Management By Self-Seekers
'My Experiences' from A Study Of Our Decline by Philip Atkinson (2001 January)

My experiences at work (circa 1980), which suggested Australian managers were concerned not about efficiency but themselves.

The Management Myth
When I entered the work force at eighteen I believed that managers were unselfish bold leaders, concerned solely with their duty and their charges; who were selected from the most able, having won selection by repeated demonstrations of superior ability; with the position of privilege they enjoyed reflecting their onerous responsibility. Thirty years of work experience has completely reversed this opinion, convincing me that modern executives are cowardly, self-serving, popularity seekers desiring only to further themselves at any price, with the more senior the rank the less competent the occupant.

Ability Irrelevant
My first lesson was that betraying an inability to perform your delegated duties at a junior level is no bar to promotion to a more senior position of trust.

Demonstrated Incompetence
Commercial computerisation was in its infancy when I started work in the computer department of Queensland's Brisbane City Council (1972). Computer programming was an open challenge, with the results reflecting the ability of the programmers, among whom was an officer who was as short in modesty as he was in talent. It fell upon his shoulders to resolve a sudden failure in the Regulated Parking system. This application was a source of revenue for the Council, which no longer flowed. As this condition continued for some days, despite his best efforts, he was forced to hand over the problem to another. Within five minutes it was resolved.

Wins Reward
This public show of incompetence was viewed with delight by the officer's peers. They all felt that this meant one less in the race for promotion, but this was not the case. It was explained by the manager that this officer was close to completing a university degree, and such a qualification would automatically give him preference over any other applicant for promotion. Though unstated, it was implicit that this worker's demonstrated inability to carry out his job was naught compared to the possession of a degree.

The Degree Myth
A degree in Computing was worth obtaining. If reality made you appear less than capable in the field, a degree could reverse that impression. It was so valuable that it made you more important than others who displayed greater flair. But this was the reverse of reason. If a degree meant anything, how could someone get a degree in a subject while being unable to perform in the work place? The undeniable failure of the officer should have cast a shadow on his chances of promotion; his apparent ease in gaining the degree should have cast doubt on the value of the degree; which in turn should have raised questions about degrees in general.

Its Impact On The Council
When the Brisbane City Council management declared that staff with degrees would be preferred over staff without, they had an immediate impact — a section of their personnel was instantly disaffected. Those who did not possess a degree, nor expected to obtain one in the near future, became demoralised. Making any effort to carry out their job now seemed futile. Those whose rivals had no degrees could stop striving, for their promotion was guaranteed. Staff currently studying for a degree could forget work and concentrate upon getting their qualification.

The team of hard working enthusiastic officers, striving to succeed in open competition, was irrevocably shattered. In one inane act the senior management drastically reduced the effectiveness of their staff, their department and ultimately the usefulness of the Council's computer. By officially enshrining the prejudice that university degrees are more important than ability, the administration severely detracted from the efficiency of the Council.

The senseless elevation of prejudice over reason forced a clear choice upon this ambitious officer; study for a degree part-time or go where the management placed ability ahead of diplomas. Abhorring pretence I chose to enter private enterprise where legend claimed reality prevailed.

Incompetence Again
It did not take an expert to realise that something was wrong in the head office of the large Australian company which had become my next employer. Anyone could stroll through the computer department and see people reading novels all day. It was no secret; effective control of the office had clearly broken down. There was no acceptable reason why expensive, expert staff should sit and do nothing for days at a time. Even managers who did not go anywhere near that department must have heard the office gossip. Yet the situation continued for months.

Rewarded Again
The methods of the consultant finally hired to resolve this difficult problem were illuminating. His first step was to dismiss the junior staff who officially complained about sitting around with nothing to do. In the flurry of transfers and resignations that followed, the only other officer to be harshly dealt with was the deputy departmental manager. He was the one executive who tried to minimise the effects of his senior's incompetence, and his reward was enforced resignation. Whereas Richard, the departmental drunk, was retained despite his notorious incompetence and unreliability. Actions in complete contradiction to reason and fairness.

How Executives Decide
The clumsy blundering that passed for management, seemed ever present no matter where I worked. In Logan City my job on the team that ran the Council Computer also involved me in Council affairs. This meant involvement in the mystical process of executive decision making, such as when the senior officer in the Health department changed the fee for dog licences. When casually asked what amount should appear on the form, he hesitated. Obviously he had not considered that question. After a few seconds he decided to double the fee; no consultation, no discussion, just whim. The dog owners would simply have to pay the increase, or have their pet destroyed. Few people could question the validity of the charge, or the due process followed to arrive at such an amount.

Many of the dog owners in the Logan city area were low-income earners, who keenly felt the price of the existing licence. To double it, in such a thoughtless manner, demonstrated a callous disregard for his duty and the people whose trust he abused. (This arrogant incompetence remained unchallenged until the size of the council's increase in charges eventually forced their ratepayers to take legal action.)

