Ending the Cycle of Abusive Corporate Management

When I got my first corporate job at McDonalds shortly after I turned 14, my manager was a thirty something with a molester mustache who abused his “power” by trying to nail the underage female employees. Sometimes the slimy bastard succeeded.

My second corporate manager was a cocaine addicted, mullet headed, verbally abusive, statutory rapist. When I quit, this guy actually told me that “I couldn’t quit” because it was illegal for someone under 21 to quit a job without management’s permission. Huh? I walked out anyway and then he held my paycheck.

My third corporate manager was powermad. While standing right next to you, she’d drop a piece of paper on the floor and say, “Steve, will you pick that up?” I did it a few times, but after that, I avoided her because she disciplined anyone who refused her commands. Strange woman.

I know, I know… You’d think I would have learned by this point. But I didn’t. Most of us don’t.

My fourth corporate manager was a bald guy who always wore a baseball cap, even indoors. He managed truck drivers who made $15-20 per hour but never gave them an annual increase over 25 cents per hour. He justified his stinginess saying, “10 cents an hour was a great raise when I drove truck.” I assume senior management enjoyed the reduced labor costs, but they still fired him when the drivers nearly unionized.

When I got my foot into cubicle land as a customer service rep my new manager was no better; she threw angry tantrums firing people for delusional paranoid reasons. Several months later, after firing her, senior management asked me to manage the customer service group.

I was facing a classic working class dilemma. Do I sell-out my “people” and become “the man” like all the slimy middle managers before me or do I keep my paltry working class income and retain the righteousness of poverty?

I sold-out. I wanted to be a different kind of manager, but I still suffered from the delusion that good management was about fear, power, control, and discipline. Why wouldn’t I? That’s how authorities managed us in school. That’s how I was managed in each working class position leading up to my promotion. I had no real-world examples of good management.

Maybe abusive management is cyclical like spousal and alcohol abuse. We learn it from those that come before us and the real question is how to break the cycle.

My current boss helped me break the cycle. He was my first real-world example of a great manager. I am grateful to have him as a mentor.

When people think of corporate management, they tend to think about the managers in Office Space or the corrupt executives at Enron or Tyco. But if you’ve ever worked under great management, you know that these stereotypes are the worst kind of management. They are bad for employees, bad for business, and bad for shareholders.

Through mentorship and reading books like The Essential Drucker, I’ve learned a few of the values that are critical to successful business management, whether it is a large enterprise or a home based micro-business. You can use these values not only to achieve success in business and management but also to achieve success in life.

The first thing a new manager should understand is – great management is not about you or your career. It’s about serving other people.

Great management is about:

People – A great manager will form groups that perform well together, leveraging each member’s strengths while minimizing weaknesses. If you work for a managed institution, which most people do, your quality of life and your contribution to society are greatly dependent on the quality of your managers. Great managers will have high expectations combined with compassion and understanding for people’s personal or family lives.

Culture – Does your management style create a culture of fear, mistrust, and greed, or does it create a culture of courage, trust, and generosity? Status Quo or innovation? Protectionism or openness? But this isn’t just about corporate culture; it’s also about world cultures. Are you open to the ideas and strengths of other cultures? Ideas and strengths that are proven or are you closed to ideas from other cultures and myopically chained to your own culture? Every culture has strengths and weaknesses; do your best to adopt the strengths and abandon the weaknesses.

Commitment to Common Goals and Common Values – Does your organization have clear goals and share common values? Have you clearly and consistently communicated these values and goals? Goals and values that unify and provide common vision? Do you as a manager exemplify the goals and values of the organization or are they hollow words?

Training and Development – To succeed every organization/business must foster training and development – Training and development that does not stop. All great managers strive to increase the human potential around them.

Communication – A great manager once told me that he could trace each of his management failures back to a poor communication and each of his successes to clear communication. In management, it is better to over communicate – even to the point of absurdity – than it is to fail to communicate. The most common communication failures are a failure to listen and failure to admit that you don’t understand. Failing to listen or faking understanding, is failing to communicate.

Individual Responsibility – Individual responsibility is not only taking responsibility for your own work but also a clearly communicating your expectation that others also accept responsibility for their work. Micromanagers fail to expect people to be responsible for their own work, so if you must micromanage you’ve hired the wrong people, failed to train them, or set expectations too low.

Satisfying Customers – The ultimate goal of any organization is to satisfy someone outside the organization. A hospital should heal the sick, a business should provide a good or service that people want at a price they will pay, a school should provide a student with knowledge they can put to work later. A police force should provide people security. A publication/website should provide content people want. Inside an organization, there are only costs, and the money to pay for those costs always comes from outside the organization from satisfied customers.

