Operating systems

10 'What were they thinking?' managerial moments

Even the best managers sometimes have a bad day -- or a bad moment. Alan Norton shares some of the confounding, over-the-top managerial behavior he's seen through the years.

I have worked with a lot of excellent managers, but occasionally, even the good ones careen off the rails -- at least temporarily. I am sure that most of you have experienced those times when you looked at your peers with a quizzical "Did he really say that?" expression. Here are 10 of my most memorable "huh?" managerial moments.

1: The practical joke

When my computer began making random ticking sounds, I didn't think I was the victim of a practical joke. Apparently, the obnoxious behavior was intended to annoy the victim. I was annoyed all right. When my manager told me he was responsible for installing the program that caused the ticking sounds, I was annoyed and angry.

This was before the Internet was in every home, and the number one way to spread computer viruses was through the sharing of infected games and novelty programs -- just like the one that had been installed on my computer. My livelihood depended on that computer, and I was as protective as a mother hen for its well-being. How could my manager risk infecting my computer with a virus for such a silly gag? All these years later, I can smile about it since nothing bad happened. But it still leaves me scratching my head wondering if a manager could really have been that ignorant of the risks he was taking.

2: Mission impossible

Did you ever get an assignment that required skills you didn't have? I was once told to fly across the country to help a customer solve their OS/2 problems. My OS/2 skills were limited to installing and configuring the outdated operating system, so you can understand my trepidations about the assignment. I was willing to take one for the team, but spending my 40th birthday in a motel in Marietta, GA, was above and beyond the call of duty! I understood the "throw bodies at the problem and hope one sticks" solution to mollify a desperate client. But did my managers really think I was going to be able to accomplish anything of value for the client?

3: The corporate fairytale

"Hughes will be a survivor," or so said one of the corporate executives sent to ease the anxiety of the employees at the Tucson plant during a time of defense company consolidations. I almost jumped out of my seat and yelled, "You can't know that!" I had good reason to believe that Hughes would eventually be a victim of the consolidation process. General Motors owned the Hughes defense operations at the time, and the scuttlebutt was that it wanted Hughes only for its technology. There was little reason to believe that GM wanted to be in the defense business and every reason to believe it would sell it in a heartbeat -- for the right price. Did our corporate visitors think that the engineers and analytical thinkers in attendance would all buy into their happily-ever-after fairytale? In 1997, GM sold the Hughes defense operations to Raytheon. So much for fairytale promises and happy endings.

4: Inane orders

We have all undoubtedly experienced the assigned task that was doomed to fail from the start. Sadly, you know there is nothing you can do to prevent that bad outcome. I was once asked to prepare charts for the "wall of shame." Or more accurately, I should say "walls of shame." Our conference room looked like it was wallpapered with charts. I can only guess that peer pressure was supposed to be the motivating force behind the public display. But whatever the thinking, the experiment gone wrong didn't last long. It's inevitable. If you haven't already, you will one day be required to suffer through absurd orders from above.

5: The manufactured crisis

Occasionally, managers will resort to extreme, if somewhat bizarre, methods to impress upon their staff the importance of a situation. Our national help desk support group was summoned to a conference call meeting scheduled for 11:00. To give you an idea how important I considered the "crisis," I can't even remember now what the conference call was about. Oh yes, there are two other facts I have yet to mention. The conference call was scheduled for 11:00 PM MST or 1:00 AM EST -- and we were required to call in from our offices.

I remember sitting at my desk in this large, empty building and looking at my associates thinking, "And what is so important that it can't wait nine hours?" Need I say that we were more peeved than committed to solving our managers manufactured crisis?

6: The coerced vacation

I had a manager once who kept asking me when I was going to take my vacation time. I thought that was rather strange. I am a workaholic and thought it was in my and my manager's best interest that I worked nonstop. But I did finally give in to the incessant question. When I returned from my vacation, I was corralled into the conference room where I was told I no longer had a job. There may have been some good reasons why my manager wanted me to take my accumulated vacation time before the Alan-letting, but from my point of view he just didn't want to confront me with the bad news.

