Sunday, March 29, 2015

Legitimacy in management

"I am surrounded by idiots" is the secret more young managers keep than they want to admit.

The typical promotion path of these middle level managers started as being high achievers. Early in their careers, they put in the time, effort and study to thrive. Gradually they become really good at a certain kind of job, be it developing, testing, or designing, and possess a specific set of skills that make them valuable. Upper management shows it appreciation by giving them raises and putting them in a management position. It is in this new position where the very skills and knowledge which made them successful in the last position that make they feel everyone under them is stupid, ignorant, and doesn't give a crap.

From that turning point, managers start to feel alone in their new role. Everywhere they look, they see people who tried to hold them back, and who gave up, and so can't understand how their success feels. They start to believe it is human nature and internal drives that led to the difference between them and others. As a young principal architect, speaking for countless of other fellow high achievers, put "I learned that developers are developers for a reason. They don't want to work hard enough, or aren't bright enough, to be architects".

That saying contains an assumption in it though. It roots from the belief that as an adult, the decision to work hard to get promotion is a purely rational calculation of efforts and benefits. It isn't supposed to be personal. But that is exactly where it goes wrong. Many researches have proven that we human are not as rational as we thought we were. These viewpoints range from that for rudimentary cognitive task, the increment of reward leads to poorer performance, to that happiness fuels success, not the other way around. I believe that getting professionals to actively engage in a project also has a lot to do with how people in management communicate their values, how they behave and whether a proper principle is there to keep words and actions aligned.

The principle is called the "principle of legitimacy". The idea dated back to 1814 and was used in Malcolm Gladwell's book "David & Goliath" to explain the role of lawmakers. Legitimacy is based on three things

  • People have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard
  • The law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.
  • The authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another.

#1 implies that employees' opinion must be valuable to management. Usually the foundation of this mutual respect is that within their specific domain, the employees possess a unique set of skills and that make their opinions particularly insightful to those who need it. Though, that rarely happens in this part of third world countries. In Vietnam, employers tend to come to developers because they are cheaper than Indian and have arguably better code of ethics than some of our neighbors. If they want to listen to someone they would come to IDEO already.

#2 states the expected behavior of the employees, as well as the words and actions of management need to be consistent. The equivalent of the law in software development is probably the specs. And among us tech people, it is a mutual understanding that the specs is never complete. For certain parts of the system, an engineer has to make assumption to keep the project move on. If he gets it right, he wouldn't get any praise because people expect it as a part of his job. If he gets it wrong, oh well, he would be blamed as having no common sense. He is said to be a bad seed and has to be let go, even though Urban Dictionary has its best 
Common sense (n): A mythical force that is supposed to bestow knowledge of the obvious. Unfortunately, humankind has proven, time and time again, that there is no such thing as common sense - Urban Dictionary
And by letting go of such "bad seed" rather than improving the specs or creating the buffer to allow certain variants of the specs, what is the message the management is sending to the remainers? That it is building a team of talented, engaging and agreeable fellows? Or that there is no place for people thinking differently from it and therefore everyone has to be in the fear that one day they would get its idea wrong and be let go?

It is debatable whether firing the bad seeds would lead to a better environment, or unless the environment changes, the effectiveness would redistribute itself and new bad seeds emerge. It is much less debatable that when the specs is not based on concrete written rules, but human whim, the predictability the specs needs is lost.

#3 depicts an ideal organization where the product is the heart of the organization and is the result of fine collaboration between various department. But in reality, depends on the organization originality, fields of expertise and office politics, there would be one group that takes the lead on product timeline and puts constraints on other teams. The management loves this team, the adult version of teacher's pet. But for the rest who have to burn midnight oil for unrealistic deadlines and whose ideas are not appreciated properly even though at the end of the day, it is them who do the hard work, everything doesn't sound fair.

It is human nature to wish to do a good job, given what they are doing, and their capabilities, skills and knowledge. But when employees look around and almost everyone would know someone else who got burned because they had a strong and vivid idea how a system would be built and unfortunately that wasn't in favor of the management. If that many people in your social graph had been pressed by management, does the system seem to be far anymore? Does it seem predictable? Does it seem like you can speak up and be heard? And if management is seen as the enemy, how on earth would it expect people to change their ways?

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