Management Theater

Great managers can improve teams in meaningful ways: smoothing the workflow, selecting targets worth hitting, wisely managing budget and schedule, and working to align teams with organizational goals. We have fond memories of great managers, technical or otherwise, who led and mentored us, who helped us reach new plateaus of understanding and productivity.

We're not talking about those great managers today.

Instead, we'll discuss a particular form of management dysfunction often seen in development shops. Daniel Pink (in Drive) points out that programming shops are full of people who are motivated by the work and excited to make progress. Intrinsic motivation tends to be quite high, though exceptions exist (see Esther Derby's Stop Demotivating Me). Most shops face problems with procedure, organization, technological limits, overly ambitious schedules, and shortage of knowledge or practice. Less astute managers don't understand the problems in their teams, and misinterpret these as motivational issues. When the problem is technical, it does not help to attempt solving it through motivation.

You've probably been a witness to most of these. Just in case they're not obvious:
  • Begging: "Please, I just really need you to work harder to get this done. Just this one time."
  • Browbeating: "Stop your whining and get it done before I replace you with someone who gives a darn about their job!"
  • Cheerleading: "I have faith in you, you're the best! Go Team!"
  • Punative Reporting: "I want to see daily status reports! Twice daily!"
  • Publicity Stunts: "I want every last one of us in this meeting. We need a show of force!"
Such motivational tactics tend to be ineffective. To people struggling with difficult organizational and/or technical problems, emotional appeals seem to be a kind of buffoonery. Of course, if the team succeeds despite the management theater, it merely strengthens the causal connection in the manager's mind. By simply not failing, the team locks their manager into a pattern that ensures that all future crises will be met with emotional and ineffective responses.

We should not be asking how to make managers behave. We should be asking what a team can do to ensure that a manager can provide effective servant leadership. Management theater is not a manager's first choice of action, but rather a tactic of last resource. When a manager does not have sufficient information or timely opportunity to be effective, she must use whatever ethical means remain. Management theater is, therefore, primarily a process smell not of management but of the development team.


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