People can read their manager's mind

The fish rots from the head down.

– A beaten saying

People generally don't do what they're told, but what they expect to be rewarded for. Managers often say they'll reward something – perhaps they even believe it. But then they proceed to reward different things.

I think people are fairly good at predicting this discrepancy. The more productive they are, the better they tend to be at predicting it. Consequently, management's stated goals will tend to go unfulfilled whenever deep down, management doesn't value the sort of work that goes into achieving these goals.

So not only is paying lip service to these goals worthless, but so is lying to oneself and genuinely convincing oneself. When time comes to reward people, it is the gut feeling of whose work is truly remarkable that matters. And what you usually convince yourself of is that the goal is important – but not that achieving it is remarkable. In fact, often someone pursuing what you think are unimportant goals in a way that you admire will impress you more than someone doing "important grunt work" (in your eyes.)

You then live happily with this compartmentalization – an important goal to be achieved by unremarkable people. However, nobody is fooled except you. The people whose compensation depends on your opinion have ample time to remember and analyze your past words and decisions – more time than you, in fact, and a stronger incentive. And so their mental model of you is often much better than your own. So they ignore your requests and become valued, instead of following them and sinking into obscurity.


  • A manager truly appreciates original mathematical ideas. The manager requests to rid the code of crash-causing bugs, because customers resent crashes. The most confident people ignore him and spend time coming up with original math. The less confident people spend time chasing bugs, are upset by the lack of recognition, and eventually leave for greener pastures. At any given moment, the code base is ridden by crash-causing bugs.
  • A manager enjoys "software architecture", design patterns, and language lawyer type of knowledge. The manager requests to cooperate better with neighboring teams who are upset by missing functionality in the beautifully architected software. People will tend to keep designing more patterns into the program.
  • A highly influential figure enjoys hacking on their machine. The influential figure points out the importance of solid, highly-available infrastructure to support development. The department responsible for said infrastructure will guarantee that he gets as much bandwidth, RAM, screen pixels and other goodies as they can supply, knowing that the infrastructure he really cares about is that which enables the happy hacking on his machine. The rest of the org might well remain stuck with a turd of an infrastructure.
  • A manager loathes spending money. The manager requires to build highly-available infrastructure to support development. People responsible for infrastructure will build a piece of shit out of yesteryear's scraps purchased at nearby failing companies for peanuts, knowing that they'll be rewarded.
  • A manager is all about timely delivery, and he did very little code maintenance in his life. The manager nominally realizes that a lot of code is used in multiple shipping products; that it takes some time to make a change compatible with all the client code; and that branching the entire code base is a quick way to do the work for this delivery, but you'll pay for the shortcut many times over in each of your future deliveries. People will fork the code base for every shipping product. (I've seen it and heard about it more times than the luckier readers would believe.)

And so it goes. If something is rotten in an org, the root cause is a manager who doesn't value the work needed to fix it. They might value it being fixed, but of course no sane employee gives a shit about that. A sane employee cares whether they are valued. Three corollaries follow:

Corollary 1. Who can, and sometimes does, un-rot the fish from the bottom? An insane employee. Someone who finds the forks, crashes, etc. a personal offense, and will repeatedly risk annoying management by fighting to stop these things. Especially someone who spends their own political capital, hard earned doing things management truly values, on doing work they don't truly value – such a person can keep fighting for a long time. Some people manage to make a career out of it by persisting until management truly changes their mind and rewards them. Whatever the odds of that, the average person cannot comprehend the motivation of someone attempting such a feat.

Corollary 2. When does the fish un-rot from the top? When a manager is taught by experience that (1) neglecting this thing is harmful and (2) it's actually hard to get it right (that is, the manager himself, or someone he considers smart, tried and failed.) But that takes managers admitting mistakes and learning from them. Such managers exist; to be called one of them would exceed my dreams.

Corollary 3. Managers who can't make themselves value all important work should at least realize this: their goals do not automatically become their employees' goals. On the contrary, much or most of a manager's job is to align these goals – and if it were that easy, perhaps they wouldn't pay managers that much, now would they? I find it a blessing to be able to tell a manager, "you don't really value this work so it won't get done." In fact, it's a blessing even if they ignore me. That they can hear this sort of thing without exploding means they can be reasoned with. To be considered such a manger is the apex of my ambitions.

