When did managers become stupid?

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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.]


  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:32 am

    The anti-manager stereotype is a shorthand, not for ALL managers, but for "pure" managers – not masters of an art that excel and are chosen to organize and lead their former peers, but induhviduals (another Dilbert-ism) that have no understanding of the processes they are managing, but only of "management" in general.

    Software engineers, for example, are more likely to be tolerant of another engineer in the same field who has been promoted than the former manager of a soft-drink company who has been hired to lead them without knowing anything about software. Even if this manager-from-the-outside is highly intelligent, his newbishness in the new environment exposes him to ridicule.

  2. Notamanager said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Personally, I would define the title of "manager" as the intermediate level of "management" (that sounds very circular as I write it) between that of "supervisor" and that of "officer" in the corporate world and "secretary" in the governmental world.

    As for managers being perceived as stupid, it seems like this reflects the Peter Principle, which states that in a bureaucratic hierarchy people are promoted to their level of incompetency and then remain there. This would mean that the only competent managers are those still on their way up.

  3. Simon Holloway said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    I think that Jens has a point. I am reminded of the tendency, in some armies, to employ as officers those who sat through officers' school, rather than creating them through promotion. Many managers likewise attain managerial positions through external training, rather than through the business in question, and so their position may be resented.

    From that perspective, my suspicion is that you will not find the origin of this attitude in the documentary record. It is as old as human psychology, and is an attitude reserved for anybody in a position of immediate power. The drive to cut them down is realised contemporarily in charges of vacuity, but this is merely a recent manifestation of an age-old trend.

  4. Rich B. said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    I think the "manager" stereotype is really a "middle manager" stereotype — the people with authority (over you), but no actual power. I'm thinking of "How To Succeed In Business . . ." with its classic "My way is the company way/ Whatever the company tells me, that's OK!"

    In other words, the "stupid manager" is not the "stupid CEO" or the "stupid executive Vice President." As such, it can't really be that old, because there I don't believe that you would have had the same type of "middle manager" positions without equally huge companies that did not exist then.

  5. Dougal Stanton said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    I think in this case there are managers, and there are managers. And the "bad" kind are probably better known as "middle managers", people whose job it is to manage managers. Those of use who have good managers probably call them bosses instead.

    It might well be managers all the way down… :-)

  6. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    As the attitude goes, it isn't new. This German folksong ( http://www.volksliederarchiv.de/text1182.html ) supposedly dates back to 1840.

    Mancher hinterm Ofen sitzt
    und gar fein die Ohren spitzt,
    kein Schritt vors Haus ist kommen aus.
    Den soll man als G'sell erkennen,
    oder gar ein' Meister nennen,
    der noch nirgends ist gewest,
    nur gesessen in sein'm Nest.

    "Some sit behind an oven
    and finely prick up their ears (listen)
    not taking a step from their house.
    He should be recognized as journeyman
    or even be called a master
    that has never been anywhere
    only sat in his own nest"

    (The last statement is meant to be an obvious absurdity – to lead others at a trade one MUST have had the experience of being the wandering tradesman before setting up a respectable shop.)

    Skilled workers look down on those unskilled in their field. I'm sure that goes back at least to the makers of the pyramids.

  7. JES said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    I believe the stereotype of the clueless manager as embodied in Dilbert's "pointy-haired boss" might be traceable to the 1970s-80s.

    This was about the time that "managers" became "management." Not long after The Peter Principle was published, in 1968, suddenly the media marketplace seemed rife with books, self-help courses, corporate retreat centers, and the rise (as Jens notes) of what I always thought of as the MBA class: mid-level managers whose experience of the work being managed was entirely second- or third-hand.

    (Also, although it came a bit earlier, think of General Peckem and his second banana, Colonel Cargill, in Catch-22.)

  8. peter said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    If it is any consolation, the actual Pactel manager on whom the pointy-head boss in the Dilbert cartoons is based used to laugh at the cartoons too, thinking that the character was based on one of HIS bossses.

