The dangers of a “Book Manager” in IT

Have you ever come across managers bringing up phrases such as “let’s share a personal fact about ourselves with our colleagues so we know each other better…” or “I’m not asking for more because I’m unsatisfied, I’m asking for more because I know you can do it…”. Well, congratulations, chances are you are in front of what I call, a “Book Manager”. 

Let me clarify the terminology first because this term is something I came up with and it doesn’t refer to an accountant, some sort of librarian, etc… a “Book Manager” is simply a manager that does everything by the book, that kind of person who digested the whole TED and TEDx videos on management (some Simon Sinek on YouTube as well), read a couple management books, and probably has gone through at least 1 online management course. However -and as always- there are exceptions, I have come across “Book Managers” who have been so for a long time (because their formula somehow worked) and also some who are fully qualified to be a good manager but given how time consuming is to be a good manager who also provides good leadership, they opt in for the easy “Book Manager” approach.

How to recognize a “Book Manager”.

  • They come with little-to-no experience as a people manager, they usually were project managers before.
  • The book clichés “you can do more that’s why I ask you for more, I trust you…”, “let’s be vulnerable for a while, open our hearts to the team and share a personal fact about ourselves”, “let’s have a 1:1 for no good reason“, are part of their repertoire. Some variations:
    • They drop in unannouncedly and start asking you the same questions they probably asked about 1 hour ago.
    • Before asking you for an important activity they first ask something like “how is your family doing?”, or some sort of personal matter. Then they drop the bomb, and later they close the show with a positive comment about you or your family. This is called the “Sandwich Method”. 
  • They repeat patterns, and you will notice, because they are doing all the management by the book. This goes from holding an unnecessary number of meetings that could have been emails, to physical actions such as having a coffee around the same time everyday with specific groups of people (usually other managers) or showing up to ask the same questions when you have an issue (which you most likely clarified in an email an hour ago, but checking their inbox until around 10 am is not their style).
  • Dead giveaway: When something not written in the book happens, they go blank, completely frozen, trusting someone else from the team to take leadership of the situation. Since this post is very specific to the IT industry, this is most noticeable when a major incident happens, they suddenly go mute, even if they are physically there or in a video-call, they say almost nothing and wait for the team to contain the situation. You will not see significant traces of leadership and in the worst case they will say they have another meeting and will leave the team alone dealing with the fire.

Why “Book Managers” are dangerous; my personal perspective.

  • They are not really engaged, most of the time they just wanted to be a manager because in western societies this is seen as the pinnacle of someone’s career (and provides a sense of social status which i still don’t understand, “I’m the boss” they would say more often than not to other people). They want the title but either they weren’t aware of the responsibilities or simply don’t care about them.
  • They are most of the time not prepared to deal with people’s issues. Here’s where a manager’s empathy should come out but for a “Book Manager” it doesn’t. It can be faked because this person probably learnt it in a PMP training course but you will notice the dry and short answers, you will not feel contained, understood and under protection when the time comes.
    • Plot twist: Some of them are very good at this, but just way too good, you can notice that the “empathy” is off in some way, it just feels fake and it’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking to someone who you know is faking feelings in your face. 
  • They trigger a sort of immune response within the team members, especially from their direct reports. This may lead to poor job performance either low motivation or lack of direction.
  • If you are a business owner, this type of manager will get you downhill in no time, especially if you are an MSP or if you are a customer to an MSP. Your users won’t be happy because the service quality may drop and you won’t be happy because this person won’t be able to give your service the right direction. How to tell? poor performance (measured as SLAs/KPIs), poor response times, complains from users are a common thing, minor incidents becoming major incidents due to the lack of leadership or the ability to delegate effectively, etc… 

In summary, everything that was not written in management books (or available in YouTube), everything that simply comes out of experience, the “Book Manager” will fail at it, at least initially. As I said earlier sometimes these managers do work well in specific positions and specific industries, where the working culture follows the same -very executive- management approach or if they were just lucky enough to be assigned with a high performing team, and the manager’s sole job is to handle reports and hold meetings.

I disagree with the almost-obsessive perspective people nowadays have about a manager and a leader being 2 different things, leadership is a component of management, leadership is attitude (being able to articulate your vision and get people to follow) and management is aptitude (being able to achieve your mission), and if a manager doesn’t have all the necessary leadership or if the workload is large enough to do so then the manager shall delegate efficiently part of this leadership down to the team. If you are a hiring manager make sure to look for these behavioral traces, also make sure your hiring committee is composed not only of IT staff, involve HR, Finances, a representative from your Users Group (if you have one), an external partner if needed (e.g. headhunter, vendor, service provider, etc…), and most importantly make the right questions, push it to the limit, don’t allow this person to provide book answers, come up with mock scenarios and do some role-playing, you will notice immediately how the person’s behavior changes once outside the comfort zone.

Don’t let “Book Managers” into your company, for the sake of your own business, even if you are in a hurry, the price is certainly higher than the benefit and damage may be permanent. 

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