Finally, don't expect people to enlighten you and tell you what your blind spots are. Becoming a manager means losing the privilege of being told what's what. It's a trap to think of oneself as just the same reasonable guy and why wouldn't they want to talk to me. The right question is, why would they? Is the risk worth it for them? Only if they take your org's problem very personally, which most people quite sensibly don't. Someone telling me what's what is a thing to thank for, but not to count on.

The safe assumption is, they read your mind like an open book, and perhaps they read it out loud to each other – but not to you. The only way to deal with the problems I cause is an honest journey into the depths of my own rotten mind.

P.S. As it often happens, I wanted to write this for years (the working title was "people know their true KPIs"), but I didn't. I was prompted to finally write it by reading Dan Luu's excellent "How Completely Messed Up Practices Become Normal", where he says, among other things, "It’s sort of funny that this ends up being a problem about incentives. As an industry, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to incentivize consumers into doing what we want. But then we set up incentive systems that are generally agreed upon as incentivizing us to do the wrong things…" I guess this is my take on the incentives issue – real incentives vs stated incentives; I believe people often break rules put in place to achieve a stated goal in order to do the kind of work that is truly valued (even regardless of whether that work's goal is valued.) It's funny how I effectively comment on Dan's blog two times in a row, his blog having become easily my favorite "tech blog", while my own is kinda fading away as I spend my free time learning to animate.



#1 Dan Luu on 01.01.16 at 2:14 am

Hmm. I really enjoy your blog and get pretty excited every time I see that you have a new post in my RSS reader. If what it takes for you to blog more is me writing something on the topic, I need to find out what ideas you have squirreled away so I can prompt you into writing more :P.

Although, if you're really enjoying animation, maybe I should avoid those topics instead.

#2 Francis Kim on 01.01.16 at 3:41 am

It's true, I can read my manager's mind who reads my mind.

#3 Stephanie AB on 01.01.16 at 4:17 am

It's brilliant!

I have a manager that does one-on-ones once a year. It's a 30 minute endurance test on my side, listening to him tell me about the prospects for the next year, and then asking me how things are going.

"Everything is going extremely well."

He doesn't know me. He isn't even interested in hearing one thing from me. That's fine. They like me, I do the work I like and want to do, I give them what they need in the time they need it, and I get what I want out of the deal.

#4 Bob on 01.01.16 at 6:25 am

I think this describes why I've been feeling resentful about work. I fall under the less confident type of employee. I spend my time fixing bugs, and even my boss admits I do unrecognized work. The senior developer gets all the cool assignments and all the recognition, and although the boss values the work, I feel invisible most of the time.

Also, since the senior developer has a new family now, I doubt he'll be leaving any time soon so my possibility for advancement is very small.

At this point, I haven't decided yet whether I do want them to notice and let me go, or whether I want to go to greener pastures like you mentioned.

#5 Cody on 01.01.16 at 9:14 am

Do people actually do what managers value or reward?

I've mostly gone off and done my own thing based on what I thought was important.

#6 Yossi Kreinin on 01.01.16 at 10:41 am

@Dan: thanks :-) As to animating, I don't know if I'm enjoying it yet – learning is hard, dammit, definitely my nostalgia for formal education that unexpectedly formed in my brain when I entered the workforce has not survived this latest learning experience… Let's say I'm definitely planning to enjoy it eventually :-)

@Francis: as a manager I assume my mind to be more transparent to people reporting to me than theirs is to me, largely because I'm one and they're many so it's a bit like simultaneously playing chess on multiple boards. A grandmaster playing amateurs can win all or most games in a simul, but playing against several people who're roughly in your own league is hopeless. And I'm hardly a grandmaster mind reader.

@Stephanie: actually your situation sounds pretty good! Definitely better than having a manager that needlessly bugs you every other day…

@Bob: I think I'd confront them about it. (I wasn't very good at picking timing or strategy for that early on in my career; a friend recently reminded me how he used to advise me on these matters…)

@Cody: I guess I've mostly done my own thing, too, but it's a bit subtler than that. Managers rewarding something doesn't require them to say they will. My managers ended up rewarding me doing my own thing, at least much of the time. And while it was me who chose that thing, my choice was affected by how the org would respond to my work. There are things I knew were important that I never ventured into because I didn't see how the politics could be overcome; things I did happily because the politics aligned to help me instead of getting in my way; and things I decided to do even though there was political friction to overcome (this last kind of thing is something most people recoil from, and so do I to some degree or other – the threshold is different for everyone.)

