts of a manager. Bad managers forget that managers can make mistakes like anyone else. They think they are infallible and don’t have the courage or sense of humor to laugh at themselves. They use deception to cover up their errors and feel ashamed when they fail.

Let go. Mistakes are an essential part of management. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t be worried about others seeing you fail. Try to learn from past experiences and look at the real reasons, including both inside yourself and outside factors. Over time, the sincerity will pay several-fold.

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