Monday, October 22, 2018

Agile Exposes the Bad Boss

A bad boss is just toxic.
I was getting on an elevator at the office and I decided to make small talk with someone as we were heading up to our respective floors.

“Ready to set the global economy on fire,“ I joked.

My fellow traveler got a gleam in their eye and said, “The flames are so colorful.”

I got off on my floor and breathed a sigh of relief.  The metaphorical pyromaniac was too eager to be pulling my leg.  The experience brought into stark contrast how tired many of us have become in the business world. The daily frustrations of working in a modern office force many professionals into the cynical behavior of inflicting harm on others as a means of satisfaction.  It is perverse, and it is wrong. The cynicism in the elevator is one of the reasons I have been such an enthusiastic proponent of agile.  I firmly believe there must be a better way to structure work so that it is sustainable, sane, and satisfying.

Inc. Magazine and Monster.com pointed out this week that 76% of bosses in business are “toxic.”  This toxic leadership is why so many people rely on jaded cynicism.  It is crucial as an agile coach and scrum master to break this cycle of toxicity.  According to the article in Inc. magazine, a toxic boss exhibits some or all of the following traits.

  1. They are power-hungry
  2. They micromanager
  3. They are absent
  4. They are incompetent
It is up to people like me to expose these bosses to the organization and coach them to be better.

The Power Hungry

Working for a power-hungry boss is a little like being a supporting cast member in Game of Thrones; you are going to wind up suffering a cruel ending to satisfy someone else’s ambition.  It surprises me how many business leaders think servant leadership is similar to the game “Masters and servants.”  The reality of servant leadership is much different.  In the end, what everyone needs to understand is a power-hungry boss is concerned about one thing; themselves.  A power-hungry boss will put personal interest over the needs of the company and employees.  Agile exposes the power-hungry because they often become impediments to shipping solutions.

The Micromanager

The hardest part of leadership is the lack of control we have over our fellow humans.  A leader can spend years training people to do the right thing and meet a certain performance level, and they can still disappoint at critical junctures.  To combat this helplessness, managers create processes and steps which they expect people to obey like robots.  It creates an illusion of control where employees do what they can to avoid hassle rather than what is necessary to succeed.  Thus, reports have perfect typography and proper tab spacing, but the data within that report shows lead conversion is falling.  The emphasis on working solutions instead of comprehensive documentation in agile should expose micromanagers.

The Absent

Over the years, we tell countless stories about military leaders who “lead from the front,” instead of from behind a desk.  I am currently reading one about William Slim who commanded the 14th Army of Burma during the Second World War.  It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of authority.  In an office of cubicles, having your office is a status symbol.  It gives you the power to shut people out and focus on administrative duties.  The autonomy and control over who has access is a powerful motivation for people to advance into leadership.  In reality, a leader has to be more visible to the people they are leading.  A leader should know about the people who make them successful.  If the leader is not around and they become distant figure the people who make them successful will ignore them in time of crisis.  Agile attempts to counter this kind of toxicity with its emphasis on face to face communication.

The Incompetent Leader

A leader should not be able to do your job, but at the very least they should understand what it takes to do your job.  What I have discovered over the years is people who have never managed a computer network or written a line of code often lead technology teams.  These people know how to manipulate budgets and control the project, but they do not know how to direct technology professionals because they think they are no different than shipping clerks or factory workers.  Agile with its emphasis on cross-functional teams and delivery exposes the incompetent.

I am a big believer in the idea that you should tell and expose the truth wherever you find it.  Sooner or later, someone in a position of authority is going to act on that truth.  I feel this way because it is how we defeated leaded gasoline and paint.  It is how we have reduced smoking in the United States by half since 1964.  It is an approach which led to the birth of agile.

If we are honest with ourselves, we should acknowledge the power-hungry, micromanagers, the absent, and incompetent and expose them so their toxic effect on the workplace can be mitigated.  It matters, and if we are not successful, all we can do is watch the pretty colors as the world burns.

Until next time.