The upshot is that one can be rather responsive to incentives without being the type who "does what he's told." In fact, the more independent people in my experience are the ones most aware of what the org "really wants", while people doing what they're told are the ones who let themselves be dragged into areas considered "important grunt work", to their own detriment. The independent person will actively fight assignments which are nominally important but not really appreciated, insisting on doing their own (usually better appreciated) thing instead, and this is actually the strongest form of responding to incentives!

#7 Jeffrey Fredrick on 01.01.16 at 11:51 am

I like this as a piece to develop empathy and self-awareness in managers. To that end it gave me a new heuristic to try:


#8 Dmitry on 01.01.16 at 11:44 pm

You can write endless pieces about techs actively managed by managers having no technical background whatsoever – and it is almost always a sad story. If you know something, you mostly end up doing the job because you can, and managed by people who can not.

#9 Yossi Kreinin on 01.02.16 at 9:59 am

Actually, my point holds for managers with a technical background just as much as it holds for ones without it, as long as they have a bias towards valuing some kinds of important work over others.

#10 Tomasz G. on 01.18.16 at 2:53 pm

Wow, Yossi! You're back! And with a great article to add to that.

As a non-manager I can only have fun reading this. It's quite true, but now you've actually revealed some of our tactics. Now the pointy-haired boneheads will persecute us also for "following orders", which will be a malevolent adaptation to their own tastes.

But we (subordinates) can also be partially at fault here. I am not a "responsibility crusader" (like your hero from Corollary 1), but when I see this in others, I do support them – more or less vocally. If the whole team acts as one – the manager will usually yield.

I used to have such a nice setting, where the manager was possible to convince at times (even without unanimity – a strong majority would do) – so this was a Corollary 3-type situation.

Now I am jumping between 3 projects, which costs me a ton of context switching (see Joel's article from about 2001), and encourages procrastination – e.g. reading "Proper Fixation"). Two of these projects are operating at the Corollary-3-level, but in one there is a collection of ego-invested buffoons taking revenge for code review, plus a non-technical manageress channelling orders from above her (this is like a diode – a one-way communication channel, but we can't respond via it). The rules are just handed down to us.

Even in the last situation, if we weren't just a bunch of envious conflicted losers, I can imagine that it would be possible to make the manager do our bidding with the upper layers.

So, there is always some room for manoeuvre except for keeping your CV up to date (which doesn't hurt anyway), if there are only enough sane people to work with.

There are corollaries to that – e.g. if it's just you and the boss, and your role is personal-assistant-scapegoat for the infallible master – then: eject button.

#11 Yossi Kreinin on 01.19.16 at 1:40 pm

Glad you liked it!

#12 Ravi on 01.21.16 at 11:52 am

Bang on!! I have never really thought of it from this perspective, but now it makes perfect sense. I can now replay all the moments where I have felt less valued than someone else who always gets to do cool new assignments and think – "I really did what you asked me to do. This is what you said was really valuable" and the other person getting rewarded for just being part of something inherently cool that he did not have to put any effort to look good.

I think now that I am at the level where I could be leading a team some day soon, it provides me valuable insight into how to really build a team who feels valued and also create value. Thank you for that.

#13 Yossi Kreinin on 01.21.16 at 3:17 pm

Good luck! Personally I never aimed at managing a team, it just turns out that it's the only way to be responsible for more than I can handle myself and I appear to value this ability more than the control over details and the depth of understanding that is lost in exchange for breadth. But I'm dumber as a result, no doubt about it… I guess the less you mourn the lost depth, the more you enjoy it.

#14 S Battaglia on 03.21.16 at 9:07 pm

The bit about the manager who loathes spending money hits a bit close to home for me. A past manager wanted a robust system of rotation for backups, but didn't want to buy the actual tapes.

#15 Yossi Kreinin on 03.21.16 at 9:53 pm

Interesting! I wonder what you ended up doing…

#16 Eugene Yee on 01.09.17 at 8:06 pm

i don't understand the first sentence of this article: "People generally don't do what they're told, but what they expect to be rewarded for."

#17 Yossi Kreinin on 01.09.17 at 10:13 pm

Which part of this sentence?

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