  9. Karen said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Some of it may stem from the relatively recent (as these things go) notion that "managing" was a skill that could be picked up and moved from one field to another with the "manager" not actually having to know anything about the job the people he's managing are doing.

  10. Chud said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    In my job, I have at least seven managers above me (the top one is the governor of Texas). I suspect that's more than most people, but I don't really know. It's easy to imagine that one or two of every ten employees in any business are not really suited for whatever job they are in. So if you look up my management chain, at least one of them is likely to be ill-suited for his job.

    The problem is not that ill-placed people are in the agency, the problem is that these ill-placed people are directing ME. Multiply that times everybody who has a boss, and that's why we all think managers are useless: If we're getting by with one or more of these jerkfaces directing us, how capable do any managers really need to be?

    And as the folks above indicate, the least of them are usually in the middle.

  11. Joshua said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    Along the lines of what Jens said, I think it's an attitude towards somebody who has authority but no relevant experience, so in the past you'd find it exhibited not towards "managers" but towards people who got their position through inheritance, favor, or influence. I bet if you looked for attitudes towards nepotism you'd find plenty of fodder for the stereotype of person in a position of authority who is nevertheless a clueless dolt. That managers are often seen to be in this class nowadays I'd attribute both to the rise of "pure managers", whose only relevant experience has been training in management rather than whatever it is the employees are doing, and to the fact that it's only been comparatively recently that labor has become so specialized that you can be managed by people who literally have no understanding of what your day-to-day tasks actually entail and whose conversation displays that.

  12. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    As long as Kernighan is managing software people, there is no risk (short of serious brain damage) of his being considered stupid – he is an idol. Congratulions, Professor Liberman, on having met him, I envy you.

    But move him into the management of glassblowers, and I can almost guarantee there will be some sniggering at first (although I'm sure he'd come up to speed eventually).

  13. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    Regarding Dilbert, one should also remember it is based on a variant of the Peter Principle ("In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence."), which Dilbert deforms into "Companies systematically promote their least-competent employees to management (generally middle management), in order to limit the amount of damage they're capable of doing."

  14. Mr Punch said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    The classic attack on managerial culture is Milovan Djilas's "The New Class," originally published in (I think) 1954. Djilas argued that the capitalist system wasn't run by capitalists any more than communism was run by the proletriat; instead, both were dominated by a "new class" of managers who were trained as technicians rather than liberally educated.

  15. John Cowan said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    My response got to be too long for a comment.

  16. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    There are more middle managers available to revile, and top managers DO have that high status working in their favor, and generally are skilled at the task that their subordinates (other managers) are skilled at, thus evading the "stupid" appearance.

    But let's not forget, for example, Sculley, the one-time CEO of Apple. He was considered brilliant at Pepsi, actually brought into Apple by Jobs, and good enough at what he did to throw Jobs out…but do a search now, and terms like "clueless" are not hard to find.

  17. Mark P said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    I think Karen's point is good. There seems to be a school of thought in which "management" can be learned and then applied to any field. I don't think that's true. But, on the other hand, promotion from the ranks often (usually?) results in managers who know the field they manage but know nothing about how to manage the people who are working in that field.

  18. h. s. gudnason said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    It seems to be an Industrial Revolution sort of thing, including the effects of business bureaucracy on government bureaucracy. There's the Tite Barnacle family who run the (government) Circumlocution Office in Dickens's Litte Dorrit, or Alice Vavasour's father in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?". The 20th century Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer writes somewhat affectionately of Viennese bureaucracy. A character named Julius Zihal is a mid-level bureaucrat who appears in various novels, and even has a love-story written about him. In the British cases, the managerial fault appears to be the insistence on being paid without actually accomplishing anything in return. In the Austrian case, the bureaucratic complexity is treated as an art form.

  19. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    Mark comments:

    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.

