Issues with Management
So I didn’t get along perfectly with every manager I’d had in life. Who has?
In year 1, I liked my first manager at SoftwareCompany. Then I got Mr. Data in year 2. While I wouldn’t say we were buddies, it’d be fair to say we had an understanding. I knew what he needed and I gave it to him. Then I ran into a little trouble with Friendface, who ended up stabbing me in the back for reasons of unfounded jealousy, but I was able to right the ship by returning to Mr. Data, where things were OK again. Then I had the acceptably demanding and very bland Mr. Manager my first year with FinancialCompany.
It was a mixed bag, but, all things considered, pretty okay.
Cthulhu, on the other hand, was a whole different story.
Cthulhu hated us all.
My first year manager didn’t do scheduled one on one meetings. He preferred to just show up in my office when he wanted to talk about something. We’d shut the door and talk about our issues. This happened, informally, perhaps twice a month for fifteen minutes. Sure, we talked just about every day about stuff that needed to be done, but it was sort of casual, accomplished via low-stress hallway discussions.
When our team was placed under Cthulhu, I went back to having scheduled weekly performance review meetings.
I had gotten used to this model of management from my time with Mr. Data. What I didn’t expect was the constant display of hostility.
I’d walk into these meetings, sit down, and ask Cthulhu how he was doing. You know, like normal people do when greeting one another. We want to be pleasant.
Cthulhu made no effort to reciprocate. Instead he would just launch into issues.
WHERE ARE WE WITH PROJECT X
I’d provide an update.
YOU ARE BEHIND I EXPECTED THIS TO BE COMPLETED
I’d offer some explanation. Not an excuse, mind you. An explanation. With, like, reasons and a basis in reality.
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE YOU MUST FINISH THIS OR THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES
Yep. OK. I’ll stay on top of it.
And so on.
I never did adjust to his language. He liked harsh sounding words like unacceptable and need (as in, I need you to do this) and critical (as in, it’s critical that you complete all objectives) and failure (as in, your inability to get something done has resulted in a failure of epic proportions).
Cthulhu also introduced me to the concept of Management By Objective, or MBOs. The idea here is that employees have a list of extra goals, intended to make them a stronger contributor and foster professional development. An example might be to take a specific training course to gain a new skill. Maybe there’s a new project that you, as an employee, initiate and make plans to implement, like improving the inventory system or upgrading an old archaic bit of software.
I’d been doing MBOs in one form or another since I’d been hired by SoftwareCompany back in Year 1. Heck, everyone has extra stuff they’re working on. It’s a totally normal part of office life.
But suddenly, it wasn’t enough to want to achieve your MBOs. They became a required, documented, and official part of your existence. Doing your regular job was no longer sufficient; you must at all times be working on a list of stretch tasks. Supposedly you’d be able to accomplish these objectives during the lulls of the day but the truth was that at FinancialCompany, there were rarely lulls, so individuals had to work off-hours to get this work done. And Cthulhu was adamant that his employees meet these goals, or he’d go after your bonus.
Like I said, Cthulhu was big on documentation and paperwork, so we’d open spreadsheets which detailed the exact progress on each of these tasks. No matter what I’d completed, he focused on the incomplete. If I’d finished A, B, and C, he’d rake me over the coals for D. And E. And then ask me what new stuff I was planning on doing the next quarter. Praise was not something Cthulhu did.
If I tried to explain that I was behind on something — maybe we had too much unanticipated work that week, and it had thrown me off course — he would just state in his inhuman voice that it was essential and mandatory that I complete these items. To him, it was simply part of the job and must be done.
Toward the end of each quarter, there’d be a big reckoning. Everyone on the team would make a mad scramble to get the mini-projects done. I should also point out that it was common for your teammates’ objectives to require work from you so you’d be dragged into their own MBOs even as you were sprinting to complete your own, which is sort of like getting 20 lb weights attached to your ankles while you’re in the middle of running the 1200 meter dash. During these two or three weeks it was common for everyone to devote every weeknight as well as several entire weekends to the job, in order to get this stuff done.
It’s worth mentioning here that 90% of the time there was absolutely no business impact to achieving these goals. Cthulhu created this extra work simply to have extra work created, tasks for the sake of tasks, extra busywork for his team to accomplish even though we were already plenty busy, to the tune of 60+ hour workweeks.
Still, most of us completed this bullshit mountain of work because it was better than the alternative. We all knew this because Beaker was failing to get his extra work accomplished, and it was terrible what was happening to him.
Cthulhu was slowly eating him alive.
During my third month under Cthulhu, we had a one on one unlike any other that I had to that point in my life. I received completely nonconstructive crazytown feedback.