The carelessness of Council decision-making was accompanied by the mismanagement of the computer project team by a jovial, but amateurish incompetent, unable to control staff or his personal life. He continually embarrassed everyone with his unrequited attentions directed at a young female officer, his lack of respect for his wife, and his drunken acts. He drunkenly set off the council security alarm one time too many and was removed. Not sacked, just found other employment at head office.

His replacement quickly displayed an even more serious drinking problem and less ability at management. Blown-out-the-water talked in clichés and repeated them ad nauseam in all discussions. Being drunk every day after lunch detracted little from his contribution towards the department because he made none. This suited his staff who could get on with the job, but it upset other senior executives who expected their peers to stay awake during afternoon meetings. Nevertheless the firm of consultants, hired to select a permanent computer department manager, placed him on a short list of two, ahead of many promising candidates. This alcoholic incompetent only just missed winning a permanent job, presumably the expert employers were dazzled by the many framed qualifications and the welter of trendy jargon.

At least at Logan City Council the decision makers had some experience of computerisation, which was not so at Sydney City Council. Here competence and experience in computer affairs was in inverse relationship to authority. Thus the most senior member of the department had no experience or training, while those who were completely familiar with the technology had little or no authority.

To the amazement of all visitors the manager of the computer section openly dozed away the hours in his glass walled office. Ron was elderly and was not considered the right staff member to provide the necessary advice to the novice senior management, so a consultant was hired. The selected expert was known to me personally as a glib, lazy, incompetent, who had been sacked from his last job, which had been as a computer programmer.

Choosing An Expert
Though this choice of expert may seem odd to the uninitiated, it was almost unavoidable. Genuine experts do not necessarily look impressive. Their forte is their chosen field, and they can never compete effectively against the charm and slickness of con men. To win the job of adviser to the incompetent requires only the ability to impress with words and manner.

Fantasy Land
Naturally the result of the uneducated head of department being advised by a glib confidence man, created a fantasy world. Reflecting the uncontradicted aspirations of a deluded manager, the Computer department embraced a regime of pretence. How could such mundane things as reality be allowed to interrupt the grand plan of the boss? Unhindered by training and primed by the slick glossy computers magazines, he was going to achieve great things. The dream world portrayed in these periodicals was going to come true at Sydney City Council and all of this would be done without listening to any advice from the computer staff, only the encouragement of the paid consultant.

Pretend Or Else
To this end the head of the department insisted upon reviewing the progress of his section-heads every week, an unnerving process. If they couldn't provide him with an optimistic report, in language he could understand, they would be treated to contemptuous snorts. The boss was a little man and a bully, his lack of size had taught him how to make other people feel smaller, which he used to great effect at every opportunity.

The Modern Price Of Being Dutiful
One day a particularly ludicrous management directive caused me to forget myself and state the obvious. Determined to carry out my duty, I declared my intention to write a report exposing the latest absurdity. Within five days I was fired.

Learning From Experience
The lesson I learnt from this experience allowed me to work for a fool for the next five years. Never once did the idea of attempting to expose his incompetence cross my mind. When work-mates, just before they left, declared that they would expose this charlatan, I just asked them who did they think employed this man? If his employers were competent they would not need to be told about a manager by one of his staff.

Bondi—Typical Modern Executive
Bondi was the computer manager of a multi-national pump manufacturing firm, and walking talking proof of all the incredible incompetence that my experience of management seemed to suggest. He confirmed my reverse rules of employment , and provided me with an intimate insight into how bad management flourished.

Talk a lot — say nothing
Talking to him was so arduous his staff christened him Bondi, after the notorious Sydney sewer outfall; he seemed to pour out a never ending flow, yet never provided anything of value. A request as to which job should be done next was invariably met by "All of them" which was a preliminary to launching into his monologue of pettifogging suggestions presented in a circular argument. He would pontificate on an argument for some length, then when it seemed a conclusion would be reached he would declare "There again" and advance a contrary view. A performance he appeared to be able to continue indefinitely.

Talking In Circles
As there was no logical end to his talks, he just spoke until he decided enough was enough, or he was interrupted. Neither lunchtime nor end of office hours was sufficient reason to break off. Once he got started it was merely a matter of waiting until he stopped.

A Charade Of Intelligence
At first sight such a technique appeared to be a stumbling block to a career, but it quickly became clear it is an essential tool of modern management. This is a method of presenting an appearance of wisdom and ability, without exposing the speaker to any risk of being proved wrong. Though they utter a lot of words, they avoid making plain statements and instead invoke suggestion and innuendo, which makes comprehension tedious —for example:

"If you argue from the position that once there was a 'Golden Age', you have an uphill battle, although I suspect that most of us would like to believe that once there might have been, usually in the days when we were young and free. But in those days we just didn't look in dark places."