    Mary McCarthy, in her short story "Ghostly Father, I Confess," sees the same relation:

    Ah, God, it was too sad and awful, the endless hide-and-go-seek game one played with the middle class.

    If one could only be sure that one did not belong to it, that
    one was finer, nobler, more aristocratic. The truth was, she
    hated it shakily from above, not solidly from below, and her
    proletarian sympathies constituted a sort of snub that she ad-
    ministered to the middle class, just as a really smart woman will
    outdress her friends by relentlessly underdressing them. Scratch
    a socialist and you find a snob. The semantic test confirmed
    this. In the Marxist language, your opponent was always a
    "parvenu," an "upstart," an "adventurer," a politician was al-
    ways "cheap," and an opportunist "vulgar." But the proletariat
    did not talk in such terms; this was the tone of the F.F.V.
    What the socialist movement did for a man was to allow him-
    self the airs of a marquis without having either his title or his
    sanity questioned.

  20. Jair said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The problem isn't the idea of a manager. The problem is when managers can only manage, and have no idea what really goes on in their field. Paul Graham has a nice definition:

    "The pointy-haired boss miraculously combines two qualities that are common by themselves, but rarely seen together: (a) he knows nothing whatsoever about technology, and (b) he has very strong opinions about it."

    (see http://www.paulgraham.com/icad.html)

    [(myl) The thing is, "knows nothing about X and has very strong opinions about it, for many values of X" is a defining characteristic of many techies, as can be observed by reading (for example) Slashdot, whose contributors would mostly (I think) be offended if you called them "managers". And people with similar properties abound in many other groups as well. So why do managers in particular get tagged with this stereotype? ]

  21. Eve said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    I think part of the stupidity notion is that middle managers, esp. the kind mentioned above who were brought in without knowing the field/industry, tend to stick to corporate policies to an unreasonable, robotic degree. I.e., I once worked at a company who trained management to respond to all feedback from employees by saying "I hear what you're saying and I'll take it under advisement." Okay, some of us would take from that that we should make sure we acknowledge the other person's opinion in a conversation, right? BASIC SOCIAL SKILL. But there were managers who would recite the script, word for word, every time someone they managed told them anything. Which makes you sound quite smart for a robot, but rather dumb for a person.

  22. Ed said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Like Mark, I suspect that there's a significant programmer bias in this stereotype. Middle managers at, say, Honda might be very well respected but you don't hear about it as much because auto workers are comparatively underrepresented in the blogosphere. And programmers are notoriously hard to manage; almost as bad as academics, which they closely resemble.

  23. Chris said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    That stereotype clearly predates Dilbert — but when did it arise? and where did it come from?

    Since Adams formerly worked at a tech company, I think the Jargon File entry on "suit" and the accompanying attitude towards people so described are probably relevant. Scorn for the school of thought described by Karen seems to be a significant contributor.

    But of course they may not have originated it either – the parallel to veteran sergeants' stereotypical attitudes toward lieutenants right out of officer training seems pretty strong, and probably goes back as far as the custom of placing the nobility in positions of command over units of veteran soldiers. (See also REMF.)

    The parallel to nepotism seems sound, too, with the networking of business school taking the place of family influence – or, in some cases, reinforcing it. People who subscribe to the manager stereotype are likely to describe business school as a refuge for people who flunked calculus, or a several-year course in the finer points of bullshit, or both. Whether or not they are correct is left as an exercise for the reader.

    And of course some people *do* get into managerial positions through nepotism – even quite high ones, if they inherit enough stock in daddy's company.

  24. Chris said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Also, in response to Mark's response to Jair: I would add to Graham's definition "and (c) the authority to enforce his opinions on those who do not share his ignorance". This is the part that rankles. Techies expressing strong opinions on Slashdot can't force anyone else to go along with them. But you can't laugh off a *manager's* stupid ideas — it's your job to implement them and as implementor you may even be blamed for their subsequent failure.

