Greedy Goblin

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blame the managers!

I made fun on a post which claimed that laying off employees is an act of evil since they are all innocent and it's only the managers to blame for the crisis of the company.

While most commenters agreed that the companies has the right to remove unneccesary employees, they also stated (even Cuthbert), that it's somehow immoral as the problem is manager's fault.

I strongly believe that I'm the master of my life. Not my boss, not my (non-existent) guild leader, not the fate, not the luck. All my achievements are my doing with all my failures. People use to disbelieve. So here come some hard facts about the topic:

Stanley Milgram found the single most dangerous ape-subroutine in his experiment. Hi told his test subjects that this experiment is about "teaching effect of punishment". The job of the test subjects was to teach words to the other guy (who was Milgram's assistant), and when this guy fails to remember the words, punish him with stronger and stronger electric shock, from 15V up to 450V! For the "not too bright" he even wrote "deadly" to the 315-450V buttons.

The learning guy started to make mistakes and the test person started to punish him with electric shocks. Obviously the learning guy did not received any shocks, but he complained about the pain, begged to be released and at 300V he went dead silent.

The test subjects asked Milgram to stop the experiment, but he ordered them to continue. It's important to mention that Milgram did not threaten them with anything, not even with not paying the little money they got for participation.

While the test subjects shown serious anxiety and asked or even begged Milgram to stop, they did not stop pushing the higher and higher electric shock buttons. No one abandoned the experiment before 300V (when the other guy went silent), and 65% of the test subjects carried on to 450V, obviously killing the other guy (actually not, but they thought so).

The test was repeated several times by several researchers in different cultures and between different conditions with the same results: 1/3 of random guys (not criminals or psychotics) are ready to torture an innocent person to unconsciousness on command and 2/3 of them are ready to kill him.

Milgram explained this behavior as "instrument state". The person no longer considers himself an acting person, but an instrument of the will of the authority, therefore not responsible for his own actions, just like the knife is not responsible for the stabbing it is "doing".

There are two problems with this ape-subroutine from the point of view of the perpetrator (the "problems" from the other point of views are obvious):
  • This "instrument state" is unknown to law. Since the Nurenberg Trials (of the Nazi criminals) it's officially stated that such claims are invalid. The perpetrator who carried out his action on command is not less guilty than a perpetrator who acted on his own accord. The Nazis in Nuremberg claimed that they only followed orders and there was no other way. Obviously there was other way so they well deserved their hanging.
  • The leaders giving out the orders usually cover themselves and usually all blame falls on the instrument-perpetrators. Typical example is the Abu Graib scandal, where several low level soldiers were sent to prison and removed from the army while the ones giving the orders to perform these actions were not blamed.

Most of us never get into situation where commanded to perform serious crimes. However most of us get into situations when incompetent managers order us to do something obviously stupid and harmful to the company. Creating a malfunctioning product is not a crime unless it is dangerous to people's health, yet it is stupid. The punishment for stupidity is market loss and the subsequent layoffs.

While employees acted as instruments of managers, this "instrument state" do not relieve them from the responsibility of their actions. They could write a memo to the higher management or simply say that "this management is stupid, I quit and find another job". While it was a strong ape-subroutine that made them obey, they had free will to act differently. The fact that the managers would deserve layoffs more than the employees, does not change that the employees deserve it too.

You are in control of your life. You have the options to speak up against the manager, to quit the job, or simply to start accumulating funds knowing that your job is going to go down. As an employee of the company you access several internal information that makes it pretty easy to foresee the future of the company. If you are honestly surprised that there are layoffs in your company, than you are just as innocent as the guy who is honestly surprised that there are lava waves in Obsidian Sanctum.


Unknown said...

Participants in the Milgram Experiment knew (supposedly) everything about the situation. Employees and even many middle managers do not have the full picture of a company's financial health and true position in the marketplace. As recent events have shown, even the annual reports can be misleading or downright wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to disagree, Gevlon.

Of course you can quit your job and find a new one - which is, be assured, not such easy as it sounds. At least if you want to keep the amount of money you get...

And that's the only thing you can do, because trying to convince any manager that his idea is simply dumb will result in getting you fired anyway.

