A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
April 26th, 2015 by William

Whac-a-Mole Management

Whac-A-Mole is a popular arcade game invented in 1976 by Aaron Fechter of Creative Engineering, Inc. It’s a game in which you try to hit moles that pop up randomly on a board using a rubber mallet. Every time you hit a mole, you get a point. The objective is to get enough points to qualify for a prize.

The term “Whac-a-Mole” has been used colloquially (mostly sarcastically) in business to denote some repetitious and futile task. In that respect it’s probably a good metaphor for what daily workplace organizational life can really be about. Most often the term is used to frustratingly describe an environment where crisis runs rampant and each time a problem is whacked, another only pops up again somewhere else. And just like with the arcade game that ends up being a no-win situation.

As each mole appears to management, they want to hit it hard and fast with their hammer of authority. Whack! They solved that one. Whack! They got another one. In fact many a management team actually thrives on being able to play Whac-a-Mole every day. The challenge of not knowing where the next mole might come from adds to management’s excitement. In fact many a manager when faced with a lack of randomly appearing moles popping up will create a mole just to be able to keep everyone on their toes.

Management types like this game because it requires lightning-quick decision making in what they view as a game of “survival of the fittest.” These are the bosses who constantly preach to their subordinates about having a “sense of urgency” and the necessity to be “proactive.” Sadly you’ll find that this behavior is an organizational fact of life. And in an organization afflicted with this management behavior it becomes an unnecessary cost of doing business. A contributor to this management behavior is that normal workplace life creates enough “moles” to keep people busy as a normal course of business.

One reason that Whac-a-Mole is found in many organizations is that it diverts management from having to tackle the really hard stuff like setting and executing on a realistic vison for the organization–or practicing the values they hypocritically preach are important to them. Diversion tactics like this are the hallmark of inept, dysfunctional management. When constantly in crisis mode there’s always an excuse for management to put true leadership aside. It’s exhausting, but for them it’s fun as they go home each night knowing they have been proactive in whacking the day’s organizational problems. However, in the end it’s only a false accomplishment.

I mentioned earlier how many management types so dote on crises that they actually create them themselves. These are the organizational “pyromaniacs.” Pyros are bosses who compulsively light one fire after another in their organizations. They really don’t realize that these constant emergencies are highly destructive because they waste time and resources while diverting attention from the important issues facing the business. Employees become too busy whacking moles to do their regular work. Also when the pyromaniac boss focuses on the minutiae-of-the-day problem, he doesn’t recognize more dangerous long-term threats to the organization.

In his March 2007 article, “Are You a Pyromaniac?” Michael Watkins explains that, “These are the organizational pyromaniacs; leaders with impulse-control issues who start the fires that waste so much precious time and energy in their organizations. For them, every day is a new crisis to be managed; and they want you to come along for the ride. All it takes is for a few key management people behaving this way and it will drive everyone lower down in the organization into a constant state of hyperactivity.”

As Watkins points out this behavior tends to be contagious. If a leader demands that his or her sycophantic minions jump to attention and respond to his crisis du jour, they’ll have no choice but to salute smartly and get on the bandwagon. If they balk they’ll be labeled a non-team player. And in true “shit runs downhill” fashion, what eventually happens is that the sycophants force their own direct reports into the same perverted game, and so on down the organizational hierarchy. Before long you have the “student body left” syndrome where everyone is off chasing the latest problem at the expense of doing their regular jobs. When the organization’s top leader’s behavior gets reflected down through the organization like this, everyone spends their time just jumping from one crisis to another.

I believe this is probably the worst behavior that a sociopath in a management position can practice–other than bullying of course. But why do they do this? Watkins explains, “For some, it satisfies a deep need to feel powerful and important. Others find that injecting anxiety in subordinates lessens their own. Some pyros are just suspicious that everyone is slacking off behind their backs. Creating a [fire] can be very satisfying for those who don’t trust employees to put in an honest day’s work.”

I think another reason Whac-a-Mole management may be so prevalent in today’s workplace is because of the sociopath’s need to judge everyone constantly. They use their daily Whac-a-Mole sessions as a way to thin out the herd and get rid of those they find weak–those that won’t blindly jump into the fray and whack those Moles. It’s a way for management to screen out those that are not good sycophant material. Anyone who can’t be jerked around by their idiocy becomes useless to them.

Another sociopathic trait of the typical pyromaniac is the need for everything to be running perfectly, albeit by their own perverted standards. Ironically, they become the real threat to stability as these worry-warts go through life constantly looking for any problem, however small, to point out and blow out of proportion. This is all part of the overall goal of dominance over everyone around them. It’s also a good divide and conquer technique because seldom in an environment like this does teamwork prevail.

For those of you who find yourselves stuck in a Whac-a-Mole workplace this behavior makes your daily routine anything but sane and manageable. You can’t plan your day in advance−so much for proactiveness. Every day becomes chaotic and unpredictable. The irony is that, come review time, one of the soft skills you’ll be measured on is “effective time management” and if you’ve managed to successfully bounce from one crisis to another, at management’s whim, you’ll probably find yourself rewarded with a low score on this “skill” because in the process you’ve probably had to sacrifice your daily job duties. I mentioned earlier how teamwork (another skill you’ll be judged on) suffers in an organization such as this. That’s because you’ll find yourself needing to be more focused on covering your own ass so as to not be blamed for the appearance of the moles.

Another problem with this behavior is that fire-fighting is only a short-term fixing of symptoms, and is used in lieu of taking the time to fully understand and address the root cause of a problem. Of course that’s assuming the crisis is truly real and not the figment of a manager’s imagination.

That all said the real and most destructive part of the Whac-a-Mole management style revolves around the fact that typically only a handful of the problems, elevated to crisis mode by the pyromaniac, truly threatens an organization’s existence. Remember that “urgent” very seldom means “important.” And only a handful of these crises really have an underlying void in process or procedure that could have caused the problem. Most often problems arise simply because someone has screwed up, plain and simple. And sociopaths don’t cope well with the phenomenon that people make mistakes. Sooner or later people become the moles to whack. This is when the problems that management professes need be fixed end up having an individual or group’s name associated with them. In an organization like this pretty soon you’ll find yourself playing the part of the mole–afraid to stick you head up (or offer your opinions) for fear of being hammered down.

Over time, a work environment mired down in this style of constant crisis and fire-fighting turns dysfunctional fast–if it wasn’t already. The sane and talented workers depart leaving an entourage of sycophants who actually enjoy the false urgency of the daily fire drills–it’s their chance to shine in the eyes of the sociopaths over which they fawn. So if you find yourself in this kind of organization you have to reflect on whether you enjoy this type environment or whether you view yourself as one of the sane and talented who’s wasting valuable career time. If you choose the later, then it’s time to exit the organization.

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