It went down like this.
We’d finished going over the list of work. I’d very professionally appraised my otherworldly tentacle-head of a manager of status on items and assured him that I was on-schedule with project work for other teams and personal MBO goals.
Forty five minutes of our scheduled time has passed and it looks like we’re done. I’m thinking: Great. I’m about to have fifteen minutes of my life returned to me. I wonder if that’s enough time to buy a few razorblades at the local CVS. Because I need to, uh… shave… and stuff.
But we’re not done.
<LIVINGAFI> WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT A CRITICAL ISSUE
Sure, what is it? (Aside: They’re all critical. Every &!@# issue that Cthulhu wants to discuss is critical. It’s the only adjective he is able to use in front of the word ‘issue.’ Maybe he think’s it’s all the same word, you know, criticalissue, and he doesn’t realize he’s using a modifier.)
THE ISSUE IS THAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING THINGS ABOUT YOU
Uh huh. What are they saying?
PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE DISENGAGED DON’T CARE ABOUT WORK
Who? Who is saying this? I work over sixty hours a week. I do anything and everything I’m asked to do. Who is saying I’m disengaged?
OK, yeah, right, I totally get it. People. But who specifically?
I CANNOT SAY IT IS PEOPLE, PEOPLE ARE SAYING IT
Well is it just one person? Like: a person? Or more than one person? Like: people?
IT IS JUST ONE PERSON BUT PEOPLE ARE NOTICING
Which is it? One or a lot?
I CANNOT SAY
Well, why exactly do they think I’m unhappy or disengaged
THEY ARE SAYING IT
How can they tell?
THEY SAY THEY SEE IT
Do you think I’m disengaged?
YOU ARE STAYING ON TOP OF YOUR WORK
Great, I’ll take that as a no, and that you think I’m doing fine. So let me ask you a question: Why don’t you tell these people that I’m perfectly happy with my job. Because I am.
I CANNOT YOU MUST CHANGE THE PERCEPTION
Let me get this straight. You are telling me that someone or someones is unhappy with me, but you won’t tell me who it is or how they’ve come to this conclusion, you won’t support me directly, and yet I must fix their perception of me.
THAT IS CORRECT
How exactly am I supposed to do anything about this? It sounds to me like this is the definition of nonconstructive criticism; you’ve given me something I need to address with absolutely zero details on exactly what I’ve done wrong or what behavior I need to change in order to resolve this issue
DO NOT CONTINUE TO ARGUE WITH ME OR I WILL NOTE THIS ON YOUR ANNUAL REVIEW FIX THE PROBLEM WE ARE DONE HERE
Over the next week, Cthulhu’s comments gnaw at me. Who exactly is saying these things about me? What’s wrong with my behavior? Is it possible that I’m really screwing something up without even realizing it?
After agonizing for a while, I decide to take Statler and Waldorf — the only guys I really trust at this point — out for lunch. Normally we don’t talk about our 1:1s with one another. It’s sort of understood that they suck, and why revisit all of this negative shit for no reason?
This time there’s a reason. I need answers. We go to the local Longhorn Steakhouse and settle into a booth. After ordering, I spill details.
Me: Listen, guys, Cthulhu is saying that “people” are talking about me. (I make air quotes.) That “people” are saying I have, like, an attitude problem or something. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here.
Statler: No way. Cthulhu just said the same thing to me in last week’s 1:1.
Waldorf: Are you serious, Statler? Why didn’t you tell me? This is the first I’m hearing of it.
Statler: This is the first time you’re hearing anything at all, you half-deaf bastard.
In Unison: Hahahaha.
Me: Jesus, so Cthulhu is giving you the same shit, Statler?
Statdler: Yeah. He said that someone thinks I need an attitude adjustment and I don’t care about work.
Me: How can that possibly be true? You work like crazy and everyone on the business side that I know LOVES you.
Statdler: Same here, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like you. Except Cthulhu of course. But he doesn’t like anybody.
Me: Crap. Who do you think it was?
We have no idea.
You get it by now. Cthulhu fosters an environment of fear and unquestioning obedience. It’s a terrible work environment.
Midway through the year, Beaker is put on a performance plan for failing to meet required objectives. He has daily 1:1s with Cthulhu and stops looking people in the eye.
I remember clearly a time in the beginning of fall when everyone except me got sick. Not a little bit sick, like a cold and a cough, but really sick, like fever and shivering and hallucination-type sick.
We were scared to take time off, so people continued to report into the office. Cthulhu made it clear: No working from home. Visibility is key. We all must be present and contributing every day. Weakness is not tolerated. We are pigs and will sacrifice for FinancialCompany.
