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A co-worker was speaking (positively) to our boss about a programmer in a team she knows in another company, where the programmer was pointing out the "right things" to his bosses. Apparently he was telling them about how their project is about automating things, but even small tasks were being manually done by the team.
My boss promptly said "Well...if he's doing that he might get fired soon".

What my boss said surprised me, since he generally speaks of such things when they are standard managerial practices. I've noticed this in other companies (and universities) too, where if a person just starts suggesting steps for improvement, the managers start getting wary. They try to shunt the person or put them into a path of failure and eventually get them fired. Even if the persons suggestions are perfectly valid and would do the company good.

Is this a standard, accepted practice that a person who points out faults in the system should be subdued even if their actual interest is just to make things better? Wont it affect company culture?

  • The person won't come up with any more innovative ideas which could help the company.
  • The co-workers see what happened to him and turn into zombies who are too afraid to offer any real solutions even when asked, because they are just too scared of being perceived as "rocking the boat".
  • It makes the people more dependent on the managers for every single decision. People will stop taking initiative for anything at all.

Is it still worth doing the shunting / firing, given that the above three consequences (I've seen all three actually happening) would hamper the company functioning and culture?

On the other hand, such a person if encouraged, could also end up being disruptive. I assume the shunting is a recognition of the disruptiveness that would eventually happen.


On a side note; what could such people (the ones who are bubbling with ideas and suggestions) do to help the company and yet stay out of trouble?

UPDATE: So I found out that my boss said this because he knows how the politics in the parent company works. Also because he personally dislikes that programmer (he had worked on a project with him earlier).

closed as off-topic by rath, gnat, IDrinkandIKnowThings, Chris E, Mister Positive Jun 12 '17 at 17:15

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    It depends on your point of view; if you're a controlling-type manager then I can imagine "It makes the people more dependent on the managers for every single decision." sounds like the best thing in the world. – Erik Jun 12 '17 at 13:09
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    Get out of that toxic environment.... There are way better companies to work for out there. – Totumus Maximus Jun 12 '17 at 14:12
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    Did you ask your boss why he made that comment? – Pieter B Jun 12 '17 at 14:39
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    It sounds like your programmer co-worker was talking about someone she knew who was automating things which are currently being done manually. Is it possible your boss just meant she might automate herself out of a job? – Jaguar Wong Jun 12 '17 at 15:14
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    If your boss was comfortable enough to make that comment, he may be willing to explain. If it was me I'd ask, as I'd want to understand his reasoning. He could have useful experience to share, or it could have been a thoughtless comment he doesn't really believe, or he could be an idiot. Either way better off knowing that not knowing. – mattumotu Jun 12 '17 at 15:19
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I wonder if there's more that you're not aware of and/or not telling us.

I don't think it's particularly normal for people who find valid things to improve in their area of responsibility and properly suggest workable improvements to be fired. Those people are usually promoted.

But there's so much there. Is this employee suggesting improvements to the right people? Is he telling his supervisor, who then can work things up the chain?

You say "bosses". Is this employee going up the line a few levels, perhaps? That's not necessarily a good thing. Going outside the chain of command should be reserved for very important issues - generally, HR type issues - and not for process improvements.

And on top of that, you say:

Apparently he was telling them about how their project is about automating things, but even small tasks were being manually done by the team.

That sounds to me like he is tattling on them. I.e., he's complaining that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, and perhaps going outside the chain to do so. That's not good, and not something I'd want in an employee under me; as the upper manager it might vary depending on the issue, but odds are I'd rather hear it through the chain of command - unless it's important enough that I'd want to know about the lower supervisor not doing their job, of course, but that's only going to be true of things of higher importance.

I would not be afraid of going to your direct boss with suggestions for how to improve things that directly affect your area. Beyond that - as with most things, it depends.

  • The most astute answer here, it seems to me. – Fattie Jun 12 '17 at 14:29
  • Just because your team is automating things for others, doesn't mean your own tasks need be automated. Automation is not an always a good idea; it is a good idea when the costs of automation are lower than the costs of doing it manually. A small team that automates huge unreliable business-critical processes for other teams may do things manually, because their team's tasks are not business-critical, not huge and they have means to ensure the action is done reliably. On the other hand, dogfooding is often critical to quality deployment (being your own customer lets you see the problems) – Yakk Jun 12 '17 at 17:43
  • @Yakk That sounds good to me. Not entirely sure what it has to do with my answer, though? – Joe Jun 12 '17 at 17:44
  • Your answer presumes that the employee was making good suggestions and not bad ones? – Yakk Jun 12 '17 at 17:45
  • No, not at all. I'm not passing judgement on the suggestions' merit. (And if you read the whole answer, I think you'll find that if anything I tend to suspect the opposite, though without enough information to know for sure.) Though I would say that I would still find suggestions for automation even in the situations you describe beneficial for the employee, assuming made in the right way; that's distinct from implementing them. An employee who is always thinking about how to improve is a good employee, even if sometimes they're wrong. – Joe Jun 12 '17 at 17:46
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This is one of the signs of a toxic management culture in a company. Over time, organizations like this become more and more dysfunctional as the people who want to make improvements get frustrated and leave. Meanwhile, the ones who don't care as much, who are happy to put in their hours and go home, tend to stay.