7: Non-managerial behavior

A number of times, my managers acted less than manager-like. Whether it was cursing, raising their voice in anger, or berating an employee in front of others, their behavior only led to lost respect in my eyes. Sure, I guess even managers are allowed to lose control once in a while. But really, what type of reaction are they expecting from such conduct?

8: Putting your people in harm's way

While I sold encyclopedias door to door during college, I certainly wasn't what could be called a "high producer." One day, before being let loose to assault the citizenry, my supervisor told me that if I didn't make a sale that day he wouldn't drive me home. I would have to walk the 11.4 miles from downtown Cincinnati to our suburban home. We both knew I had a better chance of winning the lottery than selling an $800 set of encyclopedias during a recession on that day of ultimatum.

I called his bluff and walked home. I thought it was an adventure at the time. Some partiers even threw me some beer -- or were they throwing cans of beer at me? Alas, it was only three-two beer, and all the cans were punctured when they hit the pavement. And then a kind Samaritan gave me a ride part of the way home, though for all I knew he could have been an axe murderer. My mom, bless her heart, saw my "adventure" differently and called to give the regional manager a piece of her mind. The urban hike was risky after 10:00 PM, and no reasonable person would let someone walk that far, that late in a big city.

9: The motivational speech

Although I did not personally witness this now-infamous event, I have it from more than one reliable source that the following "motivational" speech really did occur. A department meeting was called to discuss their performance to schedule, or lack thereof. Our manager is claimed to have said, "You are all lower than whale *bleep*." Perhaps he was relying a little too heavily on his military training, but I seriously doubt if treating his staff like Army grunts led to any positive results.

10: Why can't we be friends?

When I was first assigned the role of technical project lead, I still considered my team members as friends. I asked one of them to help me with an errand. That's what friends do, right? I thanked him with lunch, but I now realize that once you're put in any position of authority, even if only token authority, you can no longer think of your associates as friends. No doubt he resented helping me, although at the time I was oblivious to the difficult position I had put him in. What was I thinking?

The bottom line

Regardless of what your boss may have told you, managers are human and do make mistakes. Life looks a lot different when viewed through the rearview mirror. The good times far outweighed the occasional managerial gaffe. My managers organized picnics, Christmas parties, group outings, and even a trip to CES in Las Vegas -- all over and above the requirements of their job description. It would be ungrateful of me not to recognize the many ways they enriched my life.

Having served for a short while in a leadership role, I can tell you that it is not an easy job. The next time your manager has "a momentary lapse of reason," try to grin and bear it. Who knows, maybe someday you will be fondly telling others of your managers' mishaps.

Share your stories

Have you experienced any "What were they thinking?" managerial moments? If you have, please share them in the discussion below.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

76 comments
michael_boardman
michael_boardman

Some years ago, we had a review which, we were told, was only to look at the management structure of the branch. It was spread across a number of widely-separated sites, but there was no suggestion that this was part of the review.


When the results were finally produced, one of the very senior officers visited our site and went through in detail what changes were proposed for the management structure. She then started packing up and asked for any questions. There were none until one of my colleagues (who to this day doesn't even know why he spoke up) asked her to confirm that our jobs at XXX were safe. She said "Oh no. Your jobs are going to YYY", a city nearly 100 miles away. She offered no reply to the inevitable question "When were you planning on telling us this rather important piece of information?"


Needless to say, the work went, and we didn't.

phsiii
phsiii

My favorite story is from a friend who joined a company--not a startup, but small. He flew out to HQ for a week of training, and it was the week of the holiday party, so he was invited. At the party, they laid some people off. AT THE PARTY. He didn't stay long.

settle.g
settle.g

Had my manager ask about the W-2 reports I was writing. He asked "Can you get it done by tomorrow?" I knew what was on his mind. I got them done and my job evaporated the next day. Way to be transparent! I while later I was called by a consultant for some info about the reports. Told him, "Sorry, the company never established a relationship for ongoing support". I think he was not happy with my response. We agreed on a rate and I told him what he wanted and billed him. I got paid too. Really, what were they thinking?

popkat
popkat

Your "vacation" story really hit home. I returned from vacation and could not get logged into the system.  Thinking my password had expired, I sent a request for a reset.  While waiting for the reset, my manager's boss called me (I was working remotely) and said my access had been revoked because I was being let go.  My vacation was "extended" until I was fortunate enough to find other employment about 2 months later. 

guptasuneet2
guptasuneet2

What a big Sob Story. You need a couple of beers and a shoulder to cry on - just see if some of the beer cans from the walk home are available.