Beaker got into an accident on the way to work one day during this period, on the highway. He hit somebody, then hit the guardrail and spun out. His car was totalled but he was lucky to walk away with nothing more than a minor neck injury. No one else was hurt. A week later when he was back in the office I asked him what happened and he told me that he was sick and hadn’t been sleeping and must have dozed off on the way to work. We asked him why he didn’t just call in and he said because if he took a day off he thought he’d be fired on the spot.
He had kids to think about, he told us.
Those kids are lucky to still have a father.
Toward the end of the year, I took two weeks off.
I’d been saving the vacation for a while, and needed the break. It was time to decompress, unplug completely, remember what it was like to be a real human being again.
My girlfriend took the same block so we could spend time together. This is almost eight years ago at this point and I still remember clearly how incredible it was to have a real respite from the continual grind of work. We spent one of the weeks at her place, and the second at mine, to mix things up. Mostly we watched movies and napped. I had a million films to catch up on because during the periods of intense work, it didn’t seem possible to just sit around and do simple things that normal people enjoy doing. Even watching movies.
I warned my manager in advance of taking this break that certain projects were coming due shortly, and I would not be on schedule because of the vacation time. He said he understood, and that we all must take our vacation. MUST is another word that almighty Cthulhu used as often as possible.
I should have known in advance that this was all bullshit.
So I get back from vacation and immediately start cranking again. Statler and Waldorf ask me to look at problems they’ve been unable to resolve in my absence and I work on them, solve a few, and then get back into my project work. I’m also again attending meetings, trying to catch up on initiatives that have moved forward in my absence.
At the end of my first day back, I have my 1:1 with Cthulhu. He’d intentially moved it up in the week so he could reassert control as quickly as possible following my time off.
I waltz into his office and offer greetings.
Good afternoon, Cthulhu, how are you doing?
WHERE ARE WE WITH PROJECTS A, B and MBO OBJECTIVES X, Y, Z
I’m working on them. They’re in roughly the same state that they were in prior to my vacation.
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE THE COMPLETION DATES HAVE PASSED
The completion dates were set prior to my scheduling vacation. I think it’d be fair to move the dates out 2 weeks, since I was out of the office
DATES CANNOT BE CHANGED YOU HAVE FAILED ON THESE OBJECTIVES YOUR BONUS IS FORFEIT
Cthulhu, I’m not feeling well, I need the rest of the day off.
COME SEE ME AS SOON AS YOU GET IN TOMORROW WE HAVE MUCH TO DISCUSS
Reeling, I stagger out of his office and head home in a state of furious disbelief. Who gets dinged for not doing project work on their #@$&% vacation?? It goes without saying that I’m not sick at all — I came up with the sick thing on the spot as a politically correct alternative to telling my manager to fondle his own privates.
The next morning I’m in Cthulhu’s office and he’s asking me for revised dates for my projects and informs me that he’s putting in the paperwork to rescind my bonus.
I must have grown a partial backbone overnight because I finally find myself objecting. He’s finally gone too far. From my point of view, I tell him, you’re punishing me for taking vacation. I’ve hit my dates on projects and initiatives all year. It’s provable, via paper-trail. Suddenly, I take a vacation, and I’ve missed dates. Cause and effect will be clear to any consulting detective put on the case. So I make this point to Cthulhu, several times, so even his puny octopodal brain can absorb it.
YOU COULD HAVE MADE THE DATES YOU FAILED
How, exactly? I was already working over sixty hours a week.
YOU ARE NOT WORKING SMART ENOUGH EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT
Look, we all get 12 vacation days a year and during that time we are not supposed to be working, so I missed these dates.
DATES CANNOT SLIP THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE
Fine! Let’s call HR and see what they think about all of this!
For the first time ever in my interactions with Cthulhu, he relents. The dates get pushed out. He decides not to go after my bonus as long as I meet the adjusted timeframes.
Part of me isn’t even happy about this outcome, because of course this means I have to see past my fury, buckle down and get the objectives completed.
At this point, it’s like my nice little decompressing vacation never even happened. It took two days for me to go from zero to a hundred and twenty on the speedometer of work-suck.
Look, of course I’m messing around just a bit with the whole Cthulhu thing, but the essence of these interactions is 100% spot on.
The only other thing I want to add here is there were other Cthulhus roaming around FinancialCompany. He was a terrible manager, focused and driven on trying to climb up the corporate ladder using the only tools available to him. But there were plenty of other old gods around, sacrificing the lives of their own teams of muppets to achieve the same end: clawing at the next available rung.
The problems I was going through were by no means limited to myself or my team.
As best I could tell, they were systemic.