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Silly managers

Yesterday our IT department had big important meeting. It had something to do with improving communication with users, etc. The director and managers did all the talking, showing their wisdom and wit. After an hour and a half the director said "We still have another half hour to discuss problems. If anyone would like to bring up any problems at all, now is the time." <short pause> "No problems at all .. great!"
Does he really think our days are nothing but uninterrupted bliss, and not one of us lowly employees has a single problem we would like to discuss? We just know our managers would quickly find a way to get rid of us if we dared to criticize or complain within hearing of the director.
So, what I am wondering is .. why the pretense at openness and democratic freedom of expression? Why not just be honest and say the only difference between an IT department (or any department) and a dictatorship is that you have a choice as to staying or not.

The Real PC
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Dude, I hate to say this ever dog gone time you make a post, so I won't say it.  But I'm sure you know what I was going to say anyway.

Having said that, everyone in the IT department where you work would have needed to come together before the meeting to discuss and agree upon problems that you want brough up.  If this was done as a team then I think your problems would get the attention they deserve.  Otherwise you make a statement to management that everything is hunky dory when in fact you would like to discuss some issues.  I think that if you really had problems to discuss you would have brought them up no matter what.

Wake Me Up Inside
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Meetings involving high-level managers and lots of lower-level staff generally won't work unless you've got a decent "how we have large meetings" procedure worked out. From your description of the meeting, it sounds like you don't have a decent hierarchical structure for reporting problems. Until you've worked that out, you won't be able to effectively report anything to upper management.

Adrian
Thursday, May 27, 2004

You're missing my point. We have a hierarchical structure for discussing problems. My point is that the director seemed to honestly believe developers, or whatnots, would feel free to say something. And when no one did, he was naive enough to see that as evidence that everything is perfect.

The Real PC
Thursday, May 27, 2004

So if you have this structure for discussing problems, but don't use it?  How can we be of any help to you?

Anon
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Surely there is a way that you can bring problems up so that no one feels like they have to become defensive about it...

If you are afraid to speak up, then yes, it can be a dictatorship...

Have you tried talking to people, or do you sit back and take it?

Charley Bogwill
Thursday, May 27, 2004

I didn't say I had a problem or need any help. The point is that it isn't possible that no one in the department had any problem they would have liked to talk about.

The Real PC
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Many managers talk about open and honest discussions, open door policy, whatnot.  And many probably believe it and don't really understand why people don't speak up.  "I asked, no one said anything, how was I supposed to know XYZ was a problem?"

Happens in any relationship with a power differential. How many kids are nervous about telling their parents they got a D on a test and need help?  I know my kids get nervous, but I also know that I only want to help them succeed.

The problem is no matter how much the manager might mean it, there's a power differential that's only potentially bad for the person without the power.  If I, as a peon, bring something up that the manager doesn't agree with, then I stand something to lose.  He can fire me, give me a bad review, maybe even just unconsiously not trust me when a key project comes around.

As manager, if I say something the employee doesn't like.  Tough cookies, I'm the boss, I have (almost) nothing to lose from the discussion.

Hence, I don't personally think you can have a 2-way open and honest policy.  Management can (and should) be honest, but the amount of honesty you get from the underlings is always limited and the best you can do is establish enough trust that at least your more outspoken folks might say something.

Chris Kessel
Thursday, May 27, 2004

I partly agree. However, if I were a manager I would care what employees thought of me. If they resented me their motivation would suffer. If I like my managers and feel they respect me, I very much want to do a good job for them. I want them to appreciate me. I want to feel I belong in the organization and that my work contributes something to it.
The power difference is real, of course, and when things go wrong the managers are more likely to stay than the employees. Managers can blame the problems on the darned employees, even if the cause was mostly bad management decisions.
I realize we can't have a democracy here, but a more open and less strictly hierarchical environment would benefit everyone, I think. Why is the US a better country than most others? Is it just luck and timing, or does freedom and openness have something to do with it?
I work for a relatively small organization, by the way. We don't really need the strict paternalistic hierachy that we have.

The Real PC
Thursday, May 27, 2004

One approach is to take anonymous questions, but that requires some advance planning.  I agree, that a open forum is not the best place to discuss problems. 

john
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Wake up and smell the corporate-paid coffee. Nobody in management wants to hear problems. Give them solutions in an informal hallway chat. Brining up problems in front of everybody else is going to get you nowhere but maybe additional kudos from your co-workers, who don't pay you.

m
Friday, May 28, 2004

John,

I disagree. I believe an open forum such as JOS is the perfect place to discuss such matters.

