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.

By Alan Norton

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...