From many signs it would seem the time has come to explore the space which separates (and not only in the Nazi Concentration Camps) the victims from the persecutors.... Only a schematic rhetoric can claim that that space is empty: it never is, it is studded with obscene or pathetic figures (sometimes they possess both qualities simultaneously) whom it is indispensable to know if we want to know the human species, if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory. — Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 1988
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, we sought technical answers for what had happened. When those proved incomplete, we sought answers in organizational structure, and information flows - "the system." Then we contracted with Morton Thiokol, the original manufacturer of the faulty boosters, to try again.
As IEEE Spectrum (February 1987) reports it, two Morton Thiokol engineers, Roger Boisjoly and Arnold Thompson, told their management that the rubber O-rings sealing the solid fuel rocket booster joints would lose their resiliency at low temperatures, and might fail to provide an adequate seal against hot gases from the burning fuel. A jet of hot gases from the joints could cause an accident. Therefore, they thought the launch should be scrubbed that day because the weather was too cold.
We know now that Morton Thiokol management, Joe C. Kilmister - vice president for the shuttle booster project, Robert K. Lund - vice president of engineering, Jerald E. Mason - vice president of Wasatch operations, and Calvin G. Wiggins - vice president and general manager of Thiokol's space division, thought that the engineers' case on O-ring behavior and margin of safety was inconclusive. Under pressure from NASA, they gave the go-ahead.
As the Spectrum article put it, "Not one engineer or technician, however, supported a decision to launch." It wasn't just a stiff O-ring that killed the seven astronauts. It was a management decision.
The hell of it is that by today's standards, it was an appropriate decision. According to American Managerial Ethics as practiced, the only thing Bob, Joe, Jerry, and Cal did wrong was to guess wrong about the future. Guessing wrong is the ultimate sin in business, and they got the ultimate penalty for it - they are now elsewhere. But they were good managers, exhibiting decisiveness under time pressure and in the face of insufficient information. Almost any other group of executives in America would have made the same decision under the same circumstances. It isn't fair to single out these men or their company. It is fair to use the Challenger tragedy to illustrate what I call, "managerial arrogance."
Managerial arrogance is the belief that management is what most textbooks imply that it is - the art of getting people to do what you want, so that you can get things under control. It's become the principal tenet of an American Executive Subculture who do not admit that sometimes situations do the controlling, and managers can want the wrong things. Combined with the belief that a manager must be a superior type of human being compared to those who do the actual work, it can have deadly consequences.
Now managerial arrogance is not universal, but I think it is the cultural or "tribal" norm among American executives. It occurs because managing well is so difficult: running a complex organization of even more complex human beings makes tremendous demands of one's physical, mental, moral, and even spiritual stamina. Thus, there are many managers I admire. Unfortunately, I know many others who avoid some of the stress that is legitimately part of their job by being or becoming arrogant.
In the instance of Thiokol, given that an entire team of managers exhibited managerial arrogance, I'll bet that it was expected of them, and was rewarded on other occasions when things worked out better. That is, managerial arrogance invades corporate cultures from the top down, by design or neglect. The person at the top sets the tone for the whole organization by judicious or mistaken promotions, demotions, firings, granting raises and perquisites (perks), and approving or denying funding for projects. People see who gets ahead, who gets pushed aside, and who gets pushed out. They learn to conform to expectations from above, stated or unstated, and they rationalize to themselves why they do it.
So while I don't blame Calvin S. Locke, Morton Thiokol's CEO, for the Challenger accident, I note that the CEO resigns when a Japanese corporation makes a similarly huge blunder. It is considered the honorable thing to do.
People must conform to corporate expectations - make themselves like the boss - in order to get ahead. They know that you wouldn't promote someone you couldn't trust. And whom can you trust with real power better than someone who reminds you of yourself? I call this the "clone syndrome." It's the aspect of managerial arrogance that makes us into "human resources" rather than people.
