Managers have no human rights

March 31st, 2024

Here are some thoughts which are often basically correct:

I'm sure you can add a few similar observations of your own, which at various times & places were fairly accurate. My point in this writeup is that a manager doesn't get to whine about any of this, any more than a boxer gets to whine about a broken nose. A normal person very much does get to whine about a broken nose, and it isn't whining - it's grounds for a lawsuit in any reasonable jurisdiction. But when a boxer steps into the boxing ring, he obviously forfeits the basic human right of not getting punched in the face.

Similarly, a normal person - the so-called "individual contributor", which I guess is what we call workers in the age where mice and keyboards replaced hammers and sickles - a normal person can reasonably expect some basics from the workplace:

The condition meeting the full set of these lofty requirements is sometimes called "psychological safety." So in short, the individual contributor is entitled to psychological safety - in hammer & sickle terms, workers should be able to focus on work.

And by "should," I don't mean it always actually happens. I just mean that when it doesn't, you can reasonably expect to resolve the situation by quitting the team you're on, without having to find a different line of work. That, as opposed to a manager, who can only resolve this situation by finding a different line of work.

Why isn't the manager entitled to the same human rights as everyone else? Well, first of all, he just isn't, meaning, if you see a manager who complains about said human rights of his being violated a lot, you can be certain that he's not going to stay in management for long; he'll either have the common sense to quit or he'll be "demoted" from this position (whether it's actually a demotion, and which way in a hierarchy is up is a question in itself; some theoreticians postulate that there's no up, only out - but in any case, the manager will stop being one.)

Now, if I do try to explain this fact, which managers usually get at the gut level without needing an explanation, the analogies that come to mind are the minister of foreign affairs and the plumber. You cannot, as a minister of foreign affairs, be sad and shocked over countries plotting against you, and maybe even preparing to attack you - nobody wants a perpetually shocked minister of foreign affairs. And similarly, you cannot be a plumber if you're appalled by the sight, smell and tactile properties of shit.

"Individual contributors" can be fairly non-competitive, certainly in an industry like computing where demand for workers outstrips supply, there's enough work for everyone, and where you know a ton of trivia about your area that anyone else would need lots of time to learn if they had to step into your shoes. It's not only desirable but very possible to find a place where no colleague is going to fight you in order to add your area of responsibility to theirs, and thus get promoted.

Managers, on the other hand, are always basically low-grade1 fighting each other, in the same way as countries always have conflicting interests, even if they maintain what looks like cordial relationships. I mean it not as a statement about the character of managers, but as a description of their condition. This condition follows, not from their character, but from various unfortunate facts of life - for example, the fact that managers are assumed to be fungible and are hopelessly underinformed, and it gets worse with rank.

The fungibility assumption means that a manager is always under a threat of losing "territory" to another manager, a reorg making him a report of someone undesirable, or a straightforward replacement, much more than an IC, which creates a very competitive environment. And the theoretical impossibility of managers being truly informed on the subjects falling under their responsibility guarantees that their never-ending competition involves a lot of so-called "misinformation, disinformation and malinformation." Of course, the manager's condition of eternal competition fought on such wonderful terms does filter for character - and not in a way making a manager's day spent with colleagues particularly pleasant.

In fact, all the unfortunate circumstances above - like the difficulty getting things done across the proverbial (organizational) boundaries, deranged convulsions around "strategy," schedule chicken, and of course the scheming & the gaslighting - all this shit flows first and foremost from the competition between managers as well as the organization competing in the external world.

ICs are entitled to managers shielding them from this shit - rarely fully, but quite often very considerably. Managers are not entitled to this, because even if a 2nd, 3rd or Nth level manager would like to shield lower-ranking managers from this (a rare, if laudable, desire), it's not possible, because there's just too much of it going on at the same time. Of course it gets worse at higher ranks, but even a 1st level manager expecting a positive atmosphere, the kind that ICs take for granted - "wow, cool stuff you've made there!" - will be sorely disappointed to learn that "please," "thank you," and "sorry" are gone from his day, replaced by "our requirement," "your commitment" and "customer escalation."

"If you want to make people happy, don't be a leader, sell ice cream," said a first-rate CEO and first-rate asshole Steve Jobs. To this we might add, "If you want people to make you happy, consider selling ice cream, too." Or it could be any sort of work which isn't management. A manager needs to be seriously driven by something other than having a nice day, because that's just not gonna happen - the perfect drive for you and your higher management is "getting promoted," and the perfect drive for you to have from the shareholders' POV is "getting shit done." But motivation is a story for another time.

Infrequently Raised Objections

I am a manager, and my days are nice.

Congratulations! You're either a great liar, including to yourself (all great liars start with themselves), or you're completely indifferent to constant struggle and maybe you even enjoy it, or you're leading a very capable organization which overdelivers often and underdelivers never (how big is it? A double digit number, tops?..), so you're enjoying what's known as "peace through strength."