    The green lieutenant, the REMF, and the beneficiary of nepotism share this feature too.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    In the past many (male) "managers" got by because they had efficient (female) secretaries who were the ones actually managing the business, while prevented by the (then very low) glass ceiling from taking over.

    Managers imported from the outside can become respected if they can quickly learn from the employees what they actually do, leave them alone to do it and support them by shielding them from whatever hinders them from doing their best work, including upper management. It is when such a manager shows no interest in that work and feels obliged to give orders that things start falling apart, or when the manager has some competence in the work, but less competence than the employees, and is jealous of them. I think that in small companies where there is an actual product made, incompetents can quickly be spotted and weeded out as they soon have a disastrous effect on a company's sales, but in large organizations or in fields independent of immediate economic repercussions such as government departments and education it is sometimes harder for the upper echelons to detect where the problem lies (or even that there is a problem), and even more to correct it.

    "The pointy-haired boss miraculously combines two qualities that are common by themselves, but rarely seen together: (a) he knows nothing whatsoever about technology, and (b) he has very strong opinions about it."

    Perhaps this is rare in the software field, but replace "technology" by "X" and this (too frequent) combination will apply to any number of people about any number of things.

  26. Acilius said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    "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?"

    When people work together, they base their behavior on what they believe the others are about to do. If you are holding one end of a table and I'm holding the other, the direction I start to go is the direction I think you will be going. The more people there are who need your cooperation to do their work, therefore, the more predictable your behavior must be. So, if a manager's superiors, subordinates, colleagues, suppliers, clients, etc, are going to do their work efficiently, the behavior of that manager has to be highly predictable.

    In most contexts, highly predictable behavior is evidence of thoughtlessness. So it is often natural to compare managers with people whom we know as partners in conversation, games, research, lovemaking, etc, and to assume that the high degree of predictability which is a sure sign of thoughtlessness in those activities has the same significance when managers display it.

    Such an analogy would lead us very far astray. In a complex organization, few things are more difficult to create than predictability. The challenge of creating predictability may require more intelligence to meet than any other challenge that a manager is likely to face. Indeed, it may be precisely the most intelligent managers who are most likely to be regarded by those around them as unintelligent.

  27. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    I did have a boss who, as marie-lucie says, was very good at absorbing and not passing down lots of crap he was given by more senior management, which you particularly noticed when they occasionally got over-excited and bypassed him to make some opinion or question of theirs forcefully known. (Incidentally, this was in the international division of college publisher Prentice Hall; we sold large numbers of Kernighan and Ritchie's C Programming Language).

    Managers might have a bad rap because plenty of subordinates at all levels think they could do their bosses' job better, and so on ad infinitum. My brother wrote a song (inspired by a MAD magazine 5-frame strip from the 60s) about this serial dissatisfaction, the chorus, changing each time for the increasingly higher managerial titles, being:

    And the boss who lords it over me, he thinks he's born to rule
    He never does a stroke of work, the man's an utter fool
    He's called the Office Manager, and I'll tell it to you straight
    If I could only have his job then things would be just great…

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    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.

    Quite the opposite I think. It is the 'tradesmen', such as engineers, who are objecting to those they see as the parasitic aristocrats.

    And the feeling that those 'higher up' don't have a clue about what happens in reality bites deep. There is no occupation that is more contemptuous of engineers than mechanics.

  29. bianca steele said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    There is a linguistic component to this, I think. For the manager to do the kinds of things Marie-Lucie describes, they must speak the language of the engineers and permit engineers to speak in their own language; this puts the burden on them to be "bilingual." Even for managers promoted from the ranks of engineers, there is a temptation to go native in reverse and to go all the way, or to "help" their already very busy subordinates by "encouraging" them to acquire the obviously superior, "aristocratic" culture of middle management. In a true industrial environment, that would not work (and when it takes over, the company IME is sure to be about to begin its downward spiral). Someone mentioned this also in the other thread: it does not help people to prevent them from discussing their concerns in the appropriate language, any more than to give them vacuous pep talks about higher goals.