The clone syndrome is the root of institutional racism and sexism. In performance appraisal meetings it shows up in phrases like, " I have a hard time picturing her in that role," or "he just doesn't seem ready for that kind of challenge yet." It frustrates affirmative action, because arrogant managers see it as a numbers game - make the quota and you've done your job. They miss the point that the goal of affirmative action is to find capable people and give them a chance, and that quotas are a "poor person's" substitute for it. And a big part of such giving someone a chance is the informal way managers mentor and socialize the employees they pick out to be up and coming.
Of course, the mentoring and socialization has a dark side. If you get promoted, you must exhibit the correct behaviors and attitudes at all times. You will be a clone, or else. Irreverent workers may be tolerated, but irreverent supervisors don't last long. That's why the women and minorities who've made it to the top haven't made much difference yet. They've usually been weeded so carefully, that they've bought in to the status quo, at least until there are enough of them in place to support each other.
Constantly having to display the correct attitudes is also bad for American competitiveness: it keeps information about reality from flowing up the management chain, and it's demotivating. A management out of touch with reality becomes a management out of control - where inter organizational politics dominate all other considerations. Things like good business sense, quality, or even common sense, cease to matter.
As for demotivation, isn't it strange that American auto workers are more satisfied, more innovative, and more productive when they build cars for Japanese managers, than when they build them for Americans? Unlike American managers, the Japanese know enough to treat American workers (those well below the "glass ceiling") as if they were fellow human beings.
Perhaps Japanese managers have absorbed the Taoist idea (which the current Chinese leadership has not) that, "One who excels at working through other people places himself below them," which is similar to the pronouncement of Jesus that one who would lead must be the servant of all. Meanwhile, the dichotomy between management and labor is scrupulously maintained by American managers, against everyone's interest, including their companies'. It is yet another version of the "us" versus "them" game. Of course, it's hard for a manager to think of someone who can't afford his lifestyle be one of "us" - inflated executive salaries and benefits are part of this picture.
I had been a systems engineering supervisor for nearly two years at AT&T Bell Laboratories, a company that was at that time one of the best places to work in America. What I was experiencing is common in large corporations, and I name the company only because I experienced it there rather than somewhere else. As we supervisors, managers, and engineers sized each other up by talking sports before the meeting, I was reminded of dogs sniffing to see who shows the most confidence by holding his tail the highest. This meeting was to discuss which AT&T subsidiary would make the T-1MUX. (It doesn't matter what a T-1MUX is - the company still doesn't make one.) It was supposed to be a technical meeting, but we were really there to howl until we all sounded the same note - to drum up the general will to action. But instead of one general will, there were many wills of competing packs, and I was a typical reason for it.
I had been "taken out behind the woodshed," by my management some months before. They made it clear that I would give them exactly what they wanted, even when unstated ("I haven't been very good about telling you what I want, but it's your job to know" - an ethic that would later become the root of "plausible deniability," as the Iran Contra gang put it). My management had locked its teeth over the scruff of my neck and shaken me. I made the only gesture they would tolerate - I slinked out of the room with my tail between my legs.
What they wanted was style more than substance, and unquestioning advocacy of their initiatives to the point of ad lib rationalization of everything they did or desired. The T-1MUX had become one of those initiatives. So, I championed my organization's version against all other organization's versions, as a matter of professional survival. Since the other supervisors in the meeting were undergoing a similar process of socialization to the company norms, the idea of reaching consensus at our level was laughable. We wasted six months in a series of meetings while the market window slammed shut. Productivity and profit were foremost on our lips but last in our hearts. Resolution was achieved only when the problem went up to where our lines of management met in one person, who seemed to delay making a decision until the appropriate winds blew from his superiors.