Please note that your manager is your boss and not the other way round. Scheduling con-calls, or client visits is the management's job - if you don't like the job, just quit. Also, a drop home is not an entitlement but a courtesy extended by the supervisor - if you could not sell the encylopedias why did you take the job.


Stop being a cry baby and start doing your job.

babznme
babznme

Couple of months ago my office was moving to a new location. A few months before we began the process of going through things we did not want to take with us. Most of which was donated to local schools. One day during this time of getting rid of things, the manager of the mailroom had her employee cleaning it out and throwing away loads of 'stuff'. Some of which were some large and different size boxes. As I was in charge of certain areas and using boxes for those things we were keeping and giving away, I asked why she was throwing away the empty boxes. She exclaimed loudly for all to hear " well, I have no intention of moving empty boxes to our new location." Ok, so I backed down and let her throw them away. When we were ready to move who came to ask me about all the boxes we had? Stupid, I would have never moved empty boxes anywhere. I would have filled them.....some people.....

IAmLegend
IAmLegend

I went to a department meeting where we watched a video taped presentation from the company CEO. The CEO, using an arrogant tone, explained that they'd made a strategic decision to shift the focus from IT consulting to offshore consulting. The upshot was me and my coworkers had no planned role to play in the company's new mission - in other words, we would all be let go when our contracts ran out. I looked around the room. Everyone was silent and stonefaced. The video ended, and our manager asked if there were any questions. There were no questions - only more stonefaced silence. This occurred about ten years ago, and to this day I'm still puzzled why they chose to communicate this sort of bad news via a taped presentation from the corporate office.

bananaman09
bananaman09

Management want buy ins on job improvement. Task come up with ideas that would help improve job and performance while improving customer satisfaction. One week tasking. Next meeting the managers came in with their own agenda and result stacked in favor of what they wanted and drove down our throats. Problem 16 people with unique ideas and spins on job and service improvements overlooked and demotivating the worker bees. This falls under #5 in the concept of a manufactured customer satisfaction and cost cutting agenda.

kjmartin
kjmartin

I think you better explain to the younger readers what an encyclopedia is. See, before there was google there was altavista, then before that students looked in these huge sets of books for background information or source material for plagiarizing. A set of these books was known as an 'encyclopedia'. Maybe you should just google 'encyclopedia'.

gjm123
gjm123

Another difficult situation is where your manager isn't particularly bothered by the importance or relevance of a decision, only by 'who' makes it. Good ideas expressed openly tend to wither and die, while one-to-one suggestions produce another golden boy opportunity. Can anyone tell me why it is that so many managers seem to have appallingly bad personal and personnel skills? Or is it something they develop after taking the job?

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

Had the same thing. In front of customers, my Sales Manager (who was supposed to be technical) discussed the product with the customers, and then told them that Peter (Me!) would demonstrate the feature that they were asking about next week. I couldn't blow up in front of the customers, I started to say that this feature was not possible, but was shut down fast. I did blow up afterwards, but was told to forget it, they would have fogotten about it and it would never be asked about again. Luckily it wasn't. Also in that company, when we were being bought out by a competitor, our MD told us that because they knew that we had a lot of very good technical staff that wouldn't want to relocate from Poole to (how can I say it politely) a place that nobody would want to live - that the new company would keep a "centre of technical excellence and development" in Poole. Nonsense - It was an American company and we were all out on the streets.

