Leadership

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...

21 comments
RMSx32767
RMSx32767

For several years I worked for a man who was, arguably, the poster boy for MBI. If you were not intimidated you were eliminated, or you left. Sadly, MBI was tolerated because he was friends with one of the senior officers. Eventually MBI "left for personal reasons".

lolfml
lolfml

Lots of good comments. Only thing I can add is if you have any talent, steer clear of working for any level of government. Its a career-killer.

Lucky2BHere
Lucky2BHere

Get the word out! This needs to be put in every in-box in Silicon Valley! I've worked on the edge of IT for nearly 30 years, mostly project management, strategic planning and product development. Over the years I've lead many IT teams, and many development teams in design. A recent experience with a large Korean company was the ultimate eye-opener. I've experienced MBI first hand several times, some of those directly. When I had to pick up a team after an MBI experience, it was my first priority to give the team a reason to work hard and have fun doing it - together. I learned over the years there are many ways to motivate, but using fear is the worst possible approach for the individuals and the company. As mentioned in these responses, there is *always* fall-out from MBI. Deadlines are nearly always met, but the work done - even by those who claim to be motivated by constant pressure - was sub-par, and in many cases, disastrous. It costs the company in countless ways, including: diversion of critical resources (opportunity cost), loss of truly good people, health problems (including near death!), market share lose (yes, indeed; when a major company's primary portal doesn't work right and takes months to fix, the B&W statistics show alarming drop rates), 2-3X clean-up costs, and so on - and, yes, there are many more! This company I had mentioned, though clearly well-intentioned, only knows MBI. It is a part of their deep-rooted cultural history. There was *not one* project in which this did not have a measurably negative effect. And it goes right to their bottom line every time. It is only their few (admittedly enormous) cash cows that keeps them from imploding. If the market ever takes an unexpected turn, they will be in deep doodoo. This, of course, is not an isolated circumstance, but one that is unusual in it's scope. The lessons are clear, regardless. Build that team, as some here have, with respect and enthusiasm. Give people their due, make them family (in a good way :-). Make them want to come to work every day. They will gladly stay late to make a deadline. They will gladly put the extra time in to produce clean code or a bullet-proof network. If they are held high for their achievements, they will want to achieve.

ravietwaru
ravietwaru

MBI = FRENCH BANK!~ Especially in the IT Dept.

boscad
boscad

Used to work for MSDS (Marconi Space/Defence Systems --- yes --- who became BAe) Alan came back, late, from his usual Monday morning meeting/briefing In a tremulous voice, he says "Right, all of you, into my office now" Alan has clearly had his ar5e reamed (as we used to say) We wombled in, as you do. "Right guys, this is bad. (err... what exactly?). We have got to get this project completed, if we don't I'll be "going down" and I'll make sure I take all of you with me" Oh yes...... 10/15 mins later, I emptied my desk, walked, and went solo. Been a blast ever since Cool.....

scottrobinson99
scottrobinson99

A quick note ... I received an email from a reader pointing out that my remark about the treatment of dogs and horses, while only included to make a point, perpetuates a stereotype about what is and isn't acceptable in the training of ANY living thing, and the point is well-taken. I am an opponent of Authoritarianism, and in my public talks I have often pointed out the ultimate emptiness of punishment/reward models in cooperative relationships, and that Authoritarian personalities often treat people with the same indifference levied at animals. It's for this reason that the remark sprang to mind. I hope it didn't throw anyone off, and I'm appreciative of the nudge to be more mindful of how I phrase it in the future!

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

I've spent most of my life working for small companies and MBI doesn't seem to exist in such companies. The small company is more like a family where everyone knows everyone else and there is a team feeling so that everyone pulls together. In my present job I have an excellent manager who is highly intelligent and very knowledgeable so he can tell what sort of a job I'm doing. We also get on well personally so we can communicate fully without the usual management/employee barrier. His manager is also intelligent and knowledgeable and it's a great environment in which to produce good software. In a previous small company job I remember walking to work (just under 2 miles) one day when my car was out of action and being given a lift by the managing director who had recognised me. I consider myself very fortunate in my career despite having been laid off 3 times because of company financial problems - a disadvantage of working for small companies!

Prof.Vass
Prof.Vass

I love to tell people that this is my management style exactly because I think it is the poison that kills success! I have a dynamite team of people that loves working for me and I love them. We have been together for years! Even when we are working on different projects, we know we can pull together and bounce ideas off one another. I hope that behavior remains infectious. It has gotten us through lean times!