In my experience, this tends to happen when people are placed into management roles without sufficient expertise in the field or sufficient understanding of the work that their subordinates are doing. In these situations, managers can feel threatened by anyone who appears to know more than they do.

How can you help? It can be very difficult. You can try to bubble up ideas by positioning them as your manager's idea, not yours. You can also try to present your ideas as something that will make your manager look good, e.g. we can get this done less expensively or with fewer people. Ultimately you may find that your ideas will be better received at a company that welcomes contributions at all levels.

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    If toxic management is allowed to flourish, the answer may be to find another job. – Mister Positive Jun 12 '17 at 13:00
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    I am glad that you are able to diagnose a toxic company culture from a one sided rant posted as a question here. Imagine how much money you could save companies that bring in consultants to help find these problems... – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 12 '17 at 14:39
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    "people are placed into management roles without sufficient expertise in the field" Actually Peter's Law rather tells us that they have sufficient expertise in the field, however these people are terrible in managing roles and shouldn't have been placed there – Pierre Arlaud Jun 12 '17 at 14:45
  • @IDrinkandIKnowThings, if I can't take the poster at his/her word, I don't have much of a basis for answering the question. The question is not an obvious rant, and I have no interest in amateur psychoanalysis. – Roger Jun 12 '17 at 18:45
  • @PierreArlaud Maybe. Maybe not. I have seen, for example, non-technical project managers put into very senior IT roles without any understanding of the underlying technology. I have also seen very ineffective managers with extensive domain experience. Companies promote for many different reasons, not all of them justifiable or fully thought through. – Roger Jun 12 '17 at 18:46
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First of all, there are different ways to point out the "right thing" to your boss:

  • we must be the laughing stock of the company trying to automate all their stuff while we stupidly do so much by hand. It makes me feel like a loser even being on this team. Why don't we do what we should? Can't you pull X off that dumb A project and get some of this ^%$# automated?
  • I think I will be done B a day or so early, and I was wondering, if it's ok with you, if I could get some of our own stuff automated so we could reduce errors and get things done more quickly? I was thinking specifically C could be done with [whatever] and it shouldn't be more than a day's work to do it and test it. I could introduce it to everyone at Monday's meeting.

I would want to get rid of the first employee and keep the second, wouldn't you?

If you only point out faults, with no suggestions for improvement other than "do something about that", and you use a nasty tone while you do, I will start to weigh your positive contributions to see if I want to keep you. If you make positive helpful suggestions for specific things you can do (or, in a pinch, someone else, perhaps in the form of "can I teach X how to Y so that the C tasks can get automated next week when X will have less to do?") then I will be glad to have you.

Just because ideas are innovative doesn't mean they need to be shared. If the sharer genuinely believes the boss is wrong and ill-informed, the conversation is unlikely to go well no matter where the truth lies. (I've had people make "innovative" suggestions that were completely ignorant of the reality we operated it, almost like saying that a trip to the sun will be safer if we go at night.) Offending your boss is never a good plan.

Now, it's possible that this developer was making amazingly great suggestions in just the right way, but they might lead to something good for the company but bad for the manager, such as needing a smaller team. Some petty-minded managers might get rid of someone for that. If that's the case, over time the company will suffer. Upper management will get rid of the "local optimum" manager to hire someone with a bigger-picture view. But this takes time. The negatives you point out will accumulate over years, not weeks or months. It's not a standard behavior but it does happen temporarily in some places.

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    BOOM! Talk about hitting the nail on the head. Sometimes its not what you say, but how you say it. – Mister Positive Jun 12 '17 at 13:06
  • @MisterPositive and why should that be? Why isn't being right and making the company better good enough? – Kik Jun 12 '17 at 17:56
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    @Kik first, being right doesn't make it ok to be rude and dismissive. Second, your boss may know things you don't (what was tried ten years ago, what will change soon, how busy everyone is, the company-wide goals) so you may not be as right as you think. Third, it's easy to be right when you're vague (someone should do something) but it's not useful, so you're just wasting my time or (worse) assigning me the task of figuring this all out. Fourth, the assumption that you know better than your boss about what will make the company better is not polite and requires treading very carefully. – Kate Gregory Jun 12 '17 at 18:16
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    @Kik No its not. The reason for that is we are dealing with human beings whose motives many not line up with "making the company better". The managers motives could be along the lines of "I don't want to change because its scary", or "Uh oh, this person knows more that I do so maybe they are a threat to my job". The point is you can significantly lower the risk of a negative response to your idea by the way you present it. – Mister Positive Jun 12 '17 at 18:23
  • @MisterPositive I am not doubting that that it may be perceived badly, what I am saying though that this is wrong from a moral and professional point of view. We shouldn't be trying to to legitimize the insecurities of managers, but instead point out how ridiculous and unacceptable it is. – Kik Jun 12 '17 at 18:29
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What you are describing is an eager, proactive employee.

