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 Effective Engineering e-Newsletter – 2/19/2004

This is your bi-weekly e-Newsletter from Effective Engineering Consulting Services (www.effectiveeng.com).  If you would like to receive Effective Engineering e-newsletters as they are published, please send an email to e-newsletter@effectiveeng.com, and we will add you to our distribution list.  Comments and suggestions are welcome and encouraged!


Mis-Managers: Employee Challenges 1
  By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [tdennis@effectiveeng.com]

In my last e-Newsletter (see eN-040205 – Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well), I raised the issue of Mis-Managers and the damage they can cause to not only their direct reports, but to the organization as a whole.  I also discussed how such Mis-Managers typically got promoted into their positions and “reached their level of incompetence”.  This e-Newsletter is the first in a series that will describe some specific Mis-Manager personality types, the ways they create problems, and some suggestions as to how employees can attempt to survive, and hopefully prosper, with such Mis-Managers.  The challenge of effectively dealing with Mis-Managers can be daunting, as they typically determine (or significantly influence) their Employees futures.  As with my Herding Cats series of e-Newsletters (see eN-031106, eN-031120, eN-031204, eN-031218, eN-040108, eN-040122), which discuss Engineer personality types, I purposefully describe characteristics that are more extreme, and that concentrate on one specific attribute, than will normally be the case.  Clearly every Manager (and Mis-Manager) is an individual with characteristics that are unique, and most have a variety of personality characteristics.  Every situation is also unique and should be treated in a unique fashion.  The suggestions that I make for approaching a Mis-Manager are just one person’s view – mine.  Given the position of power that a Mis-Manager may occupy, think carefully about your best approach.

The Janus  (named after the two-faced Roman god):
The Challenge:  In first e-Newsletter of this Mis-Manager series (see eN-040205), using the analogy of a sailboat on the ocean, I described the fact that management’s and subordinates’ views of a Manager are very different.  A Janus type of Mis-Manager actually reflects these differences back to these two audiences.  To his/her bosses, Janus reflects all the positive things he is doing to make his group and the company better.  All successes are the direct result of Janus’ superb management and/or technical skills, and he/she deserves all of the credit; his/her subordinates don’t really matter or even exist.  Any problems are hidden, minimized, or polished over, and Janus is fully in command.  If any problems should bubble to surface to become visible to the bosses, Janus will deflect any and all blame to his subordinates, and will promise to use his/her exceptional management skills to quickly correct the problems.  To his/her subordinates, Janus claims that he/she is portraying them to his bosses exceptionally well, and that they are all highly regarded by those bosses.  At the same time, any problems that are occurring are directly the subordinates’ fault, and must be rapidly corrected to maintain this high regard.  Consequently, the bosses never really see Janus’ subordinates or the value they provide (except when problems become visible), the subordinates think they are being well represented, while they are not being represented at all (except negatively), and Janus gets all of the glory and none of the criticism.

The Employee Approach:  First, employees must recognize that they’re being misrepresented (or un-represented).  This generally comes indirectly from others who recognize what’s going on.  Once they know, employees can begin to act.  They should directly approach Janus to ask him/her why they are being misrepresented.  Janus will often back down once confronted.  They should try to get someone in the group to attend some of the meetings between Janus and his/her bosses.  It’s much harder for Janus to misrepresent his/her people when one or more are there.  They should ask if one of them could present directly to the bosses, making evident their contributions.  If there are some major problems going unreported, they should find a way to make them known, through status reports, project reviews, or other means.  If they became aware of the situation through one of Janus’ peers, then they should approach that peer and get his/her suggestions on how best to correct the situation.  If one of the subordinates knows one of Janus’ bosses, they may approach that boss, recognizing that going around Janus could backfire. Still, all they are really asking is for visibility.  They are willing to accept responsibility for problems, but they would also like recognition for successes.

Old Yeller (with the emphasis on YELL!):
The Challenge:  The philosophy of an Old Yeller seems to be, “If you can’t be right, then be wrong at the top of your voice!  Typically, Old Yeller comes into a management position from a non-technical route, supposedly brought in for his/her “people skills”.  Consequently, this person is put in charge of technology projects, but doesn’t really understand the underlying technology or the complexities and nuances of such projects; typically he/she is in way over his/her head.  Old Yeller seems to yell at subordinates all the time, often for reasons that are unfathomable to the person being yelled at.  For example, Old Yeller may hold onto, or misplace, a technical assignment from above for a prolonged period of time, and will finally give it to a subordinate shortly before it’s actually due.  Then, when the subordinate can’t deliver on an unrealistic schedule, Old Yeller yells. If an assignment doesn’t really make sense from a technical perspective, rather than trying to understand the technical issues, Old Yeller yells.  If Old Yeller imagines a perceived slight, he/she yells.  You get the idea.  Old Yeller will always opt to yell, rather than try to understand the root cause of the problem.  The impact on employees is devastating.  Employees can never do anything right.  They are constantly being yelled at, often for no discernable reason.  They get no encouragement.  They are often pitted against each other.  This is not a pleasant situation to live with for even a short period of time, much less for prolonged periods.

The Employee Approach:  The best thing an employee can do with an Old Yeller is to educate him/her to feel more comfortable and confident with the technology area he/she is responsible for.  This lack of understanding is typically what causes Old Yeller to react so emotionally and vocally.  However, such education must be done subtly, so that Old Yeller doesn’t think he/she is being put down.  By getting Old Yeller comfortable with the technology, he/she will likely be more understanding when problems arise.  Another approach is to provide Old Yeller with frequent status reports (both written and verbal), which cover status, issues, and recommendations, in terms that Old Yeller can understand.  This will help to inform and further educate Old Yeller on what’s going on, the technology issues, and what’s being done to address them.  In all interactions with Old Yeller, respond calmly and logically; responding emotionally, as Old Yeller does, will only make things worse.  You should set a good example, even if Old Yeller can’t.  If none of this works, try a direct appeal to Old Yeller to let him/her know the negative impact he/she is having on the group.  Or try to approach peers of Old Yeller to get their help.  If none of this works, try approaching Old Yeller’s boss, but going around Old Yeller can backfire.  If nothing else works, then it may be time to look for a transfer, or even for a position in another company.

These are just two of many Mis-Manager personality types that you will come across in engineering (and other) organizations.  I’ll get into more in subsequent e-Newsletters.  The negative impact of Mis-Managers on companies cannot be overstated.  The key is to recognize the various personality types and to approach them in the most effective way to help both groups and their Mis-Managers.  Employees must recognize that Mis-Managers hold positions of direct authority over them, and so must approach them carefully.  They must walk a fine line and find what works best for them.  Their work environment, and future, may depend upon it. 

[Note: The Old Yeller personality type was requested/suggested by my daughter, who had such a terrible Mis-Manager at a recent position.  She tried all of the above to varying degrees of success before finally making the decision to leave the company, primarily because of this Mis-Manager – she had had enough!  She was extremely relieved when she was out from under Old Yeller.  If you have a Mis-Manager personality type you would like to see spotlighted, please let me know.  I will do my best to accommodate you.]

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