  30. Acilius said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Off-topic for a moment, congratulations to Mark Liberman for this mention of his name and this blog in Katha Pollitt's latest column in "The Nation" magazine:


  31. Joe said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    The difference, apparently, is in their schedules and how they structure their day: http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

  32. Busyhands said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    > Skilled workers look down on those unskilled in their field.

    And as soon as you move from the ranks of the "doers" into the ranks of the "managers", your skill level starts going down in direct proportion to the amount of non-productive activity you must engage in (personnel reviews, reports summarizing others' reports, budget forecast, Gantt charts, etc. etc).

    This may be less prevalent in low-tech or mature fields, but it was surely the case at IBM for the nearly 30 years I worked there. Unless things have changed radically in the last year, moving into management means you no longer have time or rewards to keep your tech chops up.

    Hence, "clueless", "out of touch", "incompetent", etc.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    Another Victorian citation for this stereotype begins, "When I was a lad, I served a term…"

    I seem to come to this from a different perspective from many here. I worked for a few years for a well-known U.S. national laboratory (maybe I shouldn't mention that it's in Los Alamos County, New Mexico), and at the time, most of the managers were scientists who had worked their way up. The common wisdom among the non-managers was that the Lab's many and worsening problems back then resulted from scientists' inability to manage, and some longed for professional managers like those in business. Grass, greener, fence.

    Mark P. also mentions this above, and John Cowan says in his blog post, "And of course geeks tend to like their jobs, and to be uninterested in (and incompetent at) people-managing." The dilemma is finding someone who understands the work and is good at managing it and managing people.

    Another reason for the stereotype that I haven't seen mentioned is that good management is often invisible—everything hums along. ("Who do you notice when they don't show up, the CEO or the janitor?") But bad management is disastrous.

    (Lest anyone think I have an obvious prejudice, my managerial experience is on the nanoscale.)

    By the way, I wonder whether it's true, as posters here seem to assume, that this dislike for managers is especially prevalent among "geeks". I first heard "suits" and the comparison to a flock of gulls ("They fly in, shit all over everything, and then fly away to do it again somewhere else.") from the manufacturing sector.

  34. Acilius said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    @Bushylands: "non-productive activity … personnel reviews, reports summarizing others' reports, budget forecast, Gantt charts" Your examples go to the point I was making above- those are all devices for creating predictability within complex organizations.

  35. Doug said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    I think it ought to be noted that the stereotype that managers are stupid didn't come out of the blue; it is at least in part a reaction to the earlier stereotype that managers are smarter than everyone else.

    In the USA (at least), there has long been a pervasive belief that managing people who do X is inherently a nobler calling than actually doing X (regardless of what X is), and is more deserving of higher pay, respect, etc. etc.

    If I told you "Jeff is John's manager at XYZ Corp," you would almost certainly assume that Jeff got paid more, had a more impressive office, etc. And unless John had some excuse like being noticeably younger than Jeff, you'd probably assume Jeff was smarter too,and you'd probably rate him as more successful.

    I guess that was a digression. Getting back closer to the topic: I agree with those who think anti-manager sentiment probably increased along with the idea that there is such a field as "management", in which you can be an expert, qualified to "manage" people entirely regardless of whether they're writing software or building cars or doing something else you have no clue about yourself.

    In any case, there must be a lot of bad managers out there, since businesses often fail in part due to bad management.

    Full disclosure: I became a manager last year, but I don't think of myself as one, since I'm still doing the same sort of work I was before, in addition to managing someone.

  36. Ted McClure said,

    October 1, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

    I would like to affirm what Jens Fiederer said @ 10:53 am from another social perspective. In the US Army officer corps, there is a profound distinction between "leaders" and "managers", between "leadership" and "management". Management refers to the disposition of resources – money, equipment, supplies, services. Leadership is getting things done through people. Good management is important, but it is good leadership that is most highly valued. "Manager" is almost a pejorative if used alone, outside the context of leadership. Duty positions are almost never described as "manager" other than in procurement and related support services – no line officer would ever wish to be described as a "manager" rather than a "leader". Officers lead – civilians manage.