Uglyfishhead
Uglyfishhead

My boss brought me into a meeting last minute so they could call on my expertise, and when asked questions, I answered it honestly and correctly. There was no hint from anyone that I was expected to spin my responses to support my boss' agenda, if anything I was encouraged to give these answers. After the meeting, my boss took me to the woodshed for not sticking with his agenda. I told him that, if he had an agenda, he should have surfaced it to me before the meeting or given a hint during the meeting. He had met with two other team members privately before the meeting to share his agenda with them, but not me. Only the fact that I was ready to walk made him soften a bit. This moron never did get that I am not a member of the psychic network.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

"You need to increase the number of calls you close on your first visit, and reduce the number of your calls that go to 'Part Request' status." "Okay, here's the minimum list of parts field techs need to keep in stock to keep part request calls at less than 15% of the total." "We don't need all those parts just sitting in vans when other people might need them." ?:|

beckiebr
beckiebr

I feel your pain. I once had a "confidential" conversation with HR regarding some concerns I had about my manager's behavior. Before beginning the conversation, I explicitly asked if the conversation was private and was told that "yes, it was". Needless to say, our conversation got back to my manager, creating an even more hostile work environment. The only person I disclosed my concerns to was my HR rep, so I know she went behind my back and spoke to my manager. Though I have since moved on to a position within a great organization, I still carry mistrust. To this day, if I need to discuss something of this nature I do so with outside council. Unfortunately when employees feel there's no avenue to discuss their concerns and suggestions for improvement, the organization can become stagnate, unable to grow.

benil81241
benil81241

Five of us unit chiefs served under an unpopular, micro-manager supervisor. Her supervisor got wind of the problems and decided to have a one-on-one conversation with each of the unit chiefs to explore the issues. Fortunately for me, I was away on vacation. Each of the four other chiefs freely shared their problems about our supervisor with her superior. WTF! He then, naming names, shared these conversations with our supervisor. Needless to say, things got very uncomfortable. Trust at all levels became a problem. Not sure what management school her supervisor attended, but it seems as he missed out on some of the classes.

Bristar
Bristar

Not to sound all "Office Space," but I really do have about seven or eight bosses. My immediate supervisor is an amateur magician and tries to impress his employees with rather transparent tricks. Unfortunately, his greatest trick is making or morale disappear. We have another one who has a bad habit of yelling...at pretty much everyone. He's yelled at people on his team, people in other teams, other managers at his level, even within earshot of customer many times. A third has a habit of trying to say something funny after every pause or comma in what you are trying to say. I don't know if his wanna-be humor is reflective of insecurities, but it is rather annoying when you just need a straight answer to give a customer and not a sarcastic remark. The strangest thing of all is that they all still work there and their supervisors have not canned them even though nobody seems to respect them.

bkindle
bkindle

#7 is what I encounter all the time, sometimes multiple times a day. Mostly from behind me at my desk while I am on a support call or working on a project or just simply reading up on how to solve a complex issue. Even a thrown chair during a departmental meeting once while getting read the riot act.....I can't see how a manager can stay angry at seemingly everything on a daily basis.

jring
jring

Bottom line - Attitude. We all make mistakes - foot soldiers and generals. Without a resilient attitude, we face a discouraging career and life.

ben_j_dover
ben_j_dover

I spent most of my working career in a variety of 'managerial' roles. Starting at age 16 when my father was hospitalized and crops to harvest with 5 hired hands to running the data processing operations for a telecommunications holding firm - most were rather rewarding. There were difficult moments - and down right hilarious ones. Did I make the occassional blunder - you bet! I think my saving grace was an ability to speak with my staff and let them know it was a bad call, and I appreciated their patience. As 'the boss' my first priority was always to protect my staff from the inanities of the workplace and let them do the job that needed doing. "Keep the streets clear of the horse droppings so that the talent can run unimpeded!" got a lot of support and progress. That inevitable moment came when our company was sold to a much larger MBA driven telecommunications holding firm. During one of the early merger discussions I was told point blank that I would need to ' get a lot better with smoke and mirrors than I had been '. Right or wrong, I heard that as a demand that I deliberately falsify or obfuscate - neither of which I would do for any job. Anecdotally, the individual who made that comment to me within the year came to work and found his office door locked and all his personal effects in storage for him. Later that organization was bought out by another firm and close to 50% of mid-level and higher management were terminated. In closing - one of the earliest credos I learned, "No one ever went too far off track by making their boss look good.".