By the time of the T-1MUX fiasco, I was getting good vibes from my management ("You really turned things around, you've proven yourself as a supervisor"). I think this was due to my more pliant attitude, and my zealous displays of superficial activity, which included making several thousand dollars worth of three-color viewgraphs and flashing them when I made presentations. I even emulated my superiors by forcing my employees to take the rap for my shortcomings (because I could not allow myself to be perceived as less than excellent), and my superiors loved it. That is to say, I performed submissive gestures carefully choreographed to my superiors' dominance gestures. They had taught me the "right stuff," because the one most skilled at these gestures becomes top dog. Like school bullies, they had socialized me to act as if I accepted the inevitability of their concept of managerial manhood. That way they could feel better about having accepted it themselves.
In reaction to this dog-pack mentality, we have union labor. Unions have become packs, too, which seek to gain as much as possible from management (them) with as little demand as possible on the workers (us). This us-them conflict sometimes takes the form of strikes, one of which was held during the construction of my lab. I was responsible for getting it built in time for a tour by the top dog heir apparent. When the opportunity arose for me to use some of his advance people to advance the project, I did so, again as a matter of professional survival.
At first, strike-breaking went down pretty hard - my father had been a physician at a UMWA hospital and paid by union dues. So I watched my scabs work. They didn't particularly exert themselves, they just worked steadily. And they did three times as much work in a day as the union folks, and with fewer people. That day I decided that unions have a responsibility to provide high quality labor, just as management has a responsibility to reward that labor with good wages, benefits, and working conditions.
And then there were my professional employees. It was one thing to judge their performance according to my understanding of long term corporate needs and goals. Then I would think about their professional development, their job satisfaction, the match of their capabilities to the work that needed to be done, whether they should be reassigned, whom I might bring in to fill their place, etc. It was quite another to evaluate them solely in terms of their utility to my professional survival. If they weren't pulling my way (my superiors' way) hard enough, they had to pay the price. Rather than regard them as "my people," I looked upon them as my "human resources," who were more expendable than I. They became interchangeable parts whom I could deploy as needed, regardless of their experience or training, and then punish with poor performance reviews if they failed to adapt - which moved the burden of personnel management from me to them, and which my superiors rationalized as the means to achieve a more versatile workforce.
Of course, I covered up such disregard of my employees, because my superiors made it clear that it was my job to make them look good. Among other things, I would inform my superiors of upcoming retirements of my employees, timed so that they could stop by and feign a heart-to-heart farewell chat, while legitimately being able to claim that their calendars were too full to permit them to attend the retirement luncheons.
In other words, I collaborated. Driven by fear for my professional survival, I had stepped into what Primo Levi called the "gray zone" between persecutors and victims. Myself oppressed, I in turn oppressed those less powerful than I to maintain my position, and so became temporarily like my superiors. The alternative of resistance, of principled self-sacrifice, seemed useless - I had seen a few principled ex-supervisors, embittered pariahs whom everyone regarded to have been in some way incompetent, or at least lacking in political cleverness. They had made no change whatever in the organization. So, I gave my management what they wanted without question, right or wrong. After all, since no one got fired (or even had a pay cut) on my watch, what or whom had I really betrayed? Only the truth. Only you, if you have ever worked for a wage.
And so besides the decline in productivity, quality, labor relations, and leadership (after all, how can people trained to follow so energetically learn to lead with any real vision), arrogant managers can effect a decline in morality. It is almost blasphemous to compare my moral slide with those of the captives in Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, but his account of what good men do to survive under bad circumstances (and of the shame often associated with survivorship) has an aura of familiarity to me.
Since we were all struggling for professional survival, we were at war with one another and with our employees — rather like the War of All Against All described by Hobbes in The Leviathan, but with a twist. Higher management, playing the role of the Leviathan, did not prevent the fighting - they instigated, structured, and controlled it for use in their own struggles. For me it was the way of death.
I floated my resume. I applied only to organizations in which physical reality and common sense were held in high enough regard to empower those at the lower levels to push back against the internal politics of the higher, which left out large companies. My choice was further constrained by my desire to use my training in theoretical physics and my experience as a systems engineer. Small companies were out, because they don't employ such people. I had largely burned my bridge to academia (which has its own troubles) by writing internal memoranda rather than publishing in scientific journals while I was in industry. That left government laboratories.