These are the words of an ex-university teacher, and they appear to IMPLY there is no such thing as a Golden Age and it is probably wishful thinking to hold this belief. They avoid committing the speaker to anything however, while making understanding arduous. The audience has to interpret the welter of words to realise the implication, always being aware that they may be misinterpreting, and therefore misunderstanding the implication.

Be Trendy With A Dash Of Rarity
Anyone faced with a steady stream of such utterances can only quail beneath the assault on their understanding, (or rudely interrupt each sentiment with a demand for clarification). And if the speaker adroitly includes fashionable expressions, and the odd plain statement about an esoteric subject, the mask of intelligence is complete, leaving the audience feeling bemused and inadequate.

Obviously anybody who talked in circles had to think in circles. Bondi could not think clearly about anything, never mind about motivating staff, setting priority and establishing policy. Not only could he not carry out the basic functions of a manager, but his presence invariably meant wasting time. When he spoke to a staff member, it always meant a long confused rambling monologue that raised doubt about previous agreements, tired out the listener, and wasted hours. He was like a fog of uncertainty, confusion and delay, drifting round the office, a hazard to be avoided at all costs.

Like most bad managers, Bondi never supported his staff. If something remained undone, it was clearly the fault of his staff, as he had told them to do it. The fact that he had told them to do hundreds of things, constantly interrupted their work for hours at a time, changed priority, directed other work to be done, and all without written confirmation, was never considered.

Overly Sensitive To Criticism
Indifferent to the needs of his staff, he was very sensitive to outsider criticism, responding quicker to a chance overheard complaint than an official request. He had no idea if the criticism was fair, or even correct; he only knew that it was dangerous. Such dissatisfaction could place his job in jeopardy. This meant that departmental work was directed by the last grumble overheard. Naturally priority often changed with such a management technique, and it quickly became obvious that if any work was to be done, it had to be despite the manager. Otherwise you spent all your time changing direction, continually interrupting one job for another, and achieving nothing — a process not unlike his talks.

Insists Upon Being The Centre Of Attention
While the time he spent on holidays was a productive time for his staff, he made quite sure that his absence emphasised his importance. He did this by never delegating his authority, which meant work was constantly held up because of his failure to ever make a decision. The office was always awaiting his return to resolve some particular matter. This was never taken as a shortcoming by his employers but as evidence that Bondi was essential for the office.

Only Concerned About Himself
The motive in all Bondi's actions was to improve his lot. He never hesitated to run down his colleagues behind their backs, they were the least boring of his speeches. And carrying out the firm's business was just not a priority. Such concerns detracted from the main objective — Bondi's self interest: impress his manager and avoid blame, which was best addressed by creating the right impression and constantly checking on how his performance was being rated by others.

Dominated By Public Whim
A bad opinion by the least important clerk could quickly be passed to that clerk's supervisor, and up the chain to important people. Hence his obsession with criticism, and behaving like the fool who wanted to please everyone. It also explained why he never made a decision, for this incurred the risk of failure. As long as he could avoid the responsibility for anything, he was safe from blame should things go wrong. Unless of course an initiative made by one of his staff appeared to be a blessing, then he could easily assume the credit.

No Different To Other Executives
The computer department mismanaged by Bondi had much in common with that of the Sydney City Council. Any useful achievements were made despite the management, whose directions were inane and counter-productive. Work was conducted in an atmosphere that grew progressively insane as the empty rhetoric of the executives drifted further from reality. The people who were called upon to realise the aspirations of their superiors could only survive by joining this charade. They could not meet the impossible demands but they could feign success, or supply a believable reason for failure. Any kill joy who tried to withstand the madness would be treated accordingly.

Bondis Are Everywhere
This phenomenon is certainly not restricted to computer departments. This madness is also occurring in the Department of Social Security. Here a senior executive was so appalled by what was happening he risked his job to inform the public. Peter Sawyer had already tried all the official channels to reverse the insane official blundering without result. Then he tried to do his duty in the only way remaining: he wrote a book "Dole Bludging — A Tax Payers Guide" setting out the absurdity of the department's management. The work highlighted how the innocent and honest clients were penalised, while the dishonest and guilty clients were rewarded. He felt that by telling the public about such a scandal, change would be enforced. His book was a commercial success, but it changed little. Some rules and regulations were amended, but the outcome was unchanged, except for him. He lost his job and became the subject of court action by his employers.

Management By Self-Seekers Is Standard Practice
Peter Sawyer's mistake, and mine, was to think that the collapse in management we were observing was a local phenomena. It never occurred to us that the problem with management was everywhere, that it riddled the community. Our attempts at exposure were like a Russian citizen in 1930 telling Stalin that the secret police were arresting innocent people. He knew —they were obeying his orders. The very things we were complaining about are standard practice, techniques used by the very people to whom we took our complaints.

Our government and corporations are dominated by mis-managers operating in a make-believe world of popular delusion. We have become a nation living in a fantasy world of hype, with any dissent winning penalty and censure.