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I could be wrong but it sounds like a case of 'wimping out' to me. The CEO didn't want to put himself physically in a situation that he knew would be uncomfortable. A CEO who is concerned about the feelings and well-being of his employees will go out of his way to personally present and explain the bad news.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Managers, like you say, usually have their own agenda so it is difficult to get any meaningful consideration of new ideas. If managers ask for input they should spend more time seriously reviewing the ideas submitted. Making the sales pitch for any new idea is tough. Information detailing the success of a new idea in another organization can go a long way towards consideration and ultimately acceptance.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I thought most people knew that before Wikipedia there were encyclopedias - 'pedia' being a clue to the common attributes of both. Yes, they were big, large books and very expensive.

MaSysAdmin
MaSysAdmin

My parents purchased the Britannica for me back in the early 70s. I began my avid love of reading with that. 26 volumes of all the information I could devour. As much as I appreciate Wikipedia, I still long for the days that I would sit in front of the fireplace with a big thick book in my hands.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

The Peter Principle may apply to technical types when they are promoted into situations where people skills are required. I have found that managers in non-IT related companies were much better at managing their personnel.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...but I have a healthy dose of skepticism whenever a technical fact is uttered by anyone on the sales team. My skepticism is based on experience. Both of your stories are examples of 'optimistic speak' - telling the recipient what he or she wants to hear. Thank you for sharing.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Of course, you need to be told what 'yes' means. ;-)

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

The solution is simple. 1. Replicate parts 2. Use an Enterprise style transporter to receive the necessary parts on demand. ;-) Gotta love those ill-conceived metrics. Edit: clarify and change style

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...that a professional HR representative would honor the confidential nature of your discussion. That being said, how should your concerns have been presented to your boss? Perhaps at his performance appraisal time? Without his involvement, the concerns you had would never have been addressed. I can certainly understand why 'once burned, twice shy'.

tony
tony

She took up an issue with her line manager who then emailed the other person with an embellished and distorted version of events. Net result = no trust and she is trying to negotiate for a new line manager to me. My manager also did this to me a very long time ago. I went on to be a reasonable manager but I heard that he ended up with no team to manage, and had no reports for a very long time. But my wife's situation is an interesting one. She used to be the lab technician, then went off elsewhere for a number of years but was then head-hunted back to run the department, in charge of the people who used to boss her around. Fortunately she is tolerant and doesn't hold grudges, but it just goes to show that you should be nice to the people below you because you never know what the future may bring.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I don't know what naming names accomplishes other than hurting careers and destroying trust as you experienced. The best solution might be to move the micro-managing supervisor, if possible, and possibly her boss as well.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

It's tough having to deal with a yelling boss. I wish I had a magic answer for the best way to deal with one, but I don't. My experience is that no one wanted to confront the boss for fear of their career being damaged or worse. So, we sat like cowering animals and took the abuse. I have a problem with my sarcasm. It occasionally wants out to "play". I don't think my sarcasm is related to my insecurities though. It believe it is my way to make light of a difficult situation.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

It wasn't the yelling at me that was the problem. I was only yelled at once or twice. I couldn't sit by and watch my friends get yelled at. They were the nicest and most knowledgeable people you would ever want to meet and deserved better. But I never did figure out how to cope. If I may ask, how do you cope? Do you have any secrets that you would care to share?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

But when a general makes a mistake a lot more people die.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Deuteronomy 25:4 "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out thy corn." You're right, ben_j_dover, a manager's job is NOT to make it impossible for the staff to do their jobs. The "what were they thinking?" moments I remember were not about managers making all-too-human fools of themselves. It's when the manager's attitude was "Who's the boss around here, just do what I say!"