So I was angry when I took my job in the nuclear weapons program. I did it to take care of myself - to pursue my career in a more peaceful environment than I had found in the private sector. If to keep my private-sector job I had sold my peace of mind, I joined a nuclear weapons lab and got it back. Others have written elsewhere about the ethics of decisions like mine. Here I will say that I want those who compare my weapons work to collaborating with the Nazis to consider that I came closer to it in non-defense private industry. I think they often use such comparisons as smokescreens to avoid seeing the more apt comparisons in the society nearer to themselves.
I will also say that nuclear weapons do not make war. They merely convert it from something that happens on a battlefield to something that happens in your bedroom. The source of war is in ourselves, and much of modern corporate America with its arrogant executive/managerial sub-culture expresses it in the way we do business. We make war on each other instead of doing what business sets out to do - to make money in a way more pleasant than the available alternatives.
On the positive side, I can add that peacemaking involves empowerment. Perhaps a more peaceful definition of management might be the following: Management is the art of enabling your people to get rewarded for doing the right things. Each word in that statement is subject to debate, and is so by design, like the wording of the ten commandments. Who are your people - just your employees, or are there other stakeholders? What are the right things - making profit, or is there more that can be done? What types of rewards are you able to obtain, and how well does that match up with what your people want? What is enabling - training, identifying opportunities for your people to present their work, stimulating some of your employees to find jobs better suited to them (sometimes you have to be both tough and kind)? Call it mindfulness in management, or management as a human enterprise. Call it leadership as a service to the led. And call managerial arrogance a form of incompetence.
Of course, there is another way to read this essay. Scooper couldn't take it in the Real World. He needs to grow up before he tries to swim with the big fish again. On the other hand, management needs to empower rather than bully, because America needs empowered and motivated people to compete in the global economy, and because technology continues to raise the price of filling our society with war.
Finally, there is the question of whether I would again submit to coercion on the job. I pray that neither you nor I would be so tempted. But if it should happen, I am now much more aware of what is to be gained from self-sacrifice (and lost by evading it), and therefore the more dangerous to any who would demand it.
- This attitude may or may not co-exist with the abuse of incrementalism, in which managers who don't know what they want strive for small and sometimes meaningless change and call it progress. They tend to dodge the icebergs without setting an overall course for the ship of their enterprise. In other words, an arrogant manager may not necessarily be a strong leader.
- See Conduct Expected: The Unwritten Rules for a Successful Business Career by William T. Lareau, New Century Publishers, Piscataway, NJ, 1985, for a lucid description of this phenomenon.
- Paraphrased from Lao Tzu, Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks, Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
- Pseudospeciation, discussed elsewhere at this site as a precursor to group violence,. See also Anthony Stevens, The Roots of War: A Jungian Perspective, Paragon House, New York, 1989.
- This doesn't mean that managing well is easy. It requires lots of hard work and raw talent. It's just that at the higher levels of management, everyone works hard and has talent. The differences that determine who makes it to the very top and who doesnÕt are subtle, and skill at the appropriate dominance/submission behaviors is an important one of them.
- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Vintage Books, 1989. In the chapter, "The Gray Zone," Levi says in so many words that the image of the Nazi Concentration Camp is in the Jungian "shadow" of any organization where status, power, and the ability to coerce behavior (to whatever extent) exist. This includes almost all human organizations, from governments to churches, from prisons to schools, and perhaps even parts of the peace movement. More generally, if the "gray zone" is taken to be the region between Good and Evil, we are all in it to varying degrees, which obligates each of us to know where he or she stands before pointing a finger at someone else.
- Translated by Stuart Woolf, Collier Books, New York, 1961. In order to survive, the prisoners had to engage in what would be considered at least petty crimes in ordinary society. The kapo, the prisoner in charge of a group of other prisoners, is the salient image for the discussion here. For more on "incivility" in organizations see M. Scott Peck's, A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, Bantam Books, New York, 1993.
- See Obscenity and Peace, at this site.