It's almost like in WoW: Ghostcrawler told the community about the BM-Hunter nerfs. The community responded by telling him this nerf would be over the top and provided numbers from the PTR. Well, the "management" said "nay, our numbers are better, we are the heroes" and put the nerf alive.
And guess what, in the 3.09 patch they had to buff the BM-Hunters because the nerf was too strong.
Answer of the community: "told ya so!"

Back to the job: working in IT support we've been told in case of a printer server crash, we should test if deleting and re-connecting the printer queue on the remote client will help. Of coure this is a plain dumb idea, because I can delete the printer, but not reconnect it simply because the print server is not alive...

We protested against this idiotic
rule but to no avail. If your boss is an dumbass, you can live with that or leave. :(

Anonymous said...

Marc: I sorta have to offer an opposing opinion there. The entire beta consisted of players complaining that Ret and Arcane were way too strong in pvp. Blizzard ignored them, and left things the way they were. This supports your comment until you then look at the numbers of Rets that will swear to you to this day on their dying breath that Ret "was always fine, terribads just needed to l2p and they just want us to be an easy kill!", regardless of what Blizzard said after seeing numbers. They are entirely convinced that Blizzard is out to get them.

My point being that sometimes your scenario works, but I'd wager that just as often, going on your own data regardless of what the other group of people is also the way to go.

Merlot said...

The mistake many people make is to think that their company owes them a certain level of loyalty. They project human emotions onto an abstract structure. Emotions don't come into it. The only function of a business is to make money for its owners. Workers are told they are there to deliver a service to customers, but that's simply the way the company chooses to make its money. If a function (and therefore a person) is in conflict with the drive to create money then it is in the company's best interests to remove it. The only point at which a company has to consider the welfare of its workers is when it either influences its ability to generate money or when legislation dictates it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you have a family that relies on you for its income, but tell me again that I'm free to quit a job at any time with 2 kids and a wife relying no me as the sole support of income.

I worked for the largest homebuilder in the US just over a year ago. I was miserable there for over 8 months as I saw people get laid off and my workload increase. Because I was in management I had to keep lots of things secret from my employees in order to keep up morale. I searched for a job for a year before I was able to land one so I could quit.

I had seen the writing on the wall and new I would be laid off eventually too and wouldn't you know that three months later they laid off my entire department. I got out just in time, but only because I was lucky.

Gevlon said...

@mutagen: the reports can be wrong or even manipulated, however I knew personally bank employees who were joking about stories of low-class people and their ridiculous loans. When I told them that such loans can bring down the bank, they told it's impossible. I reminded them about it after they were layed off and they called me hartless :-)

The employees know and should know about their company not from the reports but from living inside it.

@marc: I'm not telling that it's easy to find a job. I'm just telling you shall know it's coming and do something. Even something like "we don't go to vacation this year but save the money" can make the difference between being unlucky and being broke.

@kyrilean: Kids are investment to the future, cost a lot today but pay back well later. However a wife is a grown person who shall be able to support herself AND half of the kids. If YOU made the choice of supporting a grown person than it's you who have to live with the consequences. BTW after learning the consequences of being the only income source you can still make changes and tell your wife to find at least a part-time job to support at least herself.

You got out NOT because you were lucky but because you were searching for a new job. You worked for this job and getting it is not luck but reward of this work.

Neil said...

@Gevlon: You know a few people telling stories from banks. Therefore everybody who has ever worked for a collapsing company should have seen it coming. Right?

Sometimes lower-level workers, even white-collar ones, are not privy to information or even rumors about an impending collapse.

To be clear: I'm not one of those who thinks "if you fire somebody, you're a bad person!" Sometimes firing is what has to happen, your manager doesn't have a responsibility to keep you on. But the idea that anyone should be able to foresee their firing is frankly absurd.

Carl said...

Yup, that's why in modern professional ethics there's an "intelligent disobedience" clause.

Although I must disagree on your view that the Nazis in Nuremberg had a choice of not following orders. Any action opposing the Fuhrer would have been considered an act of treason and punishable by death. Obviously self-preservation has to prevail in those who do not have the courage to risk his life to battle evil.

Heywood Djiblomi said...

