Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, commenting on my posts about a Dilbert cartoon that skewers "the vacuous way managers talk", asks "What is a 'manager' anyway?"
My only comment here is not on the Bayesian inference but rather on the idea that "managers" are dweeby Dilbert characters who talk using management jargon. I was thinking about it, and I realized that I'm a manager. I manage projects, hire people, etc. But of course I don't usually think of myself as a "manager" since that's considered a bad thing to be.
For another example, Liberman considers a "spokesperson for a manufacturer of sex toys" as a manager. I don't know what this person does, but I wouldn't usually think of a spokesperson as a manager at all.
The LL posts in question were "Moving low-hanging fruit forward at the end of the day", 9/26/2009; "Memetic dynamics of summative cliches", 9/26/2009; "'At the end of the day' not management-speak", 9/26/2009; "Another nail in the ATEOTD=manager coffin", 9/28/2009; and "Memetic dynamics of low-hanging fruit", 9/30/2009.
And Andrew's comment is very much to the point.
In the original post on Scott Adams' strip, I used scare quotes in referring to "a despised minority, in this case 'managers'"; and in a later post, I referred to "the hypothesis that it's especially likely to be used by 'managers', however we define that much-maligned class". Those phrases were meant as a note to myself to come back to this curious phenomenon of anti-managerial prejudice — but Andrew beat me to it.
I should start with a confession: like Andrew, I'm a manager. I've been one at least since 1980 or so, when I became a group supervisor at Bell Labs; and when I became a department head there, in 1987, it was no longer possible to look the other way. At my first "three-level meeting" — involving department heads and their bosses and their bosses' bosses — Brian Kernighan looked across the conference table to me and said "Welcome to the land of the brain-dead". The fact that I left industry for academia didn't save me: the organizations that I now (at least nominally) manage employ several times as many people as the Linguistics Research Department at Bell Labs did.
I suppose that as long as there have been hierarchies, bosses have sometimes been feared, resented, and disliked. But I think it's a new phenomenon that in large areas of modern culture, managers are stereotypically regarded as stupid. Andrew Gelman's employees surely don't think that he's stupid, and I hope that most of mine don't think I'm stupid either. But Brian's little joke reflected a now-widely-shared concern that the role of manager, like the role of parent, inevitably causes a sort of tragic cluelessness, in which you become the object of all of your own earlier upward-facing attitudes.
This is mixed up with a different idea, namely that official pronouncements are likely to be bland and even empty. This might mean that the people who craft them are actually especially crafty, but the idea that corporate statements tend toward vacuity seems to reinforce the idea that leaders are empty-headed.
[It's for that reason that I was disposed to accept corporate spokespersons as "managers" in the Dilbertian sense — well, that and the fact that otherwise there would otherwise have been no examples at all in the 400-million-word COCA database of "managers" using the cliche under study. And the sex-toy company spokesperson whose quote I accepted as a possible example of manager-speak actually was a "senior buyer" — check out the original article here.]
However we decide to define "manager", this group is certainly now the object of a complex of negative stereotypes. When and how did this start?
I don't know, and I welcome suggestions. These attitudes may be connected to the antique European aristocratic disdain for those who are "in trade", and to the (I think related) modern intellectual disdain for the world of business. These attitudes seem to have been imported from the intelligentsia into industry through the medium of engineers and especially programmers, who (at least at lower levels) maintain a very different culture from the "suits" in finance, marketing, product planning, and so on.
The word manager has been around for a long time, with something close to its current meaning. With the gloss "A person who organizes, directs, or plots something; a person who regulates or deploys resources", the OED gives citations from around 1600 onwards:
1598 J. FLORIO Worlde of Wordes, A manager, a handler. 1598 SHAKESPEARE Loves Labours Lost I. ii. 173 Adue Valoure, rust Rapier, be still Drum, for your manager is in loue. 1600Midsummer Night's Dream V. i. 35 Where is our vsuall manager Of mirth? What Reuels are in hand? SHAKESPEARE
In the slightly more specific sense of "A person who manages (a department of) a business, organization, institution, etc.; a person with an executive or supervisory function within an organization, etc.", the citations start about a century later:
1682 A. WOOD Life 22 Nov., The Duke of York hath gained the point as to the penny post against Docuray the manager of it. 1705 J. ADDISON Remarks Italy 443 The Manager opens his Sluce every Night, and distributes the Water into what Quarters of the Town he pleases. 1740 S. RICHARDSON Pamela II. 341 Said he, I think that little Kentish Purchase wants a Manager.
But none of the early citations in the OED, nor the quotes that I find in LION, seem to reflect the modern Dilbertian managerial stereotype. That stereotype clearly predates Dilbert — but when did it arise? and where did it come from?
In this context, we have to return to Andrew's question: What is a manager, anyhow? By now, I suppose that the Dilbert empire employs a certain number of people, whom Scott Adams in some sense manages — does he thereby consider himself a "manager" in the relevant sense?
The fuzzy referential boundaries of the managerial stereotype, it seems to me, are a characteristic of social stereotypes in general. This is related to the "some of my best friends are Xs" excuse, and all the other excuses that shift the range of the prejudice away from apparent counterexamples.
[Update — John Cowan's post at Recycled Knowledge, "Why are PHBs stupid?", offers interesting and sensible answers to the questions under discussion.]