A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
September 13th, 2014 by William

Throw Me an Anvil

Dilbert is on a walk with his mother. Along the way his mother asks him quite innocently, “How was work Dilbert?” At that Dilbert goes on a mini-rant about his job saying;

“I’m like a fly stuck in a thick tar of despair.
Incompetence hangs in the air like the cold stench of death.
I’m drowning and monkeys dressed as lifeguards are throwing me anvils.
My job has convinced me life is a stale joke with no punch line.
I long for the comfort of the grave.”

His mother responds with. “Next time just say ‘Its fine.’”

One of my favorite management gurus is Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005). You don’t hear him quoted much anymore, like back in the 1980’s and 90’s when his management theories were really popular, but his wisdom is none the less spot on in describing the modern workplace. Drucker once said, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

I’ve written about this problem, i.e., bosses making it difficult for people to get their work done, in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw as I believe it’s a real issue for employees everywhere. I’ve also blogged about this subject before–the most recent dealt with “ostracism” as a method that the boss can undermine a direct report. However, this post is about how people can be set up for failure based on the assignments they receive. In other words does your boss throw you an anvil or a life preserver? That no-win project that the boss just assigned to you is like the proverbial anvil being thrown to you as you are drowning.

Congo is a 1980s science fiction novel by Michael Crichton. The novel centers on an expedition searching for diamonds and investigating the mysterious deaths of a previous expedition in the dense rain forest of Congo. A line from the book goes like this, “His management philosophy, tempered in his rain-dancing days, was always to give the project to whoever had the most to gain from success–or the most to lose from failure.”

From my own experience there’s a lot of truth to that statement when describing the workplace and the management style of many bosses. The problem I’m going to talk about is more applicable to the project management types than to those who have a single specific job function to perform. Project management, I believe, is one of the toughest jobs in the modern workplace. Project managers are often in no-win situations as they are expected to work miracles despite having no direct staff or subordinates to execute the project for them. To be a success they must be true leaders. In my experience some of the best leaders in business today are project managers.

That said one reason project management can be so challenging is that many bosses will show favoritism when it comes to making project management assignments. They favor a select few of their reports (their loyal sycophants) by giving them the easy projects, while dooming their least favorite employees by throwing them the proverbial anvil in the form of a project that has little chance of being a success.

Why do bosses do this? The fact is that every project needs to have someone at the helm, thus someone needs to be the stuckee for the no-win projects. That’s fine if the pain of taking on these type projects is shared equally. Also it helps if the organizational culture isn’t one of blame. Face it, every organization has a crappy project once in a while that needs to be managed. Taking it on shouldn’t be your exit ticket.

The key to my argument, i.e., that a bad project can be used vindictively by a boss to torpedo an employee, starts with the realization that every boss knows, to a certain extent, beforehand whether a particular project has the potential for success or failure. I’ll explain why later. The problem is that many times those loser assignments are funneled to the employee(s) least favored by the boss. Or, as Crichton would say: to whoever has “the most to lose from failure.”

The reason for this is simple: giving an employee a “no-win” assignment is the sure-fire way to thin the herd. In my career I’ve seen many projects that were nothing but revolving doors for the boss to use as a way to set up an employee for failure thus providing the necessary ammunition to get rid of him or her. What exacerbates the imminent failure of the employee on a particular project is the fact that giving the employee a no-win project isn’t where it stops. There are other methods that the boss uses to torpedo the employee that will be used at the same time. Earlier I talked about “ostracism” as one of those “tools” used by bosses to undermine an employee. Note: there are many “tools” (methods) that a boss can use to undermine an employee. They are well known in the management arena and used many times intentionally by the boss.

It’s not bad enough that the bad project is like an anchor tied around the person’s neck but when the boss then uses the other “tools” against him/her it’s not unlike throwing a drowning person an anvil. Here’s a short list of few of those “tools.”

• Leaving the person out of things (memos, meetings) that the person’s job requires them to be involved with
• Withholding valuable information instrumental to the person’s success
• Giving the person the cold shoulder for no apparent reason
• Talking about the person behind their back undermining their ability to solicit support from others
• Denying the necessary resources for the person to achieve success
• Micromanage the person

And when the person ultimately fails on the no-win project they will receive a crappy performance review (remember the performance review process is “no good deed goes unpunished” in action), coupled with no raise, and a personalized “performance improvement plan” that’s really just a ticket to the unemployment line. In business there is no “take one for team” and then move on to the next challenge–the next challenge will be finding a new job.

From the boss perspective, part of the mechanism at play here is something I’ve written about before: plausible deniability. By essentially cutting off the employee assigned the crappy project, the boss can plausibly deny he/she had any culpability in the project failure and can thus offer up (to upper management) the poor employee as the scapegoat. This is one of the reasons ostracism is so prevalent.

Of course the real question to be asked here is not why some employees get assigned the loser projects, but more profoundly why there even exists “loser projects” at all. These are the projects doomed to fail from their onset. With all the management and leadership literature, training, and rhetoric that’s available you’d think that no project, undertaken by a modern business organization, needs be a loser. The reason is simple and its part of the normal business environment.

The answer is that companies sign on to do questionable projects because they are desperate to show growth and book business at any costs. Thus they sign on to do things they know can’t be a success. Probably the most prevalent is underbidding a project so as to beat the competition. But they’ll sign on and then kick the can down the road. Selective amnesia allows them to ignore their own track record of failed projects and thus they have no clue how to effectively perform what they signed up to do. They will then tell themselves that somehow, someway this time will be different. With no clear plan on how to execute the project they then assign it to some poor soul, ostracize him or her, deny the resources needed, and ultimately, when the project fails, and then blame the individual.

The bottom line is that management and even leadership are oftentimes not the well thought-out science as the guru’s would like you to think. As Leon Courville Ph.D. Chief Operating Officer of National Bank of Canada observed when asked if management is a science: “Of course not, it’s just a waste-paper basket full of recipes which provided the dish of the day during a few years of plenty and economic growth. Now the recipes are inappropriate and the companies which persist in following them will disappear.”

These then are the companies that seem to have one loser project after another. Sound familiar? Do you work in an organization where there’s always at least one project (usually more) that’s behind schedule, over cost and technically defective, and has had a revolving door of poor souls at the helm who end up disappearing in the night. Be wary as you may the next person tagged to manage that project.

The reality is that all who work in big modern organizations are really just treading water. At any time you can be pulled under and seldom do you ever really get out of the (sometimes hot) water. Unfortunately, it just may be your boss, who should be your lifeguard, who’s throwing you an anvil instead of a life preserver.


One Response to “Throw Me an Anvil”
  1. Chance Xyong says

    Great article.

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