Good Managers Sometimes Have to Play Assholes

This is a guest post by Pawel Brodzinski. Pawel has his own blog called Software Project Management, where he writes about dealing with software projects in real life. (If you are interested in writing blog posts for development managers and team leaders, like this one by Pawel, then be sure to check out the new Management 3.0 site that I am developing with several other writers. We welcome your ideas and blogging material!)

I have a task for you: think about a manager you respect. One you’d like to work for. How would you describe her or him?

Leadership. Strong motivational abilities. Courage. Care about people. Great organizational skills. Openness. Tolerance. Great communication abilities. Support. Mentoring skills. I guess you counted at least a few of these.

Has "being an asshole from time to time" made it to your list? I didn’t think so.

Think about it a bit more. How did the manager of your choice act when there was a serious slip in production, and a team member asked for a couple of days off? Were they still so agreeable? Or did they put project success over comfort of one of the team members? What happened when budget cuts came and they had to fire someone? And how were they described by a person who got fired? How did they answer when you came with the idea to introduce a cool new technology in the middle of development? Were they supportive? What was their reaction when the team had so much fun making some soft jokes at a newbie (as you always did)? Was it fun to listen to their reprimand?

All of these situations have something in common. There is a point where a bad policeman appears. Someone who blocks our private plans, or fires us, or prevent us from learning new things, or simply kills our entertainment. A kind of asshole really. A manager.

Now, these things are crucial when becoming a good manager and a true leader. Managers aren’t needed so much when everything goes fine, a company has loads of money, people are highly motivated, and know which borders shouldn’t be crossed. However when something goes wrong it is a manager who should react first. Very often someone has to play the role of an ass to fix the problem. Guess who it is.

Probably the most difficult example of the issues mentioned above is firing people. It is nothing pleasant. Personally I hate it. That’s a classic asshole-moment. I have to play this role on occasions because, after all, my employer pays me for that. Of course, from the team’s perspective, things look better when you decide on merits and let go someone, who doesn’t suit your group, but think how many times people are fired just because of budget cuts? And that’s still the role of the asshole… I mean the manager. A person who otherwise might be praised by the team.

When it comes to manager-team relationship these (rare) moments when a manager plays a bad policeman remind people about rules to be followed and borders not to be crossed. If the atmosphere gets too loose it’s usually sufficient to experience a flash asshole-moment and, magically, everyone recalls that there are some rules that need to be obeyed.

The interesting thing is, the further we go into agile management territory the less typical the managerial job we expect. Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional, and sometimes we think a manager should just get out of the way. By the way, surprisingly often this is exactly the best choice. But whenever one of the asshole-moments is needed, it is time to show up and do what has to be done. Otherwise the atmosphere starts rotting as people wait for someone who will fix things. Someone who will do something about this guy adding a new technology every time he reads some nice article. Someone who will deal with that lass taking a few days off because she doesn’t really care about the project being late and the team working their butts off to get back on the right track. That’s always a job for a manager, and a harsh one, no matter how self-organized the team is.

If you dig deep enough in the story of the manager you initially thought of, you should be able to recall a few moments such as these. Odds are, from a perspective of time, they even look like pretty good decisions. However, back then, when it was all fresh, your thoughts most likely included “what an asshole” epithet when you were thinking about the manager.

Thanks to Pawel for his guest post! If you have some ideas to share of your own, feel free to contact me about it.

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