Johnny_G
Johnny_G

MBI is not IT tool, from my perspective. It's not important is it small or big organization and even start up company. Mostly IT people, do and work they job in IT is because they Like IT. It sector is not something u have to do in basic school. It is your own continuous work and educating. How i see there is a two type of personalities: a) a guy who Like IT and dont necesseary like his current job. and: b) a guy who loves IT and love his current job. Both of them dont love MBI form many reasons like: mentioned idea flow, dedication to current work, thinking around of job and not in job, sayed hostile enviroment, thinking why some manager or direcotr saying yelling intimidate discret and indirect or direct approach with verbal abuse. A & B guy will react on same way: Leave that yeller, Dont listen to him, think outside of job or not at all, and be clock counter, and last minute work. With MBI only difference between them is: the A guy will not bother and continue indirectly support that MBI, and B guy will say something to MBI and guide directly or indirectly that MBI so he eventually adjust his approach to individual employers. Maybe that individual apporach, and individual team approach has a take some time, a half a hour is enough for communication, maybe it will be hard and unusual for u and employers in beginning, but short and longterm it is benefit both for u and your employers and such as your organization expands same training samoe way your future let say leaders or teams will expand same approach to an idea of workflow. etc.

cmrpm
cmrpm

Every manager motivates differently and I personally don't agree with using fear. I think it demeans the individual and isn't a burden I choose to bear. Sadly, I think many managers who do use intimidation stunt their own personal and professional growth potential but that is their decision alone. The organization's role here is to decide if they condone or condemn this kind of behavior in their managers and if they want a different culture than what they have, only they can create that change. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. @sboverie (Nice Quote).

sboverie
sboverie

MBI is a management tool but not a leader's tool. A leader can appear to use intimidation but the difference is that the leader pushes their team to excel while a manager is squeezing out max production. I had an excellent teacher who pushed me to improve my skills, I resented the push at first but the results were positive to myself and I still admire that teacher and wish to learn under more like her. I found a quote by George McGregor Burns that goes: "Leadership is not the same as the excersize of power. If I held a gun to your head, I can get you to do things you might not otherwise do, but I have not practiced leadership; I've exercised power. Leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to. If people follow you because they have no choice, then you are not leading."

jev.case-24297005939114168965253281161338
jev.case-24297005939114168965253281161338

The "Machiavellian" approach described above can be effective in certain situations. This tactic may assist a noble man ruling over early modern Italian city-state but I believe you are right when you say it is a counter-productive management style for IT personality types. I would count myself among those who you describe above; I work best with time and solitude. I can meet deadlines but I know when the expectation is reasonable and when it is not. If my IT Director, who does manage in the MBI style, has unrealistic expectations I tend to think less of him because, I perceive, that he does not know what it takes to produce quality IT work under stress. (I know he doesn't because he is clueless as far as IT is concerned) This is a demotivator and when I am treated this way I find myself looking for other jobs when I should be working harder. Typically my response to this is anger and determination not to be intimidated which makes for a hostile work environment. You can imagine the affect this has on the work our team puts out, it is not of the highest quality in these situations.

tonymoore42
tonymoore42

The research, both from the laboratory and from the field, is clear on MBI. It is ineffective and inefficient, not just for IT folks, but for anybody or anything with a functioning central nervous system--including horses and dogs. Any animal trained through punishment or fear of punishment responds to commands reluctantly because it has to (or else...). An animal trained using rewards for desired behaviors responds instantly and eagerly. The difference is clearly observable. One responds, albeit slowly and with no energy. The other responds excitedly because it wants to. And, the delight in achievement is easily evident, even in dogs. The difference is that MBI managers get only as much out of their employees as it takes to avoid the implied threat. But, non-MBI managers who provide meaningful and clearly defined goals, gives control of needed resources to the employees, lets work happen, monitors progress through regular but very short (~3 minute) meetings, provides easy ways for the employees to determine their own progress toward the goals, and who notices and appreciates every small step each employee makes in the right direction, will be rewarded with enthusiastic employees who are committed to the manager's goals and who will willingly do what is necessary to meet their commitments to the manager. As Marc Jellinek points out, the net outcome is zero sum. Employees take shortcuts to meet the MBI manager's impossible deadlines--those shortcuts are bugs that someone else will have to deal with later. The company loses because a buggy product has to be fixed, expending unplanned and unbudgeted resources to do so. Work on new products has to be delayed because resources are diverted to fixing the previous product. Or, because a buggy product reaches the market, the results of MBI ends up generating tons of bad press, unhappy customers, cancelled contracts, and loss of market share. In addition, when forced to work in such an atmosphere, many employees feel the scales have been tilted against them and will take steps to balance those scales, covertly. Some by sabotage. Some by complaining to coworkers--resulting in a growing demoralization (and loss of your best talent because they'll go somewhere else at the first opportunity to escape). And, some will respond by pilfering company supplies, rationalizing it with thoughts like, "They owe it to me." EagleClaw (see above) is the outlier who finds a way to be successful in such an environment. He is rare. He, and a few others like him, are on the extreme right end of the bell curve--the star performers. Most likely, he probably produced three to five times more than any other co-worker in his department. But, if his company is typical, his salary was no more than 3 to 4% higher than those who were doing only what they needed to do to avoid the threat implied or promised by the MBI manager. EagleClaw's department appeared successful. His MBI boss was probably hailed as a successful manager. But, is that true? If EagleClaw quit, the manager would suddenly look pretty bad. A good manager is the one who can get ALL subordinates to perform as well as EagleClaw. The difference between what was in that department and what could have been is the result of MBI. A truely good manager could have easily and relatively quickly gotten that department to be three to five times more productive. Instead, the company suffers lost opportunity that it didn't even know it had. In the process, it seems, what it did achieve is produce another MBI manager (is that how you plan to run your department, EagleClaw?).

