Management Osmosis Hallway Guy

Secret Titles

What do you do? Seriously, on your business card there is a title. Say it out loud.

  • “Senior Manager of Engineering”
  • “Industrial Data Analyst”
  • “Human Factors Specialist”

Is that what you actually do? Try this: think about the last four hours of your job and give yourself a title. Mine would be “Sr. Meeting Wrangler” or perhaps “Guy Who Listens”. Last week it would’ve been “White Board Operator”.

When you graduated from college, when you got your first job in your chosen profession, did you think you’d be doing this? No. Whatever you thought you’d be doing when you looked forward to being an “Associate Software Engineer” is not what you ended up doing.

You’d think this title dissonance issue would be a problem. You’d think that the fact that what you thought you’d be doing has nothing to do with what you do would turn into angst, but it turns out, as long as everyone is clear what your secret title it is… we’re cool.

This is a piece on micromanagement.

In hell, there are two rooms with the Rands name on them. Room number one is a room where you are constantly nauseated. If you want to torture me, if you want to make my life miserable, get me sick to my stomach. I will do anything, including shoving my fingers down my throat, in order to get out of a nauseated state. I would rather you shove bamboo shoots under my fingernails than spend a night in bed about to throw up.

The other room contains a single person. This is the one guy who, in my fifteen years of management, attempted to micromanage me. The walls of this room are white boards covered with to do lists and at the top of each list is a poorly drawn picture of me… crying.

In my mind, the use of micromanagement techniques has exactly one goal. You want the target of your micromanagement to leave the building screaming. There is no good micromanagement approach because WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND would want to spent their day managing the minutiae of SOMEONE ELSE’S job.

For those of you who haven’t been micromanaged, here’s a short list of questions to figure out where your manager stands on the management spectrum:

  • When your boss asks you to do something, what level of detail does he use to describe his request?
  • Does your boss ask you questions regarding the task?
  • Once you’ve begun the task, how often does your boss follow up?
  • Do you feel the urge to check in with your boss whenever you are faced with a decision?
  • What is your boss’s reaction when you deviate from his prescribed means of making progress?

Micromanagers are managers who describe their requests in great detail, leaving little room for original thought. They devise endless checkpoints to determine that their plan is being followed which scares the individuals involved into vetting all decisions with their manager. When deviations from the plan do occur, the micromanager fucking loses it.

Can you imagine working in such a soulless environment? Can you see why this is my personal hell? It’s not just the utter lack of respect for co-workers; it’s the idea that the manager’s vision is infallible. My job as a manager is to move the group forward, but they choose the direction because THEY ARE DOING THE WORK.

I’m calming down now.

The common assessment of why someone is being micromanaged is, “Well, my manager doesn’t trust me”. That’s kind’a sort’a right, but the phrase is missing a key element. What is it that your manager doesn’t trust you to do? He doesn’t trust you to do your job because he doesn’t actually know what your secret title is. Chances are, he knows your official title, but the fundamental problem with micromanagers is that they don’t grok secret titles.

I inherited my micromanager via a re-org. My VP was leaving, and my development team was dispersed across the organization. I was dropped into this core technology group working on integration with an early version of Java. I was working for a first-time Director (uh oh) who had ten direct reports (crap) and the word in the hallway was that his project was shaky (screwed).

Our first 1-on-1 was scheduled at 9am on the first day I worked in the new group. He began with, “Rands, before you meet the team, I’d like to successfully fix 50 bugs in the code base and I’d like to be the code reviewer for each of your fixes. After that, let’s see about you and writing specifications.”

This was ten years ago, but what do you think my secret title was? Probably “Organic People Manager” or maybe “Osmosis Hallway Guy”. Anyone who regularly reads my stuff knows that my approach involves stumbling around the hallway asking people what the hell is going on. Yes, the new Director didn’t trust me, but, more importantly, he didn’t trust me to be what I’m actually good at, which is a “Osmosis Hallway Guy”.

A micromanager does not trust. That is correct, but, more importantly, they do not know. They do not have an impression… a profile of the person they are managing, so they ignore the person and focus on the tasks. This creates a terrific negative feedback loop where an employee becomes demoralized because they believe the manager doesn’t trust them, so they stop thinking and start waiting for the dim-witted, micromanaged cues from this emotionally inept manager who is waiting for… what? Hard work? Inspiration? What exactly did they do to create an environment of inspiration? The only inspired work that’s going on is the employee’s desperate search for a job where they’re going to be treated like a human being.

Yes, this pisses me off. Even hypothetically.

Fortunately for my situation, the company was crumbling around me, so the Director had his hands full poorly managing a series of layoffs. I escaped a month later for a start-up, swearing that if I ever saw this guy in a bar, I’d give him a drunken earful. I still scan the room each time I walk into a bar around Sunnyvale.

I’m going to try to save this article which turned into a rant by giving you three pieces of advice.

