Management culture and how to avoid it

No doubt about the suits

From my book, "The Good Manager."

Whoever decided management was some sort of cosmetic exercise didn’t do the world many favors. Management By Brand Names hasn’t been a sparkling success, by any standards. I have actually heard accounts of people in management covens, or whatever these gabfests are called, spending their time discussing hairstyles, suit labels, and shoes. Other vital topics in this revelation included where to get nice briefcases and accessories.

That would cost about $2000 an hour, in a room of about 8 people. For that $2000, you could hire a temp to take off some of the load somewhere for a month. It’s also just possible that these poignant observations could wait until lunch, or until hell freezes over.

If it were me managing these clowns, the next comment would be something delicate about where they pick up their paychecks on the way to the welfare office. They’d also be docked for the wasted time.

Superficiality is not an asset in management. Presentation has its moments of relevance, but content and quality of management performance are the real cultural issues.

The cosmetic element in management has slobbered downstream to the workplace in Dress For Success, Selling Yourself, and other sniveling efforts at proving talent.

It’d be interesting to find out who decided to believe all this guff. Dress Like You Know How To Dress Yourself Without Using Farm Equipment would do. Nobody “sells themselves”. At most, they sell the skills they’re prepared to allow you to pay them for, that they use on the job. Everything else is about what they can get out of a job.

Then there’s the Management Ethos, that happy little contradiction in terms. Real managers, those who’ve somehow dragged themselves away from the fashion parades, do have an ethos, but it’s the pragmatic version. It’s invariably an ethos they’re likely to survive, not a myth.

A mystique has arisen around management which is as ludicrous as it is impractical. The Dynamic Executive, the Hands On Manager, there’s folklore in vast amounts. Real managers, if they have the time for adjectives, can find better things to do with it than waste it on describing themselves.

The class and status imagery of management is another absurdity, and a major irritant to most people confronted with it.

Despite many seminars to the contrary, pomposity and conceit aren’t great social skills. Well, not with mammals, anyway.

Why the imagery?

To make up for the lack of substance. Part of the market image of management is essentially pure sales pitch.

The Executive, that wonderful, high living ideal of a free spending, self important consumer who doesn’t know how to cost a biro and has the intelligence of a lemming post-cliff, doesn’t actually exist outside the idiom.

Of course you need a $5 million watch. How could you possibly live without a mortgage that would kill any elephant? You’re big enough to drive seven cars at once, while, of course, flying a plane. What? You don’t own your own island? You caveman, you.

Even the husband or wife will be custom made from the original plasticine, and used to be somebody, once.

To some people the trappings of success are real symbols, to others they’re a result of peer pressure.

Pitiful as both cases are, what they aren’t are real measures of success. 

The inferior person always has to prove superiority. There, in a rather garish global oversupply of proof, we have the real reason for the external manifestations of management culture. 

Unfortunately for business, this sort of tacky grandeur is pretty easy to sell to those who don’t know any better. Some brains can’t handle a job and an image at the same time, and it eventually shows. 

The psychological version of management culture is equally banal, and it’s there for much the same reason.

This is where the cracks really become impressive. Many of the psychological approaches are ego-fodder, and when you’re providing them to starving people, the receptivity is naturally high. This is Junk Food For The Soul, and the poor shriveled souls think it’s actual nutrition.

There’s nobody more vulnerable than an insecure person, and in the bitchy, ultra-competitive, political, management culture nearly everybody’s insecure to some degree. Arguably worse is the fact that many of the younger people think it’s normal, and they begin to get addicted to it. They may wind up as adults needing all this constant reassurance. If they grow up.

The other built-in murderer of any sense of proportion or personal perspective is that all these things are done in peer groups. The Group, which has a default intellectual setting to its lowest level of intelligence, becomes a working part of the social machinery.

A peer group is a set of compromises. It’s created by its members to work as a de facto society. In the workplace, peer groups are simple social functions, but they can become complex in some environments. They can also be destructive.

All those compromises can make insecure people feel a lot less secure. Socially weaker members of peer groups are at a serious disadvantage, and they become more disadvantaged with each new role or function in a peer group. Send them off to a management camp for a weekend and what may return may barely qualify as toilet paper, let alone a human being.

In a real social environment these peer groups exist naturally from 9 to 5 or whenever the people have to be in the same room. But in any artificial environment like management culture, they’re more like Petrie dishes. There’s no way out, and no off switch, and that phenomenon is pretty prevalent in many management groups.

This is an almost entirely destructive process. Management has a unique ability to create clashes among its members. Non-managerial jobs don’t have to turn into debates, or serious personal rivalries. Nor do they turn into the sort of career events which give therapists such a good income for decades later.

The Good Manager has quite a few good methods for dealing with these sickly aspects of management culture:

  1. Talent. The Good Manager is a bit too good to challenge directly in a peer group in terms of their own skills.
  2. Intelligence. The same applies to any sort of intellectual challenge. People do not go out of their way to start a debate knowing they’ll probably lose badly.  
  3. Poise. Seeing no need for status symbols, and not needing any to prove their value, Good Managers will make a point of being relatively low key, to show up flashy colleagues. They make their point very effectively, even to the sort of insensitive, thoughtless human bricks in modern management.
  4. Communications. If necessary, and it usually isn’t, the Good Manager can tie people in knots with a simple question. They can’t be out-communicated. They tend to dictate ideas. That effectively destroys the lowest common denominator approach, and undercuts the bull. Strangely, not many Good Managers get invited back to groups.
  5. Evasion. The Good Manager will avoid unnecessary, half baked management groups as a routine thing, and make it sound like they’re doing The Group a favor, which in some ways they are. After the Communications phase, The Group will want to leave things that way.

The fact is that management culture is little or no use to a Good Manager. It’s an artificial environment, and a pretty useless, expensive, method of creating exactly the sort of tensions in the real management culture that the Good Manager is actively trying to avoid for purely business reasons.

Nor does the Good Manager want to expose their protégés to that sort of environment. They’ll need those people exactly whenever there’s any danger of that happening. They don’t need a Reassurance Addict for a subordinate. Still less do they need someone who’s going to be turned into a jelly by a peer group.

At most levels of management, Good Managers will actively block any form of cultural orientation to their managers which they consider destructive.

They’re not anti-training, or antisocial, quite the opposite, they’re among the greatest exponents of training, in particular. Their opposition to management culture “science” comes from a value judgment, and they’re usually right.

Not all management science is total bull, but a lot of it is very badly done, and many good ideas are seriously misinterpreted. Things like “synergy” are perfectly valid, but when translated into a Tower of Babel in a log cabin, they don’t mean the same thing. There’s a smell of locker room, and it lingers.

There’s a practical issue, too. When letting the hair down, how that’s done, and with whom, is always relevant in any management structure. It’s quite possible to obliterate important relationships in an external environment in ways which wouldn’t occur to those parties in the work environment.

The Good Manager simply does not give a damn about any form of cosmetic management. They don’t work for Avon or Maybelline, and they’re prepared to admit it.

They’ll be scrupulous about rewarding and acknowledging actual achievements, but don’t expect them to start a Lap Dog of the Month Club.

It hasn’t occurred to them that their managerial role is supposed to be a work of fiction, and it never will.

Management culture can learn a lot from the Good Managers.

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Comments 1 comment

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

That was an interesting view into a complete different subject. Thank you for sharing.

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