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Management by Intimidation Is a Formula for Failure

Over the decades I’ve seen scores of management staff in action, some competent and motivating, others technology savvy yet people ignorant, some just the opposite, some political and back-stabbing, and some truly cost-obsessed. I spent 17 years with IBM and flourished under their management style, then founded an IT consulting firm. Instead of being managed I became manager of eight specialists, armed with the management knowledge of an MBA, IBM philosophy and observance of my IBM clients’—some of the largest worldwide corporations—managing styles.

From my experience, no single management style is best. Different businesses, different processes and different employee types require different management styles. But some are clearly wrong.

Here are several options, in my opinion best to worst:

  • Inspirational management style. This is the style IBM used during my time with them. IBM had a no-layoff policy, excellent training and education, great security and pay for performance—a predominant, awesome incentive. We might have to work around the clock, or move a mountain to get a contract, but bonuses, recognition events, public praise, promotions, and other awards engendered fierce commitment. Great management made us a team; working for IBM was special.
  • Laissezfaire management style. This style excels for activities involving creativity and innovation—two characteristics prevalent in IT where professionals automate and enhance business processes. When a manager allows extensive autonomy, and demonstrates trust and confidence in their staff, it inspires them to exert initiative, creativity, quality and commitment to excellence.
  • Democratic or collaborative management style. This style also emphasizes teamwork and fortifies employees’ commitment, but management has a stronger role in decision making. Employees still have significant input and influence, but the manager decides. To create employee ownership of decisions, a manager displays confidence and values employees’ input, yet also displays confidence in his or her decisions, taking a role more of referee or judge than iron-fist commander.
  • Objective-based management style. This style is results-based to maximize a business unit’s efficiency via management’s giving subordinates freedom to perform jobs and tasks in whatever way works best for them. A unit’s guidelines and procedures evolve over time and change based on success or failure. If an employee finds a better way of doing something, the procedure or method changes.
  • Authoritarian management style. This style gives managers exclusive decision-making power, in charge of all job aspects; employees must do what they’re told. In situations where a department or unit is in a chaotic state or is badly lacking direction, where rules and regulations are nebulous leadership is weak, this method can restore order and direction.
  • Retaliatory management style. This style is rarely implemented because it’s so counter-productive, and arguably isn’t even management. It takes the authoritarian management style a step further by motivating via punishment and threats, using fear and emotional retribution like public shaming or dishonest bartering. It’s quite political, currying favors and manipulating situations to achieve selfish goals.

The first five management styles are a subset of the styles found in relevant literature; they’re the ones I’ve most encountered, and they form a spectrum of loose to tight control. I don’t include retaliatory management because I don’t regard it as true management; it lacks discipline, clearly defined strategy or purpose, a pointless form of control. It does score high in discipline, and some productive work gets done, albeit woefully insufficient.

Retaliatory Management Is Beyond Ineffective

My last long-term engagement was with a retaliatory management IT department which lasted seven years, a temporal stretch that heralded continuous managerial deterioration. This was a company which was bought and sold on a periodic basis, each one initiating cost-cutting measures, structural changes, new strategies and objectives. Human Resources was an extension of whoever the parent company was, so employee guidelines were in a state of constant flux, resulting in a constant deterioration of morale and security for everyone, not just IT.

Further compounding matters, all IT managers were former IT employees who were given no management training, and were promoted based on seniority and favoritism. They lacked skills like planning, communication, decision making, delegation, scheduling, negotiation and motivation, and since they spent most of their time working with computers, had developed scant people skills. They were not only unprepared, they were negatively prepared by trial-and-error and programming methods that characterized their jobs. But people couldn’t be programmed, and trial-and-error failed when dealing with humans.

The supervisor/programmers turned to the only option they understood—the power of their positions. And the only way they could use this power was through threats and intimidation, of issuing orders and demanding obedience, with dire consequences for defiance. Since this firm’s previous ownership changes had resulted in several layoffs, coupled with IT’s status as a big-ticket item under constant scrutiny, job separation became a credible threat. In fact, it happened with some regularity, thus laying a sound foundation for the threats, and management used it frequently.

So a select few made all of the decisions, ignoring wisdom we more knowledgeable subordinates might have, yet we were responsible for the results. Completion dates were erratic, changes weren’t vetted before commitments were made, and assignments were made to projects technicians weren’t qualified or experienced for. Documentation was rarely available to assist modifications of existing systems, because documentation was considered too time-consuming and expensive, and knowledge of existing business processes was deemed irrelevant. The wrong people were assigned to wrong projects, experienced programmers were dismissed due to health problems, and tools or training were denied due to cost and wasted time.

Don’t get me wrong; my first few years with this client were very positive, and I enjoyed my job a lot. I got a challenging project that was beyond the skills of existing staff, and was of highest priority. It involved the implementation of Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance, and the forces driving this project were external to the company, giving me a freedom to do my job without interference (no existing staff members had any idea of how to do it). Deadlines were hard and fast, and I and some fellow programmers and contractors assigned to me met those deadlines before any other company in the corporate complex.

I became the new technology person: implementing CICS web facilities, developing an interface between the CICS online business systems and PayPal, tying those same systems to a website via Ivory Service Architect and other new-technology projects. But slowly I became just another staff member, and I began to be treated like the others. I was assigned to work on existing business systems, code I’d never seen, so familiarizing myself with the code took time. Management resented any delay, having terminated my predecessor due to health issues, expecting me to replace her instantly.

Then the company discharged the department director, the only manager who cared about his staff, the only one who knew how to manage. His replacement had almost no IT management experience, and wasn’t skilled in any IT aspect. He’d read some magazines, so he began to overhaul the department with a naïve assumption that it was easy to implement. It wasn’t, but it did generate a lot of unnecessary work while outdoing his peer managers in intimidation, threats and ignorance. He didn’t last long, but did extensive damage while there. IT was in worse shape than ever, the staff thoroughly demoralized, and my time to leave had come.

You see, it wasn’t just the IT that practiced management by intimidation; it permeated the entire company and spread from the top through management ranks like a disease. Managers got bonuses, the rest got miniscule raises. The employee profit sharing plan was trashed and recognition events were terminated, unintentional steps toward company suicide. It stifled creativity, smothered motivation and destroyed loyalty. Management by intimidation reigned supreme, and it killed its prey by driving the enterprise out of business.

Employees Are Assets

Employees are a company’s greatest asset, and like financial assets, they need to be nurtured and used wisely. Management is a mechanism to employ those assets most effectively, cultivating via inspiration, positive rewards and recognition, yet high but reasonable expectations. Most people want to excel, but they need to be provided with the means and situation that enables them; that’s the manager’s job. Treating employees like slaves, demanding unreasonable achievements, arousing fear through threats and punishment, and intimidating staff by shaming is for losers.