#165 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 7          July 1995

If I Ever See Jack Again, It’ll be Too Soon; or, A Tale of Four Tragedies
by Harvey Gittler

Mr. Gittler, of Oberlin, Ohio, is a retired manufacturing executive who writes and lectures on management issues.

Jack F. was fired from his job as manager a couple of weeks ago.  That  made a lot of sense, but none of us could understand why Jack was allowed to stay in that position for almost seven years.

It’s not as if his unit was wasting the company’s money; rather, it was productive during Jack’s entire tenure.  This is the story of a petty tyrant, and of superiors who could not admit their mistakes.

Jack's people-handling abilities were abysmal, his knowledge of the operation superficial, and he ran an operation that should have been far more successful than it was. 

I’m speaking from experience--I worked under (and I stress "under") Jack for a year before throwing in the towel and tendering my resignation to the vice president, Jack’s boss.  “I cannot perform my duties under the present management," I wrote.  "I will not stand by and see everything I believe in and have practiced over the years violated."

In my letter, I reviewed the major problems:

  Jack was emotionally unstable; he had shouting, screaming temper tantrums, in private and at meetings.  One day he would threaten to fire everyone; next day, he was telling us what a great team we were.

  Jack was paranoid.  At night, he’d search wastebaskets for secret memos.  This caused people in the unit to become paranoid as well; we became afraid to talk to each other in the hallways for fear Jack would accuse us of plotting against him.

  Jack, like all despots, ruled by edict:  There shall be no equipment breakdowns; efficiency shall be improved immediately.  He described how things should be, but could not understand how things were.

  The staff was unable to discuss anything with him, thereby cutting off all dialogue.  At staff meetings, his major contribution seemed to be taking copious notes, causing us to measure each word.

  Jack continually threatened to fire people, yet in seven years he never fired anyone.  Why?  Because he was a bully with his employees but a coward with corporate staff.  Firing someone would require informing corporate headquarters, and Jack was terrified of headquarters.

  Jack moved through the plant accompanied by a sycophantic sidekick.  Wherever Jack went, David M. went.  And what Jack missed, David caught.

  Jack continually brought small matters to the front office and made them into federal cases; we were tired of being blamed for our faults and failings, of being gripped by fear every time something went wrong.  According to Jack, we could do nothing right. 

I'm not saying I quit for noble reasons; I could afford to resign and didn’t have to endure Jack’s oppression.  My resignation caused a stir at headquarters.  Jack’s boss called immediately and agreed to come down to meet with us.  He finally arrived a week later (as far as I’m concerned, he should have shown up the next day), and met with four of my peers, each of whom told essentially the same story.

After lengthy discussion, he concluded, “How can I do anything?  The group has been productive.”  Never mind the human carnage, he seemed to say—the bottom line looked good.  I left the company.

After Jack

Finally, several years later, Jack has also gone, and my friends feel a burden has been lifted from their shoulders; the atmosphere of fear has disappeared, intimidation has evaporated, and the lines of communication have opened.  Before, everyone worked on Jack’s agenda; now, people can present ideas and voice their opinions, particularly in meetings.  Even the hourly employees sense an excitement that had been suppressed.

Since Jack has only been gone a month, the impact on the bottom line is unproven, but people are performing their jobs enthusiastically, confident that the new manager knows how to run the unit.  Respect for corporate management is slowly being restored.

A disaster?  At the least.  I see four tragedies inherent in this tale.

First, Jack caused managers far more capable than he to depart. 

Second, and far worse, managers like Jack render people ineffectual—their talents are ignored or scoffed at.  This takes a mighty toll on their performance at work and their lives in general.  Imagine the creativity that was stifled, creativity that could have made the unit even more productive!

Third, employees were forced, daily, to confront this question:  Why is Jack is allowed to stay?  Unable to understand why management allowed such employee abuse to continue so long, the employees lost confidence in, and respect for, corporate management.  The change was only made after Jack’s boss retired and was himself replaced.  Why couldn't the vice-president who had promoted Jack to manager admit his own mistake?  (Had the unit been unproductive, of course, the vice-president would have moved swiftly.)

The fourth tragedy is that nothing is being done about the many other Jacks out there.

Yet it’s not the Jacks of the world I'm indicting; they’re sick, pathetic people.  It's their bosses who should take the blame for allowing abusive managers to continue even for a day. 

It’s a tragedy when managers are so blinded by the sparkle of the bottom line.  It's a tragedy when they can't see what’s really going on.  It's a tragedy when they can't admit their mistakes.

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