Why Managers Sometimes Look Like Idiots

Oct 26

Mike Hatton

Mike Hatton

I am going to explain why managers sometimes seem like they do not listen to engineers and why this may cause them to look like idiots. I will grant you that some managers are idiots, but while it may look like sometimes they are ignoring your advice, that is not what is actually going on.

I will admit that the evidence of idiocy seems strong. An engineer will say, “I told them that if they made this decision that this bad thing was going to happen. They ignored my advice and did it anyway. Now this bad thing happened, just like I said. Why are they such idiots?” I will explain why that situation can occur and why the manager did the right thing.

In making a decision, first, the manager will ask, “What is the best technical solution for this problem?” Under the best circumstance, everyone agrees on the solution because it is clearly the best solution. Other times, however, there is an argument amongst the engineers. Some will advocate for solution 1, while others will advocate for solution 2. The question is why would a bunch of smart, educated people disagree on the best solution? Usually it is because that while both solutions are good neither solution is perfect; both have downsides. In fact, there may not be a solution without a downside. So if Solution 1 has downside A and Solution 2 has downside B, you will hear a lot of statements like, “We can’t do Solution 2 because it has downside B”.

So the manager knows he has to pick a solution or continue the discussion forever. He may look at the downsides and say downside B is not as bad as downside A, so we will go with solution 2. So solution 2 is picked and all of the people in the solution 1 camp say, “You are going to have Downside B to contend with”. Later on, downside B starts to cause some problems and you hear people say, “I told you so”. So even though you have to deal with downside B, it is still better than if they had to deal with downside A. But either way, someone is going to think the manager is an idiot.

Risk taking is another necessary evil that can make managers look like idiots.

As often happens, you probably won’t have the budget to eliminate all of the risks, so the manager has to decide which risks, to take a chance on. What happens is that eventually one of the risks manifests itself, and a price has to be paid. Then the, “I told you so” rears its ugly head. A good manager will come out ahead because so many of the chances he took paid off, but unfortunately the one that did not pay off makes it look like he ignored everyone’s warnings. A lot of good is too often overshadowed by a little bad. He did not ignore the warnings; he had to take a calculated risk.

Sometimes the price of the risk failing are less than what it would cost to completely eliminate the risk. In that case there really is no risk. If something bad happens, you still come out ahead, but it looks like you ignored the engineers, which resulted in something bad happening. So you still look like an idiot to the ones that warned you.

This all brings me back to my main point. In none of these cases does the manager think the engineer is wrong. The manager knows that either a downside is guaranteed but it is not as bad as the alternative, or it is worth the risk that it may happen. But to the engineer it looks like the manager is disregarding the engineers input. Managers have to make decisions. Good managers listen to their people before making those decisions. The best managers make/explain/defend their decisions based on available options/risks/rewards, not on who made the suggestions or who might get mad.

The fact is with every decision made, someone is going to be happy and someone is going to be mad.

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