    Related to this, and directly related to the verse, is the experience of every American enlisted soldier and marine: The Second Lieutenant. Here we have someone (usually) with little leadership or military experience. The Lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, unless he or she has prior enlisted military experience, is barely an apprentice-at-arms, much less a journeyman or master. As with Dilbert's PHB, we have someone without the technical skills or experience placed in charge of more experienced and technically more competent subordinates. Being that subordinate is an experience to which many, many Americans can relate.

  37. Jair said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    Mark: I think the stereotype rises in the same way any stereotype rises. It's not that all X's are Y's, or all Y's are X's (or even a significant percentage), it's that the intersection of X's and Y's has a more visible negative image than either group by themselves. It's the reason we get the idea of politicians as corrupt, or police officers as brutal enforcers. The idea of the pointy-haired boss is more interesting and memorable than the notion of a skilled, affable manager. If someone has such a boss, they're less likely to tell you about it, and you're less likely to remember. That's not to say the idea has no basis in reality. It's just that negativity seems to be the dominant meme. Could someone make a successful, syndicated comic strip about a successful, productive work atmosphere?

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    Many have said that the most dangerous thing an enlisted man will ever face is a second lieutenant with a map.

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Speaking of G&S, Allan Sherman had a nice parody version of When I Was a Lad, which seems somewhat relevant here: it tells the story of a man working his way up the ranks in an advertising agency, from office boy to partner–but the punchline is that he really got the whole thing through nepotism anyway.

  40. Mark P said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    Jerry Friedman – a good friend worked for a number of years at Los Alamos. He was not in a technical field, but when he was promoted to manage a group, he received a good bit of management training. It was interesting to hear how his perspective on managing changed as he learned about how to do it.

  41. Ken Brown said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    myl wrote: " people with similar properties abound in many other groups as well. So why do managers in particular get tagged with this stereotype? "

    Presumably because your boss has some power to enforce their strong opinions on you, but random ranters you meet in the pub or read online don't.

    My pet theory (1) The amount of academic education expected of a typical office worker has been rising continuously Nowadays some sort of college degree is expected of a new starter for almost anything much above simple filing and making the tea. Thirty years ago (in Britain) it was A-levels to start. Fifty years ago O-levels would do, and before the War a School Leaving Certificate. These days people recruited into fast-track management training often have a postgraduate qualification. In the 1980s any university degree would have done, and in the 1960s no degree would have been needed.

    As most white-collar workers are younger than their boss, at least when they start, that means that for the first ten or fifteen years of a career, most people are better educated than their bosses. (I don't think I have ever had an immediate boss with as many years of formal education as I have. One of my bosses has eleven years less than me…) If you think education is important you might tend to think yourself superior to one who is less well educated than you.

    My pet theory (2) The corporate memory and the main repository of skill and experience in hierarchical organisations is typically in what you might call the "NCO" class. In the military it is literally the NCOs; in business it is older skilled workers, senior "techies", the very lowest rank of supervisors; in a science lab in a university its the senior post-docs and the lab managers. They are people who have been around for a long time and have risen within the ranks. But armies, like large corporations (though not so often universities), often appoint younger, less experienced, and less skillful people above them. I suspect that sergeants have looked down on middle-ranking officers for many centuries. As Ted McClure pointed out above.

    I realise those two hypotheses are opposed to each other! But it might be that the young lions in their twenties who look down on their managers because they think they are cleverer and know they are better educated later grow up into the grizzled old campaigners who look down on their managers because they think they are more skilled and they know they are more experienced. [thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Whoops]

    Stephen Jones said: "It is the 'tradesmen', such as engineers, who are objecting to those they see as the parasitic aristocrats."

    Yes, exactly, 100%. I think you've nailed it!