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Not many managers will admit to making a bad call - it's simple and straightforward communication so often missing. You understand that protecting your staff and providing the right tools and environment is critical for success. I would be happy to work with and for you.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

was the 1959 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I can fondly remember browsing through our set of encyclopedias. For the most part, they sat in the basement collecting dust. Unfortunately, they were more than a decade old and obsolete. That is one of the problems with owning a set of encyclopedias.

sparent
sparent

@Alan Norton What's the difference between a used car salesman and a computer salesman? The used car salesman knows he's lying.

beckiebr
beckiebr

I agree that without constructive criticism this manager would be less likely to develop and therefore HR did need to bring it to light. However, name dropping while offering this feedback not only jeopardized my career but also caused distrust making me less likely to offer such constructive criticisms in the future. Read: Progress stagnated further

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Even the angry boss has lucid intervals. That's when you advise them, "Never make decisions about money when you're in a good mood. Never make decisions about people when you're in a bad mood."

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Our method of coping was to paint wings on every chair that got thrown. After every chair in the conference room got a set of wings, we also started rating and measuring the tosses and keeping a chart. The boss, not a stupid man, realized the effect it was having when he walked past the conference room one day to hear: "How far did you say he threw that one?" "Hey, with style points, that's a new record!"

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

After A) Stop it from happening and B) Get out of there . . . I guess it could help for the employees to joke about it, let out some steam and even out the stress. All sorts of attacks on the psyche lose a lot of their impact once you stop taking them seriously, and even more if you have a group of like-minded people to confirm that "This thing is not a thing we need to take seriously, this thing is just an annoying cloud of buzzing flies". If one is alone with the problem it gets harder to insulate oneself from the abuse, and bullies will always try to corner one person at a time. Don't let that happen, take contact with the victims, otherwise it's going to keep happening until it happens to you too.

ben_j_dover
ben_j_dover

Seemed to me that the manager who has to ask "who's the boss around here - - - " probably isn't. Only once was I asked that question by a higher level manager; in a rash moment I replied "It sure as XXXX is not you!" Happily it was not in my military career - and I had realized that this was not the place for me. Surprisingly, I was sheltered by a vice president who apparently had the same opinion as I held of the individual.

Razzy11
Razzy11

I totally appreciate and respect the honesty !

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

There is also knowing and having the opportunity to confront one's accuser. But I agree with you that human resources should not be doing any 'name dropping' without written approval.

leadfromthefront
leadfromthefront

Nick, When I went through SERE training as a Marine they would throw us against the wall as a pre-interrogation techinque. To pass the time I started jumping slightly to see how high I could get off the wall each time. Once the interrogator figured out I was making a game out of his punishment and he tired of launching me against the wall he quit. I guess what I'm trying to say is that grace under pressure or the ability to lead from the front or middle isn't exclusive to the military and neither is chair throwing, cussing. I'm fairly certain most folks haven't been through the training or been on fire in a helicopter over water 5 miles away from the nearest ship or land in either direction. But the many stories of server failures, bad decisions and the ability to turn it around into a win is something we all have in common. I did have a sign painted on the inside armor of my helicopter plating that read "Caution: Crewchief practices primal scream therapy". Great article Alan and I'm enjoying the comments.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

My grandma always said: you have to be a little mad to survive. It's madness to laugh at what one cannot change, madness to laugh at the deplorable, the untoward, the inevitable. Black humour, gallow's humour, it's what sets us apart from animals you know ;) :p

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Since quitting is not an option, the usual method for coping with such situations is to find a way to make them humorous.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Hi Nick. Your story reminds me of the bonfire they set on M.A.S.H. In a pressure cooker situation the best remedy is to let off some steam. Thanks for sharing the story. Throwing chairs sounds like fun!

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Learning to laugh at the bully may lead to interesting places. It's far more likely that a bully will be replaced when he's a laughing stock than when he's feared. Senior management may be ill informed enough to think the bully is keeping his/her people to the grindstone with those tricks, but nobody likes to keep an embarrassment around.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

That's great advice Ansu. Since A and B are usually difficult, if not impossible, option C seems to be the key to a healthy psyche. I wish I had learned how to do that years ago when I needed it.

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