11 thoughts on “Ending the Cycle of Abusive Corporate Management”

  1. Very thought- provoking Steve. For me the best managers are those who have the people and the communication at the forefront of their minds. Without them the task can’t be done well and goals and targets can’t be met without some pain! But they are so often the last thing considered.
    I recently had the chance to do some basic firefighter training with guys who do that job for real. To paint the picture I am a 50 year old woman. The “manager” told us what needed to be achieved and with good preparation we were given the freedom (regardless of age/gender/fitness/ability) to complete the task. We did – with that much trust it is not really a surprise. He emphasised the ABC of communication – accurate, brief and clear – which is crucial in fire and rescue situations and can be just as important in every other management situation. He provided relevant and timely feedback as we went. And he gave the clear impression that he liked people! A great model for any manager.

  2. LOL at the molester moustache.

    I’ve had some bad managers. I think the worst ones are the ones who are genuinely afraid of people. I had one manager who would hide in their office and refuse to answer the phone or reply to emails. Then, when things started to go off the rails, they would select one of us to take the fall, and send them a nasty email asking them why they let things get so out of hand. They had the highest attrition rate in the company, and in one month alone, over 70% of their staff resigned.

    At any rate, I’m out of that world now. It’s my belief that most corporations promote for the wrong reasons, such as performance or seniority. Unless they are extremely careful to select people with proven leadership and people skills, there will always be bad managers.

  3. I’ve been very lucky. From my first LPO (the Navy’s version of a manager) through most of my civilian manager’s, I’ve had great manager/mentors. The only exceptions were the few jobs I had while living in Virginia. Maybe it’s the way things are done there. I walked out of my first job in Virginia about 3 years ago. My last job, I yelled at the manager in front of a bunch of other people when he tried to become abusive.

    Of course it helps that I’m great at my job–probably partly due to having had some great managers.

  4. I’ve been obsessing about management lately as I am now in a situation with my first micro-manager. It’s helped me to form a slogan for my management style “Manage up, mentor down.”

    That’s how I was taught to manage by the examples in my life. Whenever I was in the position, it was the easiest way to get things done and ensure that my team was happy and healthy.

    Many managers might be surprised that people do better with more freedom than with more rules. I’m training mine now 😉

    In Spirit,
    Nneka

  5. I earned a Masters Degree in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in non-profit organizations. Perhaps it was the Jesuit school I attended, but we were completely submerged in the idea of “servant leadership.” By serving the people you’re leading, you are able to elicit more buy-in, a stronger company, and a happier workforce.

    As for the run-down on your previous bosses: Thank you. Somethimes I think I must sound like I’m in denial about myself when I describe my previous bosses as (in no particular order) crazy, power-hungry, ineffective, unstable, and crazy (did I say that one already?) I have had some doozies! It sounds like you have, too.

  6. Great post!

    I’m fortunate enough to have the best manager a person could ask for at my current job. I know that, because I look back at my two years here, and I can see how much I’ve grown as a _person_ through his management style. This has almost complete overlap with what you’ve written about.

    I think the single most important aspect of all is transparency. My manager has put an enormous amount of effort into encouraging everyone on our team (and in the company) to use the shared wiki. The more we use the wiki, the more transparent we are. Thanks to this complete transparency, we’ve nearly eliminated meetings from our daily and weekly lives. Now that’s an improvement in quality of work-life!

  7. I’ve had two great bosses in my life. Both of them were very hands-off. In other words they trusted me to do my job. Both had very clear goals and expectations. Both recognized me when I did a good job, which was all the time because I liked these guys so much and their trust in me made me want to excel. Great post!

  8. Where have you been all my internet life??? Absolutely wonderful, uplifting blog! I am recommending it to everyone I know and linked to you as well. Keep up the great work!

  9. Well, you broke the law several times. You talk about “personal responsibility” but you don’t or didn’t act when you should have.

    Where a man commits statutory rape and creates a sexually hostile work environment, you should have acted. The police in the first instance and the EEOC in the second instance. Since you are young enough, the 1964 civil rights act was in place when you first experienced this kind of management abuse. You can (and, damn well should) make an anonymous Title VII complaint – the EEOC will know who made the complaint – the employer never finds out.

    If you are searching for personal integrity – start by following the law.

    One further thing: I’ve noticed that Neanderthal managers are far more common during tough economic times – all other factors being equal.

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