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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Jerome Alexander. 160 Degrees of Deviation

Jerome Alexander. 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic (Coral Springs, FL: Llumina Press, 2002). 116 pp.

This book is an account of Alexander's experience, as an MBA and CPA with twenty years background in management, with the often psychotic misbehaviors of lower management. The title comes from his willingness to spot the company 20 degrees for good intentions. [p. 2]

As regular readers of this blog might guess, this is my primary disagreement with Alexander: the assumption that the people at the top of the pyramid mean well.

This may seem hard to believe but managers, executives and CEO's are fallible. When executives make hiring decisions and promote individuals to higher-level positions, they have an implicit trust that these managers will act in the best interests of the company. [p. 28]

For Alexander, apparently, the policies formulated at corporate headquarters are by and large good. The problem is with lower levels of management deviating from senior management's general plan.

It's much more plausible, in my opinion, that every level in the management hierarchy, all the way up to the CEO and Board of Directors, has essentially the same tendency toward self-dealing at the expense of customers, workers and shareholders. Every rung in the hierarchy distorts the data flowing upward in order to pad its resources, inflate its performance, and deflect attacks on its perks and autonomy. The CEO does this on an organization-wide scale in order to inflate quarterly returns and fool the shareholders.

And while I've seen plenty of cases of atrocious lower management (some of them probably in need of exorcism), I've seen about as many cases of a front-line supervisor attempting to defend his or her department from the cluelessness or mendacity of senior management.

Nevertheless, despite my reservations about Alexander's misplaced faith in senior management, his scathing evaluation of lower and middle management is very much an insider's testimony from experience. He comes across as a sympathetic, no-nonsense kind of guy who wants managers to just do their damned job and stop interfering with those of other people, so everybody can get their work done and go home on time. My sentiments exactly.

This is a highly readable book with quite a few horrific anecdotes (quite entertaining, if you weren't involved) about unbelievably bad supervisors and middle managers. I don't know if you've ever read Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card, but the management of the dysfunctional software company in that book have some real-life counterparts in Alexander's experience.

You may even recognize an old boss of your own in there somewhere.


Anonymous Jerome Alexander said...

Thank you very much for the candid
review of my book. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

This book was written five years ago and based upon my 25 years of management experience as of that time and place. While I must admit that I am still one to give "so-called" leaders the benefit of the doubt, I must admit that my views have hardened over the last few years, particularly after the release of the FSU study on employee satisfaction back in January.

The release of this study prompted me to create a blog entitled "The Corporate Cynic". It can be found at http://thecorporatecynic.wordpress.com. On my blog, I concentrate on the "dark side" of modern American corporate management. The blog contains even more stories from my experiences as well as my opinions on several issues confronting today's workplace. Your readers may find it both informative and entertaining.

If anything is intended to be accomplished through these writings, it is to ptovide a "wake up call" to leaders at all levels.
Boiled down: If you wish to be a good leader and operate a good organization, read these andecdotes and DON'T do what these "so called" leaders and organizations do.

Thanks again for your review. I Hope you will visit the blog. Your views and comments are always appreciated.

November 07, 2007 4:01 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Glad you liked the review, Jerome.

Of course I added your blog to my feed aggregator and I'll add it to the "Contract Feudalism" links when I finish updating the template. That's the kind of stuff I eat up, and it may well furnish some material for the org theory project.

FWIW, I think there are some well-meaning people at the top. They're just so enculturated to view a given level of self-dealing as normal, and living in such an imaginary world owing to the filtering of information from below, that they're almost completely clueless and ineffectual.

A good example is the hospital where I work. Last year they brought in an HR consultant to man the downsizing guillotine (even made her head of HR for a while before scapegoating her and sending her on her way), who utterly gutted nursing and support staff (i.e., respiratory and lab techs, physical therapists, etc.). Since then the hospital has been recurrently forced to go on "diversion" mode and refuse admissions because of understaffed wards, thus paying high overhead costs on all those empty rooms they remodelled at great expense.

I called the Ethics and Compliance hotline at corporate (it's a large hospital chain) and told them about it, along with a lot of other stuff about the abysmal responses on employee and patient satisfaction surveys, and the doctors who'd stopped sending patients to our hospital because of the understaffing.

After a month's investigation, Ethics and Compliance gave me the hospital's response (from HR, believe it or not) claiming that, after careful investigation, they found no evidence the hospital had been on diversion because of understaffing.

I appealed the result to the top HR guy at corporate HQ, and talked to him on the phone about half an hour. He seemed to be genuinely interested in increasing employee satisfaction levels and performance, and to believe that his carefully designed surveys made a big difference. But his entire attitude toward everything I told him could be summed up as "Well, they couldn't be doing that, because our policy here on this piece of paper says blah blah blah."

So their entire Ethics and Compliance investigation process consists of asking the fox how things are going in the henhouse, and taking their response as gospel. You raise the possibility that management might be LYING about their own malfeasance, and they look at you like you've grown a second head.

Reminds me a bit of a HS civics teacher I had back around 1980 or so. I asked her what would happen if the President simply refused to obey laws that constrained his power, and ignored Supreme Court rulings against him, because after all they didn't have any soldiers under their command. Her response was "He couldn't do that because it's prohibited by the Constitution."

Likewise, in our latest Ethics and Compliance annual education module, the little handbook solemnly assures us it's against company policy for management to carry out reprisals for employee ethics complaints. Uh, yeah--but isn't it also "against company policy" for them to do the styff we're reporting them for in the first place? I swear to God, managers must believe writing words on paper has some magical effect on reality. Or they know damned well it doesn't, but it provides plausible deniability when the policy is violated.

I remember that story about the underground PETA activist at Tyson who filmed inhumane chicken decapitations. Tyson's official response was "our written policy prohibits inhumane killing, and we MADE him watch those training films..." The activist's response, in turn, was that his supervisor showed him HOW to decapitate the chickens manually when the machine couldn't keep up with the pace. I wouldn't be surprised if Auschwitz had a "written policy" about killing Jews.

November 07, 2007 9:56 AM  
Blogger Steve_Roberts said...

I once did some organisational consultancy in a big company. Every level of employee we spoke to agreed there were significant problems, and ascribed them to the next level of management up. We did't interview the Board, but if we had done, I'm sure they would have blamed the shareholders - mostly pension funds, which takes in a circle right back to ordinary employees

November 09, 2007 9:25 AM  

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