First, regarding new hires. Managers with new hires who are straight out of college often try micromanagement as means of molding new hires. This is a management sin. Yeah, I know they don’t know anything about anything, but there is a massive difference between teaching someone about their job and mandating their direction. If you believe that in the virgin career state that they can’t ask bright questions, you’ve forgotten what it means to learn. Think back to college, did you learn more in the lectures or in the lab with the teaching assistant? The lab, you say? Why? Simple, you can test your knowledge by asking questions.

Second, regarding Senior VPs. At some point of your career, you’re going to run into a VP of Engineering who randomly swoops into a development team and starts meddling with things. Get a pencil ready because I’m going to give you a piece of advice that I want you to write down and stick in your wallet.

All engineering managers miss building stuff.

Forget about whatever political intrigue brought this VP to your doorstep. He was a developer at some point and when he is meddling with your stuff, he is telling you, “I used to code and I miss it”. Once you’ve identified one of these repressed coding types, the solution is easy. Schedule a meeting once a week where you give him a demo. Don’t prepare for the demo, just bring whatever bits you’ve got and head over to the VPs office. Tell him, “This is what we did this week,” and this is the important part, “And what you do think?”

Yes, you’ve lost an hour a week, but these meetings don’t usually last more than a month. VPs have a full docket of stuff to do and once they’ve scratched their programming itch with your product, they’ll move on. Besides, you got some face time with the big boss. How can that hurt?

Third, and lastly, learn how to Say No. Another VP took a stab at micromanaging at a previous gig. It was a less dire situation than the first time because this guy was simply socially awkward. It took us a good two years to have a “How was your weekend?” conversation without odd pauses and stuttering.

In our first few weeks of 1-on-1, he tried some of the same moves as my first micromanager. I drove home after one of these meetings in a cold sweat. See, I loved the job which meant I had to figure out how to manage this guy. The weekend before our next meeting, I developed an early version of my communication template. When the 1-on-1 started, I didn’t give him a chance to say anything. It was 30 minutes of me listing off everything I knew about what was going on with my organization and my products and I did it in a very Rands-like people-focused tone.

I was showing this manager my secret title: “Guy who knows the people are the business”.

8 Responses

  1. Is it wrong that my current title is “Guy Who Reads RSS Feeds”?

  2. Croaker 18 years ago

    My secret title:

    “The guy who will fix it”

    It’s pretty well known around here… I’ll fix it, just leave with the problem and I’ll find a way around it and get back to you…

    My worst experience was with a micro-manager. Who tasked me to fix a problem. The problem was he required that I do it his way… with small incremental steps that he imposed and frequent check ins with him so he could tell me what next steps to take.

    He then mentioned after it was done that he could have done it just as fast and as well. (Obviously… I didn’t do anything on my own… I was just his puppet).

    I immediately switched groups… although his negative feedback ended up affecting my year end review.

    Great post Rands, you’ve nailed it.

  3. Official title: “Senior Software Engineer”

    Real title: “Guy who makes round pegs fit into square holes (with style)”

    OK, I added the “with style” part 😉

  4. Retrospector 18 years ago

    I’m “Re-word all the conversations such that everyone in the group knows what’s going on Guy”. I’m fortunate to not have a micromanagement environment here. The only time micro-anything happens around here is when something goes horribly wrong, and it’s time to step in and make sure it gets done with more than one set of eyes on the issue. Even then, it’s nothing like what you’re describing.

    I can sure picture a couple of my previous employers very clearly when reading your story though. It brings back a nice warm fuzzy knowing I’ve moved on to a better place.

  5. Margherite 18 years ago

    Most of the micromanagers I’ve encountered don’t know how to shoot a fish in a barrel .. totally clueless as to how to get what they want. Sometimes they are clueless about what they do want, except to get THEIR manager off their backs so they can get back to their crossword puzzle.

    What they tried to manage was the results of my efforts, especially when they didn’t understand the process or the tools. They were all technically incompetent and in a couple of cases, computer illiterate besides.

    Problem is .. they provoked my best passive-aggressive instincts. I sent one guy home screaming (played with the buffer on his dumb terminal so every time he tried to login, it cussed at him). I sent the computer-illiterate one into paranoid fits putting him on the mailing lists of all the schlock computer training programs I could find. They were too easy to jerk around. I had to find other jobs.

    The best way I know to deal with micromanagers is to ask them for an MS Project printout of their priorities for task sequence. That keeps them occupied and out of my cube, stalking someone else a little easier. Of course, a couple of them have terminated my contract for asking too many questions.

  6. JohnC 18 years ago

    Official Title

    Process Engineer

    Secret Title

    “And other duties as assigned by Management”

    Yep, that is what I do……

  7. Charles 18 years ago

    The nausea thing: find a wierd homeopathic named “Nux” or “Nux vomica”. When you take one of these sugar pills you will either throw up or stop feeling nausea. Works in about fifteen minutes.

  8. Joanne Edwards 18 years ago

    FINALLY…THANK YOU! Someone who understands the daily hell that I am currently experiencing.

    I walk around like a zombie in a morque, or an extra from Land of the Dead.

    After trying to cope with this Manager for 5 months, I have decided to take the out option and leave.