Magazine article Management Today

Business Lifeforms: The Manager-Upper

Magazine article Management Today

Business Lifeforms: The Manager-Upper

Article excerpt

David Burns runs a united team - they're bonded by shared misery.

Is David Burns the worst people manager in the world? This is the topic du jour every day in the European sales department of market data provider Info-Mine. You hear the sotto sniping everywhere - down by the water cooler, on the smokers' roof terrace, in the booths of the coffee shop down the street... 'He's a kind of negative mentor...', 'He made Kate cry last week...', 'Does he have any idea what a **** he is?'

No, he doesn't. A more sensitive manager - or even an average one - might have picked up on the fact that he makes his team's daily life a misery. Yet Burns manages one way only, his eyes - and his tongue - fixed firmly on the boots of those above him. Charming, deferential and emollient to his superiors, he treats those below him like him something he's found on his shoe. Here's an example of a conversation with him... Team member: 'I've seen this great new product that could cut our costs by 25%.' Burns: 'So why aren't we using it?' Burns has a way of making even helpful suggestions seem negative.

Yet he's no sadist. His indifference to his inferiors is a many-splendoured thing. Take Kate, she of last week's waterworks. She has waited for her appraisal for three months; she has reminded him four times but he can't make time for 45 minutes with his hardest-working employee. Yet his diary is packed with meetings with those higher up the I-M hierarchy, almost all set up at his request.

To understand Burns, it is instructive to talk to those who knew the man before he managed anyone, when he was a graduate trainee at Neptune market research. His contemporaries will smile or chuckle as they recall someone 'reasonably bright, certainly not brilliant... very eager - mainly to please'. Right from the start, Burns really wanted to impress those above him.

His lickspittle willingness worked well enough until his career stalled. The problem was that Burns' ability to ingratiate himself with the hierarchy was not enough, given his lack of other, more mundane but useful management skills. He was passed over for promotion several times, even by people he himself had employed. Eventually, he moved companies and his new underlings are now paying the price for the successes of his old underlings.

Even so, Burns has a number of redeeming features. He can be genuinely charming when he feels the need to make the effort - so on those rare occasions when he praises his team, they feel he actually means it. …

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