@kyrilean: You are indeed free to quit at any time, though it would be unwise to do without having another job lined up in advance. Assuming there are no circumstances that dictate otherwise: no one is forcing you to work for that employer; no one forced you to have children; no one is forcing your wife to stay at home and care for the children. The place at which we are in life is the sum total of our decisions. With that said...

@Gevlon: My wife, too, is a stay-at-home-mother and we have a 4 year-old child. Her "job" (as we jointly decided) was to prepare him for school - a job she/we can do better than any daycare. The lack of "traditional" income is the investment expense, but it is no less a job than if she worked outside the home. In fact, when he enters full-time preschool next fall, I am encouraging her to take 10 weeks for herself before returning to the work force - it is the vacation time she would have otherwise earned at a "normal" job at the rate of 2 weeks per year for five years. She's EARNED every bit of it.

Anonymous said...

Ever since being fired fro "intelligent disobedience" from a few early jobs, I personaly made a choice to shut up and follow along. why? 2 reasons really.

1. it generaly looks better on your resume when you were layed off for economic reasons then if you were fired with no references (and intelligent disobedience rarely gets you references from the management you disobayed)

2. while finding a new job is not impossible, it is still not wolk in a park, especialy when you have responsibilities that require financial backing. yes you choice to have those responsibilities in a first place, but the only people wth a choice of NOT having those responsibilities at all are children. Adults really cannot avoid making that choice, unless they choose to leech of others.

also - as someone else already mentioned, depending on your standing in a company as well as the size of the company - you may not have a full picture. you may not have information that will allow you to forsee anything.

the world is not black and white - its full of shades of gray and the experiment where you torture people is far to extreme to cover and explain the neuances of choices people make every day.

Kotamundus said...

I believe you are simplifying away an important aspect of this type of situation, Middle Management. In a company large enough to have some bad management (small companies with bad management disappear quickly), there will be several layers of management.

A more realistic scenarios might be: Senior management makes some decision about company strategy which might include cut costs in department A so that more can be spent in department B. Middle Manager in Department A has the option to examine performance metrics and lay off the 20% of lowest performers in the department, but instead he chooses to lay off the group of employees that "Intelligently disobeyed" him in the past - and call them the lowest performers. He is in the position of being able to control information going up to senior management and the information going to the employees - and so is very unlikely to be caught out. So he tells employees you are fired for your bad performance, and tells management I got rid of the lowest performing employees. When in reality he is covering his own bad performing ass by hurting the company.

However with that said - any employee that decides a bad decision is important enough to "intelligently disobey" ought to start preparing for the fallout they are likely to get.

I was in a situation like this some years ago. I saw it coming and saved money hard. When I finally quit (before I got Fired) I had plenty of savings to fall back on and the 3 month break was quite restful (I played a lot of WoW ;-) In the end the company had to hire me back as a contractor at almost double the rate, because the stupid middle manager let me go without extracting (or asking - or even letting me give) them information that no-one else in the company knew. However while my preparation certainly helped, I was also lucky that the stupid middle manager not only stupidly put me in a position that I felt I had no option but to quit, but then stupidly did not use my month long notice period to hand over information from me to others, but instead "marched me out" in less than a week, and did not want me to talk to others in that time. His own stupidity worked against him there (that was my luck) but that I could afford it was my planning. So am I in control of my own destiny? A. "in part but not in full".

By removing middle management from your scenarios, you remove the real issues from the scenario. Yes - management has the right to hire and fire as they will. No - middle managers should not make self serving political decisions that actually hurt the company to cover their own butts - but you had better bank on the fact that they will!

Finally because middle management controls the information flow in both directions, up the chain and downwards, they can get away with a lot. Employees can be surprised by their imminent sacking, and senior management will think that bad (relative to the department average) employees got fired rather than the good ones.

Cheers ;-)

Anonymous said...

"I strongly believe that I'm the master of my life."

Then how do you explain your observations that people can so easily be coerced to "murder" or humiliate innocent people? Why couldn't any of them harness that amazing ego you seem to possess? Are all people (excepting yourself) M&S?

Gevlon, you are either very young, or have been extremely fortunate not to have any life experiences that demonstrate the utter and often painful lack of control we really have over our lives and emotions.

I'm not saying the answer is to blame others for your problems, but you are saying that everyone should blame THEMSELVES for all their problems. Both strategies are poor ape-subroutines based on the illusion of control.