    Aside: the division between techies and "suits" parallels that noticed at least 65 years ago by CP Snow between academic scientists and engineers. I don't meant the "two cultures" thing – these are both ion the scientific side of that alleged divide. Engineers were apparently typically more authoritarian, politically right-wing, and socially conservative than scientists.

  42. Zythophile said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    Much of the problem lies with managers being regarded as "not on our side", and as traitors to the workers, with their own class agendas. My father used to sing in the 1960s, to the tune of The Red Flag (Maryland, My Maryland/O Tannenbaum for US readers) "The working class can kiss me arse/I've got the foreman's job at last …"

  43. marie-lucie said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    I was once on a university committee that had to make important decisions. One of them was recommending applicants for a special research position which was open to both internal and external applicants. The lone internal applicant thought he would get the position as a matter of course and submitted a rather shoddy (as well as late) application, so he was among the many who were turned down. He filed a grievance against the committee, and the union representative took his side, telling us that as members of this committee (all but one elected by their fellow profs) we were considered "a tool of the administration".

  44. Kapitano said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    Surely managers became stereotypically clueless shortly after there was an influx of clueless managers. Which would be sometime in the late 70s when it became common for companies to employ people from outside as managers, instead of promoting existing employees.

    These would be people whose only relavent qualification is in…Management Studies. Which they're usually useless at too.

    It's confusing because this was also the time a lot of non-managerial roles were "dignified" with the title "Manager". Sometimes instead of a pay rise.

  45. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    I find it curious that, despite the many suggestions that disdain has to do with the frequent lack of field-specific knowledge by managers, no-one so far has paused to identify the specific causes of this becoming the norm, although they are well-known in the relevant literature.

    This may be because linguists, as a norm, have no reason to be acquainted with the history and sociology of management, but one doesn't really have to be an expert to recognize Frederick Winslow Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management as the text that first gained widespread acceptance for the idea that management is (a) qualitatively different from actual labour practice; and (b) better kept separate from the latter. In the Taylorist view, workers on the shopfloor might be adept at doing something, but they lacked the skills and breadth of view to determine exactly which would be the optimal way to do it. Organisational improvements such as the assembly line were not derived from worker expertise, but rather designed by engineers after careful time-and-motion studies. Furthermore, these improvements made workers' analytic skills largely useless, since the immediate task at hand and the time to do it would be dictated by the assembly line itself. Thus, it promoted a form of organisation were the competences and mindsets of workers and managers were radically separate.

    Of course, Taylorist managers were largely engineers, with or without academic qualifications, whose specialised knowledge would condemn any claims of cluelessness to ridicule. But when the first multi-divisional corporations began to appear during WWI, the kind of information to be collected and analysed became much more varied, giving rise to both a separation of functions within management (finance, accounting, personnel, production, etc.) and the appearance of intermediate white-collar tiers between employees and 'top' officers.

    Middle management (which, judging from the comments above, seems to be the preferred target of ridicule) could only appear under these circumstances, which also allow for the present kind of disparaging comments: as people in such a position do not have any direct influence over strategic choices, the possibility arises for them to be incompetent without directly leading to corporate failure. Principles such as Peter's can also only be enunciated under like conditions: in a single-product, single-location firm the corporate ladder did not have enough steps for much people to rise, and inadequacy would have been much easier to identify and correct than in a highly bureaucratic divisional organisation.

    I haven't made this the subject of rigorous research, but my hunch is that the stereotyping of managers appeared as a side effect of this two-fold detachment: both from the 'actual' work of the shopfloor, and from the 'real' decision-making in the executive boardroom. As their work mostly deals with internal organisation and indirect supervision, which already seems routine and superfluous enough to many employees, it's easy to see how this could translate to an image of cluelessness and ineffectuality.

  46. Tales from the Tubes – 02/10/09 | Young Australian Skeptics said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

    […] is a manager, and why do we think they’re stupid? Tags: Links, Skepticism, Tales from the Tubes […]

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