Rest assured that this condition is not fundamentally permanent (all strength is finite and always only goes so far), but do enjoy it while it lasts, which can be for quite a while. Watch out for large reorgs, changes in the market / technology and wider strategy (as I'm sure you do; only a competent manager gets to enjoy any duration of peace through strength.)

Or you're lucky.

I am a manager, and my manager shields me from this.

You're either effectively an IC, like "the leader of a team of 2 people under someone who makes every 3 people into a team," or you're working on something self-contained nobody needs and it will be soon canceled, or you have some infernal bond sealed in goat's blood with your manager (or your manager has it with his), and when this thing explodes under external pressure, it will be really ugly.

Or you're lucky.

There exist organizations free from the dysfunction you describe.

Like I said, "...or you're lucky." Sure, they exist. They're just rare, and usually don't remain that way as they grow (ever heard "we're only hiring the best people?" Well, when you're hiring a lot of people, you're hiring typical people, because there aren't this many "best" people readily available. Therefore, growth tends to bring about a regression to the mean in all areas, including this one.) And most places are dysfunctional this way from day one, which by itself doesn't prevent them from succeeding and growing; nor does a lack of this dysfunction guarantee success.

Speaking of which, I never quite understood the meaning of "dysfunctional" in "dysfunctional organizations." These organizations definitely function; they generate trillions worth of world GDP. That they aren't fun to work at in a managerial role might be true, but it is not their function to make it fun to work there in a managerial role. It is the function of you to choose roles you can enjoy, and I hope the above can help some people with this.

But we foster a non-hierarchical culture of openness and curiosity.

If you're looking to decorate your office space, I have a suitcase full of hammers and sickles I brought from Soviet Russia. I kept them to remind me of the old country, but your company sounds so awesome that I'll gladly send them to you.

Most deliberate attempts to improve upon the baseline outcome of people being people make things worse. You'll do everyone a favor by going straight to the standard thing without going through a tedious cult phase first.

Calmly accepting dysfunction does not a good manager make.

I didn't mean to imply that accepting and having a strategy for handling "dysfunction," or should I say the inevitable consequences of the job description, is sufficient for being a good manager, whatever that means. I'm only saying that it's necessary for being a manager at all, for any reasonable period of time and with a reasonable level of job satisfaction.

This "acceptance" is not a binary thing. It depends on how bad it gets.

It's binary in some and not binary in others. There are 3 types of people: people who binarily can't accept it; people who binarily can, regardless of the depths of depravity reached; and people on whom it starts taking a toll at a certain level. Your type can be predicted pretty well based on what motivates you, and we'll discuss it in an upcoming, very motivational piece on motivation.

Thanks to Dan Luu and Tim Pote for reviewing a draft of this post.

P.S. There exists a breed of "individual contributor" with a fancy title, such as a Principal Engineer, a Fellow and other such. The desirability of the existence of these titles is a subject in its own right; in our context, their relevance is that they largely strip you of human rights as much as management titles do. One hint of why this is so is their visibility as a status marker and the consequences of this visibility - their scarcity and the resulting competition, in many places fiercer than the fight for management titles. An exception to the rule is if you're The Guy Who Did X for some serious-ass value of X, and you got your fancy title thanks to that value of X, regardless of the "technical track" promotion politics.

  1. Hopefully↩︎

1. Lorin HochsteinApr 1, 2024

You might get a kick out of the book “Moral Mazes”, which was a sociological study of managers. I wrote a review of it on my blog a couple of years ago:

2. Yossi KreininApr 1, 2024

I've read his article in HBR from 1983 and quotes published by "The Zvi". I think it's mostly correct, except for his calling it "moral mazes" as if doing the right thing or even knowing what it is was easy if someone didn't build some maze or something

3. DrotchApr 1, 2024

Is this true only for managers though? Of the aspects of psychological safety you mentioned, in the places/teams I worked on (as an IC):

I'm sure my manager had it worse than me in these sense, but it is more a difference in magnitude than in kind.

4. Yossi KreininApr 1, 2024

There's a large drop in both "psychological safety" and the likelihood to improve it by lateral movement between IC and manager, to the point where your ability to do without it now defines your fitness for the job. But you could say that it's a difference in magnitude more than in kind. But it would miss some of the change (eg people can exchange favors, but teams basically cannot and therefore managers can't, too; this is a change in kind which you could still call magnitude but it's like saying that people and fish both swim, fish just swim more, so it's a change in magnitude, not in kind.)

5. PeterApr 2, 2024

It would be great to read this without a subliminal message that all managers are male.

6. Yossi KreininApr 2, 2024

I honestly thought the sentence was going to end with "...that all managers are shit."

If you want to read it without this "subliminal message," just read it again, because it isn't there.

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