Management often hates the type, because they require more attention and guidance. This type of person is full of energy and ideas. Often, at least half of them are garbage, half of the rest may be decent, and a few may be real gems that could benefit the company greatly.

It is not uncommon for these folks to be shunted off to the corporate version of Siberia.

While this is a bad business practice, it does happen more often than it should. The PROPER course of action would be to set aside time for the person, direct him on how to present his ideas, and then actually listen. However, this takes time, effort, skill, and patience. Sadly, those are often in short supply.

Your boss is right, however, it is likely to get him fired UNLESS, the company he works for is more positive than most.

While such a person could indeed be seen as disruptive, being disruptive is not necessarily a bad thing. If my company were going in the wrong direction, I should hope that someone would disrupt the flow of things long enough to get them to reexamine their positions.

A person like this could be a real asset to a company if properly directed. A company NEEDS people who aren't going to "yes" management to death, but put forth counter arguments.

The way to harness such a person would be to set up specific feedback procedures where he could submit his ideas for review. This could be extended to the rest of the company where ideas are openly solicited. This can have a very positive effect on the company as a whole as the "heads down, mouths shut" environment that many companies have could be turned around.

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    "eager and proactive" is probably being generous. I have never ever seen a situation where someone who has earned the respect of a team to have their ideas for improvement ignored and shunted off. I have seen cases where new hires and just plain not very good developers do get "shunted" off, so to speak. In most cases, new hire suggestions don't take into account why things are done how they are being done; once they work at the company for a while they understand why their idea won't fit the situation. "not very good" developer suggestions tend to not carry much weight for obvious reasons. – Dunk Jun 12 '17 at 14:48
  • @Dunk "Tall poppy syndrome" – Retired Codger Jun 12 '17 at 14:50
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    @Dunk I have seen cases where a team claims to respect someone and tells that person they are doing an outstanding job, only to ignore/shunt that person's ideas. There are also plenty of cases where senior developers force sub-par ideas onto less-senior employees because they have the authority to do so. Obviously, it's not always this way, but in my experience the exceptions to your comment are way, way too common. +1 to RichardU's good answer. – Aaron Jun 12 '17 at 17:26
  • @Aaron - Not incorporating and not considering are 2 very different things even though the outcome is the same. "respected" developers ideas may not be incorporated but I think it is very seldom that they aren't even considered. Just because someone is respected doesn't mean their ideas will automatically be accepted, simply because they say so. The person also has to "sell" those ideas. Sub par ideas are selected in many situations because they are known to work. Just because an idea "might" be better doesn't make the idea better or even worth the risk to find out if it is better. – Dunk Jun 19 '17 at 21:05
  • @Dunk I agree with most of what you are saying, and my counter-point may be (I hope is) the exception, but it is an exception I have seen happen so often that I need to count the times to make sure it actually is the exception. Ex: We had a system with a list of objects arbitrarily long, and at any time one of them was the selected object; I insisted we should simply have a reference to the selected object, but the lead software engineer insisted on giving every object a boolean field and guaranteeing it was true only on the selected, and iterating entire list every time you want the selected. – Aaron Jun 21 '17 at 14:32
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ALWAYS ABOUT VALUE

All change must have value to the company.

Without knowing the full company culture in your post, it is hard to determine if what you describe is a bigoted reaction to change - or if it has a rational foundation.

For example, automating small things as described in your post can easily be more expensive than just doing them manually. One duty of management is to keep costs down. Did your co-worker's friend express his or her idea in terms of actual cost reduction (i.e. money saved)?

"Right Things"

As far as the programmer pointing out the "right things" - what does that mean? "Right things" from whose viewpoint? The programmer's?

IT is more like the Fashion Industry than engineering - what is "best practice" today is an "anti-pattern" tomorrow (and visa-versa) - or, as I often find, the "best practice" is just an opinion - or worse a myth - hiding behind a catchy phrase.

A great example of this is the unkillable myth of MS SQL Server pre-compiled stored procedures.

Show Me the Money

In general, if someone is proposing change, they ought to know the impact to the company and the savings it will bring so that they can compute the benefit in monetary terms. Their managers can then justify making the changes to their own bosses in terms they are comfortable with.

  • What is "the unkillable myth of MS SQL Server pre-compiled stored procedures"? I have used Oracle's and MySQL's equivalents - PL/SQL and MySQL stored procedures, but not MS's, so perhaps I am missing something. – Aaron Jun 12 '17 at 17:31
  • The myth is that they do not exist (scarydba.com/2009/09/30/…) and yet, DBA after DBA claims that they perform better than views, etc because they are "pre-compiled" (which they are not). This is usually presented as a "best practice" - to use SPs instead of Views, etc. – user45269 Jun 12 '17 at 17:51
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Is this a standard, accepted practice that a person who points out faults in the system should be subdued even if their actual interest is just to make things better?

NO That doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Wont it affect company culture?

You are correct with your points. It creates an echo chamber where everyone is a YES-man, doing things without considering the problems associated with the task.

These cultures do exist, and they aren't great places to work. Stay away if possible.

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