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Harmful management

jesperreiche profile image Jesper Reiche Originally published at jesperreiche.com ・3 min read

Harmful management is not a very widely used term. I even considered coining the term "Iatrogenic management" but left it - at least for now - even though iatrogenic is a perfect term to describe the problem at hand. Iatrogenic is a term taken from health care and medicine. It refers to the adverse condition of a patient resulting from the treatment of a health care professional. So in other words; action done by health care professional resulting in harm to the patient. This can then of course be put into several categories from unintentional accident to more or less intentional malice.

I have "stolen" the term to use as a vehicle to describe the situation of managers applying actions where none should have been. It is a tough conundrum because managers, especially senior managers are often in their position especially because of their ability to make decisions and take action. Hence the difficulty in letting go and do nothing in pressured situations.

Harmful management appears at a lot of different points in time but usually when the manager comes under pressure. This could for instance be around project deadlines. When a project comes under pressure because of upcoming deadline or perhaps the manager has come under pressure for showing progress, then the manager turns to the one tool in the toolbox that worked so well in the past: Action (Read: manage)

The manager will call in the leads of the project and express the worry. The usual outcome of this is wanting to put more people on the project. More people equals more work done and most importantly signals action. The manager can then go back to the people who had put pressure on him and show action. Extra people was allocated to the project, so correcting measures was taken.

This of course brings us to the good old saying:

What one developer can do in a week, two developers can do in two weeks

Adding more people is rarely the right correcting last minute measure. Yes, it may be an option very early in the process, if those people are to be permanently on the project, but as correcting measures once pressure builds and deadlines approach - very rarely so.

This is where the "iatrogenic" or "harmful management" part kicks in. The manager has acted in a way that is actually harmful to the project. Not only will the project not be done faster, it may actually be done even later than if no people were added. But that will be dismissed with a variation of the phrase: "but at least we really tried and took every measure - we even assigned more people to the project".

The manager has used the get-out-of-jail-free card and no one will question whether putting more people on the project actually helped or not. And even less so question whether it not only did not help but actually made the situation even worse.

Harmful management is more common than you would think. Once you start seeing it you cannot "unsee". And this is not only related to project management or even the corporate world. I have seen it in a wide variety of sports as well. People who have made a brilliant career out of being able to make decisions generally have a very hard time stepping back and acknowledge that the best decision is to not do anything.

Hence harmful management.

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