The Real PC,

The issue you bring up is a leadership problem that simply doesn't have an easy solution. Most high level managers act pretty much the same way most powerful politicians do in that they both don't want to hear about or deal with any problem unless they don't have a choice. As for why high level managers act the way they do (i.e. asking if anyone has any problems they wish to discuss) -- who really knows.  Most managers nowadays seem to go through the motions without thinking about their actions.

Speaking up during a company or departmental meeting can be a real career killer and that is why so few employees are willing to do so.  I have done so several times in the past, but I only did it when I didn't care what might happen to me later.

One idea you might want to try.  If you have some issues that you really want to get off of your chest and you don't believe your immediate supervisor is the right person to speak with then you might think about sending an anonymous letter to the director. Warning: if you try this tactic make sure management can't trace the letter back to you!

One Programmer's Opinion
Friday, May 28, 2004

"One idea you might want to try.  If you have some issues that you really want to get off of your chest and you don't believe your immediate supervisor is the right person to speak with then you might think about sending an anonymous letter to the director."

This is a seriously bad idea.

In my experience, whilst most seniors managers don't like hearing bad news, they much prefer it to hitting the buffers at full steam. Good senior management will often get a feeling that something is amiss long before they can actually identify what it is; that may well be why the OP was asked for comments and questions. My suggestion in that circumstance is to contact the manager immediately after the meeting and say that you have an issue, but that you didn't think it appropriate to raise it in the public forum because of X and ask when would it be convenient to speak?

X should be made to sound like you're sensitive to the situation. If you're going to trash the project management or whatever because they're complete tyrants, then X should be something along the lines that you feel there is a general concern amongst the project team, but that you felt it inappropriate to make public criticisms that might undermine the PM's authority etc. etc. I'd also make sure that I'd briefed a few trusted colleagues whom I could rely on to back me up when the director starts asking around.

Always try to provide solutions, or at least routes to solutions, rather than just problems. If the project is under impossible deadlines, show that you understand the importance of it to the company, then bring in the cost-time-quality triangle and suggest that if the scope cannot be cut, then the timeframe must be extended.

Another good one in the UK is to pick out the quietest, most introverted and intense nerd of the pack and express your concern that he may be suffering from work induced stressed. It doesn't matter than he actually prefers being at work to his solitary attic garret, just so long as he looks like he's stressed - uncommunicative, silent, disconnected is good enough.  Having an HR bod around is a good ruse in this circumstance as he will know that the permissible (average) working week is 48 hours; that this was imposed under health and safety, not employment, legislation; and that employees are under a legal duty to raise matters concerned with the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues. All of which means you're untouchable as far a retribution by the PHB is concerned.

Finally, if the PHB does call you in an roast you for impertinence, say to him that you consider the interview to have gone beyond advice and mentoring and that it is a formal disciplinary hearing. If he denies this, then it can't constitute any part of a dismissal process. If he doesn't, then you were entitled by law to have a colleague or a union official with you and he's stuffed.

Gaius
Friday, May 28, 2004

There's only  one way senior management is ever going to get problems raised at a meeting, and that is to have it as the only point on the agenda, and have sent out anonmymous questionnaires beforehand.

At the knd of meeting Real PC is talking about you're going to get clobbered by the line manager if you raise any point, because his manager is going to want to know why he didn't bring it up beforehand.

Stephen Jones
Friday, May 28, 2004

This extract fro Clay Shirky's most recent article seems appropriate:

"In fact what often happens, both online and off, is that structures are created which look like citizen input, but these structures are actually designed to deflect participation while providing political cover. Anyone in academia knows that faculty meetings exist so the administration can say "Well you were consulted" whenever something bad happens, even though the actual leverage the faculty has over the ultimate decision is nil. The model here is customer service -- generate a feeling of satisfaction at the lowest possible cost. Political representation, on the other hand, is a high-cost exercise, not least because it requires group approval."

http://www.shirky.com/writings/nomic.html

Since I noticed many of you liked the "group is its own worst enemy" thing, I'll post a heads-up to this in a separate topic

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, May 28, 2004

Don't assume that the Director thought that because no one said anything that no one had any problems.

He may internally have been disappointed that no one would pop up from the herd, he may have been trying to elicit some feedback when his managers were telling him there were no real problems.

That said, the only way you really find out the real problems that people have is to go talk to them individually or in small groups.

Simon Lucy
Friday, May 28, 2004

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