Marc Jellinek
Marc Jellinek

For as many people who achieve under threat and intimidation, there are just as many who will rebel. Net outcome: zero sum. Here's the problem with MBI and highly motivated, highly intelligence people: It generally doesn't work and is a great way to clear the benches of your most capable people. The rise of MBI in IT also seems to correlate with a rise in people who either are comfortable in that or who don't want their H1B visa-holder to send them back home. I have no problem with managers and executives who push for and often get the best out of the people who work for them. Jobs, his shortcomings as a manager aside, sold a strong vision to the outside world. He also sold a strong vision to the people within Apple (and Pixar). His people were willing to put up with long hours and a measure of abuse in order to be a part of bringing that vision to market. They bought into the vision. When I'm working on something that excites me, to realize a vision that I've bought into, no one has to tell me that I'm working long hours, weekends, vacations... I do it willingly, because I want to be a part of delivering against that vision.

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

I inherited a software development team from a manager who believed pressure made people work harder. This manager met unbelievable deadlines. Unfortunately, the software was so bad (150 open problems; problems coming in at one per day) it took my team 3 years to re-write the mess. The pressure manager was eventually fired because he failed to move to a new position before his director realized that the team under pressure wrote really bad software.

EagleClaw612
EagleClaw612

My previous manager used to manage in that particular way, i thought i wasn't getting enough credit, but as time passed, i was way ahead of my colleagues before i realized it. I was first in line for a promotion too. The immense amount of pressure he put on me had a surprising outcome in my case. I learned that after i switched to another place and i suddenly felt lazy and rusty from the lack of that pressure under a new manager. It's not like i hate the new place, i just felt I've accomplished more under my old manager and i wouldn't have found a better job if he didn't constantly harass me into overachieving.

LeonBA
LeonBA

I have a great career doing IT in state government. It's not cutting-edge, and it's not the most exciting place to be in IT, but it's steady, stable, and you're treated with respect. I'll never go back to that snake pit known as the private sector.

boscad
boscad

Hmmm, I don't understand - how can this "MBI" thing even be a management tool. (Just splitting hairs here) - if "management" is using FEAR and COERCION it is not a "tool" - it no more or less than simple bullying... you either "hit back" or " walk" and leave the bully boys/girls to rule over their ever-diminishing empires... easy... (but I agree largely with what you say!)

EagleClaw612
EagleClaw612

I did realize the void i made when my manager left and i suddenly got every single responsibility in my hands. My team was miles behind and there was no capable team leader or anything else to fill the space in the hierarchy. I decided to switch to a more "democratic" approach on how to do things, it provided a much better atmosphere, although the improvement was mild productivity wise. But then i left and the void increased even more and now no one is capable enough to lead plus the company have to search for an outsider. I guess the guy killed the team's ambition over the years so they became either indifferent or lazy as they felt they can't meet his unreasonable standards. I never really defended my manager's ways, as sboverie said below, he exercised power not leadership. I was just presenting my case as one of the guys who found the other side of the spectrum more challenging and productive. I was younger than all my colleagues, plus if i didn't leave, i still would have been the youngest manager across all departments in the company, but as you said, I guess i'm the "outlier" to the norm.

sboverie
sboverie

I think the idea that MBI is a tool is that in uncertain times people will tolerate certain management actions; they may not want to "rock the boat" or they may not feel that they have the choice to quit. As for mangement techniques, MBI is probably effective for some and perhaps the only method some managers know. Another quote by Abram Maslow "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then you tend to see your problems as nails."

LeonBA
LeonBA

Hey EagleClaw, thanks for the clarification. Funny what you mention. I worked once as part of a small group that supported the company's call center. We were an energetic, enthusiastic team, headed by a manager who used all the positive-reinforcement techniques, and inspired us to do more. We actually worked longer hours and went out of our way to exceed her expectations because she had earned our respect and admiration. Then she was forced out of the company and replaced with an MBI manager. The new guy systematically demoralized the group and changed it from a great place to work, to an awful place to work. I eventually left (to avoid getting fired, due to unreasonable expectations that I didn't handle well), and things never got any better there. In fact, the group was summarily fired a couple years later, along with the entire call center in that location, as a scapegoat for yet another bad software release by development. The MBI manager was in another location though, so he was kept on.

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