Zen masters, Buddhist monks and Yogis practice nonattachment. Letting go of the need or perception of control turns problems into an opportunity to struggle and achieve, not a reason to blame or judge others or ourselves.

Dude, you need some serious pOHMage in your life.

Anonymous said...

Since you often seem to refer to psychology experiments in justification of your viewpoints, I'm surprised you've failed to note the effects and importance of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

Anonymous said...

So... I take it that if I were in Nazi Germany and watched silently as Jews are killed I'm an idiot, right?

If I happened to *be* a Jew who went on undetected by the Nazis and still watched my co-nationals be slaughtered, I'd be even more of an idiot, right?

If I also happened to assist with loading them up in trains headed for extermination camps... what then, I'd probably be completely ruled by 'ape subroutines' and with no chance of success in life, business etc. whatsoever. Definitively no chance in business, cause I'm all about obeying authority figures and I have no initiative. Riight?

Wait a second.. I think that's George Soros we're talking about! I'm confused.

Anonymous said...

Maslow effectively responded to the establishment of psychodynamism and behavioral psychology by putting the heirarchy out there. It's good interesting stuff, however even Maslow would be the first to admit that most folks are not going to Self Actualize, hell, most likely they aren't going to hit self esteem. If we are going to venture down the route of humanism, why not go whole hog and bring in Rogers and May as well? All of them tend to rely on rather iffy principles that border on non-falsifiability.

I would think that Gevlon's leaning more to Julian Rotter and Locus of Control. While some things are out of your control, they might even take you by surprise (see Animaniac's Lion king Spoof), it's still your responsibility/belief that it's your responsibility to get back in the saddle, provided your locus is internal. There's a sizable percentage of the population, (M&S's) who tend more to an external locus, which is a large problem.

...and then of course there's the old style "shock the puppy" learned helplessness that could apply as well.

*lobs the ball back to someone else*

Gevlon said...

@Bristal: it's not only me who can control his life. I met lot of people who does it. It doesn't even seems hard to me, and I'm trying really hard to understand how the others manage to *not* control their lifes. I don't have the answer yet. Blaming others for their mistakes is definitely an effective way to be out of control.

@Anonymous: you definitely missed the point. I did not say you must disobey. I'm just saying that you are not free from the consequences of your actions just because you did it on command. For example the mentioned hiding person is not immune to the bombs of the allies attacking the train station where he is packing the boxcars.

Cuthbert said...

Once again Goblin, you don't address the fundamental power differential between management and workers. The commodification of labor, especially physical labor, has resulted in labor being treated as a product. But unlike most products, labor cannot be stored and as such, employees become price takers.

You continue to use these antiquated neoclassical models to describe complicated real world conditions. Economics is not simple.

On another note, I never said that managers are bad people for sacking folks, only that corporate responsibility goes further than salaries. Incorporation is not a right, but a regulation that allows the owners of public companies limited liability. For that reason, and for the stock of human capital that they draw from, but did not participate in creating, as well as loads of other positive externalities that they take advantage of, there is a responsibility to maintain employment if at all possible.

If the owners of businesses were responsible for losses beyond business assets, such as their personal property, they could hire and fire with impunity. But the limited liability the government gifts them with, deserves the compensation of continuing employment if it is at all possible.

Gevlon said...

@Cuthbert: employees being price takers can be true in developing countries where the alternative of working is starving. However in the western world we spend most of our salaries on unnecessary stuff like LCD TV, vacations and such. So we earn much more than we need, therefore we are capable of having savings. So we have an alternative to working: living on savings. On the top of that there are welfare system, so our life is not in danger if we are not working. So I don't think we are forced to take any salary.

Anonymous said...

First, last time i forgot mention that i like your blog, its nice hearing a opinion that isnt sugarcoated. I belive that the point is, that just like everything in live you cant control the things around you, but yoy can control your reactions to them. In this case: you cant control if you are going to get axed, but you can control your reaction to it, you can save money, you can quit yourself, you can search other work somewhere. You are the one whos got the control on your live. You are the one whos thake the decisions and sit in your ass and let things just happen its lame, weak, plain stupid, makes you and M&S, etc.