Are managers evil?

Managers, they say, are often bad in the US, and in the world. And there is some justification for this. And, of course, most managers are not evil.  Although, like many of us, many might be badly trained.

Some background

Peter Drucker worked on this problem of managing.  W. Edwards Deming had his ideas, and worked on this.  And many, many business gurus have had their say, trying to improve the managers or managing.  On the other hand, in the agile community a bunch of people feel managers are evil.

Maybe that is an exaggeration, but not much.  Maybe most of them will not say ‘all managers are evil.’  But in general, they talk a lot about how evil managers are.

Of course I think that virtually all managers are not evil (although if there is evil, then surely a few managers are evil). More importantly, this talk of managers being evil is not helpful.

Equally, it is truly harmful to think of the workers as bad, lazy, or evil. (Again, yes, surely some workers are ‘bad’…but we do not design business systems mainly to address the few bad people.)

But, let us stay with the managers today.

Managers Today

Yes, there are many managers who do not manage well. And some may even manage in a negative or bad way.

I think the main reason is that they have been badly taught.  No one has taught them, or they have wrongly learned.  For example, they have learned that it is useful to be a command-and-control manager.  We (society) have tempted them with ego rewards of various sorts, and many have succumbed.  And it was taught as ‘the right way,’ and it was all that they were taught.

There is, for some of them, and for some of us, the notion that no one can correct a manager. At least no one who reports to that manager.  This also is an un-helpful notion.

So, to replace the old notions, we offer a few suggestions:

  • managing people is very hard, and probably requires a variety of different skills depending on the situation and the people involved.  Our managers need to be properly equipped and typically (I think) are not now.
  • hierarchy and power are probably not that helpful, at least in most situations where you have knowledge workers. Minimize hierarchy and power.
  • with knowledge work, knowledge creation and motivation are quite important. Perhaps yet another reason to look for a different kind of manager (than seemed perfectly appropriate when managing manual workers).
  • we speak of leadership, and some say that we need no managers, only leaders. Certainly leaders who lead us in the right direction and do it well are rare.  We need more of them; more people like Steve Jobs, we might say.  However, I think we still need managers too.

So, I have implied a lot of change, in general, for most managers, if they are to manage well in lean-agile.

We are in the process of changing the management culture throughout the world. This will be a long conversation. There are so many dimensions. We need to talk and fight and argue about how to manage better. If you briefly let me over-simplify people into managers and knowledge workers, then I say the workers are very much part of this discussion also.

But calling one side ‘evil’ is not helpful.


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7 thoughts on “Are managers evil?

  1. John Miller

    Great post. I have thought a lot about this recently. I was not an evil manager, but, I was definitely operating out of a command and control paradigm. I seeked knowledge to be a better manager and mastering my field by getting the PMP and ITIL certs. Not until I discovered and converted to Agile did I not really start becoming a great manager. Agile is the only approach that integrates a value system with the framework, and is transformative in nature. It aligns the theories and values with exactly what you do on a daily basis. With the right training and perspective, it can make managers great.

  2. Dave McNulla

    I have also been a manager (and worked for quite a few). The agile community is probably basing their opinion on management decisions. Management decisions are usually not made with agile ecosystem in mind because most have no idea what agile is (I have asked managers to name one thing in the Agile Manifesto or supporting principles – they never can). Until managers stop thinking of agile as a technique, this will not change.

    I have also witnessed managers that care more about their career than the customer. It's a case of ambition clouding their sight.

    Of course I am thinking in generalities here, for the agile community and for the managers.

  3. Paul D

    I don't know if you know the book 'Illusions'. It's just a nice little story, but there is a great definition of evil in there. It says evil is simply a measure of the amount of time it takes to become good. So, just to be provocative, and I guess a bit tongue in cheek, I'd say using that definition, a high proportion of managers are evil.
    Management trainers exist in abundance because there is such a demand. And why is there such a demand? Because a lot of people need a lot of training.
    Some managers seek training because they want to become good, some take the opportunity if it arises, some have to turn up because their company requires it, some do it to get out the office. And those are only the ones that actually seek out training, there are probably 3 times as many need training as gets it.
    So if not what we generally call evil, lets just say there are a lot of managers out there who are a long time off becoming good.

  4. Sannette Coetzee

    Hello Joe, I used to be a developer but at that the notion of project manger's was still rather new and we had none in the company. I become one at the same company and have to agree with John Miller that since we started doing agile it opened up doors in terms of communication and understanding.

    I believe in close relationships and a very supportive environment and had many a very enjoyable projects. Moving around as contractor has made me aware that in general developers see managers as a blocker. This was until you make them part of the process and gain their trust, easier said than done but a lot of enthusiasm and passion helps.

    On the flip side I have recently worked with a manager that did not know how to lead and understand the decisions being made. It concerns me that some managers does not want to get their hands dirty, commit to the team and product and really get to grips with the project.

    A good manager has to lead from the front and have a tremendous passion to drive the team.

  5. Joe Little

    Well said.

    I will add this, as a minor comment. I used to think there were was a clear right and a clear wrong way to lead or to manage (or both). I no longer think that. I think that people are much more complex, and how you (as a leader or manager) work with one group is not how you work with another group. Although two or three groups (teams) in a row may be roughly the same.

    Still, I agree that the good ideas you suggested are good and the bad ideas bad.


  6. Joe Little

    Hi Paul D,

    Umm. Well, my POV is like yours, that none of us are good enough. ie, that the scale from extreme bad to extreme good is quite long. And none of us mortals is anywhere close to perfection. So we may all say "and forgive us our trespasses" quite honestly.

    Still, there is a badness and a bad intention for which I reserve the human word evil. I do think evil requires bad intention as well, not just bad action. (In God's view, perhaps evil begets good, and so is useful, and in some sense no longer evil. But I am not so wise as to really understand this POV.)

    Colleagues say that some managers are so bad, they must be evil to allow themselves to continue to be bad. But having been stupid myself for long long periods of time (probably including now on some subjects), I want to not call them evil. And to forgive them. But this does not mean we should not call the kettle black, if it have a black badness. And call it loudly. But our attitude is different if we have compassion. We tend to say it more gently, and actually it tends to be heard better. Or so I think.


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