CXO

Why management-by-intimidation can never work long-term in IT

The dubious technique of managing by cultivating fear and insecurity has a long history, and sometimes actually works; but it's the worst-possible approach for IT, and here's why.

The project team in question had spent more than a year under the thumb of an executive who wanted more than he could get for what he was willing to spend. The team failed to deliver - and the executive was shown the door. His replacement gave the team what it needed to the job, and it was a grand slam The new executive was showered with praise.

He did not pass that praise on to the team. When the team's manager called him on it, and implored him to thank the folks who had done the work, his response was, "They were just doing their jobs. That's not something you thank."

We call this "management by intimidation," or MBI, and it's an honest-to-god strategy that some managers  and executives embrace. The rationale is this: setting the bar higher and higher, by refusing praise and taking exceptional performance for granted, ratchets up personal potential . And stress, after all, is what makes champions, right? Does a power hitter, or a running back, or a Kentucky Derby winner ever hit the mark without through-the-roof stress?

Let's just say straight-up that this mindset demonstrates an unimaginable vacuum in understanding human nature, and launch into the reasons why IT, in particular, is a poor domain within which to unleash such a strategy. Management By Intimidation just isn't right for IT.

Speak no ill of those departed

But wait. What about Apple? In the wake of Steve Jobs' passage, isn't his legendary list of technical accomplishments exactly what most technical professionals aspire to? And wasn't he one of the most intimidating men who ever lived?

Credit where it's due, yes, Jobs was the poster boy for MBI and his accomplishments are undeniable. But Jobs wasn't, in fact, a manager; he was a visionary and a showman, and those who worked closely with him said over and over that as a manager, he was less than stellar. Those who stood between him and his actual workforce didn't emulate his famed histrionics. And we're all better for that.

What developers want

The MBI strategy is faulty on many levels, but particularly so for the IT enterprise, and especially for the sort of person one most commonly finds in a developer's chair. Those attracted to the design and implementation of information systems are generally very intelligent, often creative, low-key personalities. They do well with work that requires long stretches of head-down concentration. They tend to be introverts, not hungry for the spotlight; they tend toward wry humor and many enjoy outdoor activity.

In short, the person who chooses such a career tends to be a person who leans away from, not toward, high stress, and who chooses recreation suited for the release of accumulated stress. Rare is the IT professional who serves as square dance caller or runs for public office.

Keep that guy out of here!

Years ago I worked with a group of young hotshots who were exactly the sort I describe above. This was in the early days of MMO games - the original Doom - and it was installed on our network (in violation of company policy). Every day at lunch, the boys would fire up a game, each guy at his workstation, across several buildings. We had an MBI manager who both berated the team and slammed down on Doom when he caught everyone playing it. Doom became stress release from the MBI, and when they suffered both the beratement and a shut-down of Doom, performance plummeted. It was beyond the MBI's understanding that Doom was a countermeasure to his own detrimental effect.

Here are some reasons MBI just can't work:

  1. IT professions tend to process things thoughtfully and deliberately - and not necessarily quickly. The profession requires it. A blast of negative energy is the opposite of what is needed: time and solitude are the IT professional's tools of trade.
  2. IT professionals are, in general, team players. Occasionally, but only occasionally, one person can deliver an entire product. But most often it's half a dozen, a dozen, two dozen people working as a team that bring it. Teams ratchet up through shared inspiration; a blast of negative energy introduces stress that interferes with the team's internal communication and interrupts the flow of ideas. Whips only work on horses and sled dogs.
  3. Productivity comes in different forms for different professions, and different types of people. Stress can work wonders on an actor or a lead guitarist, providing the adrenaline surge needed to deliver an outstanding performance. But productivity in IT is different-in-kind; it's about the laborious delivery of carefully-constructed answers, often involving long and painstaking research, and sometimes out-on-a-limb creativity. These are seldom the products of adrenaline; more often, they are the products of many gallons of coffee and piles of stale pizza.

If all this isn't enough, there's a clincher: MBI personalities tend to be authoritarian, and IT professionals tend not to be. The MBI believes that people respond to intimidation with fear as a default, but that tends to only be the case with other authoritarian personalities. The non-authoritarian personality might get stressed out, but they won't respond with fear ; they'll simply think of the MBI as a jerk to be avoided.

If you're reading this and you manage by intimidation, don't take my word for it: ask your peers in the industry what they think. And if you're on the receiving end of MBI - well, print this blog out and leave it on somebody's desk. And if that doesn't work, get your sysadmin to install Doom on the network ...

About

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

Editor's Picks