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"Kiss up, kick down" as a typical management strategy in corporate IT

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Natural evolution of large and complex organization tend to limit their adaptive competence

empty suit:

An executive in upper management who lacks the knowledge, experience, skills and/or intellect to hold in the position. "The director of marketing is an empty suit." Female "empty suits" are also known as a "hollow bunnies."

Fearless Leader:

A reference to the Rocky and Bullwinkle cold-war cartoons, Fearless Leader was Boris Badenov's boss. We apply this term of endearment to all project leaders, managers or other authority figures that take credit for your successes, take no credit for failures, and in general don't have a clue as to what you're trying to accomplish!

Microwave Slang


The absurd of the world of office cubicles in a large corporation is well known and well depicted in such works as Peter Principle, Dilbert cartoons, etc. A very interesting combination of Cronyism, Nepotism and Incompetence, can  be found in corporate IT Departments.

One persistent and defining feature of such an environment is dominant use of "kiss up, kick down" principle by middle level managers. We will call such an environment  a bootlickocracy.  

The prevalence of  bootlickocracy  in large IT organizations can be viewed as a side effect of dominance of  aggressive but incompetent managers who are colloquially called "empty suits".  More often they are authoritarians and very often Double High Authoritarians).

No substance and not much style. Just sharp claws and elbows. As such bootlickocracy  is the product of the rise of  a caste of professional "office politicians", which incorrectly are called "generic managers". Their defining feature is that they lack the technical skills and experience of those professionals they supervise, but that does not mean that they lack political abilities or IQ. As for politicians everything is politics the IT became a battle field of various cliques who fight for power and influence.

Such managers are more widespread that is assumed by honchos from Harvard Business Scholl: in a large IT organization competence is not the primary value. Also bureaucracy itself is more complex then you can infer from the world of Dilbert cartoons. The essence of bureaucracy is that it is efficient political coalition directed on preserving the power of its members (see Bureaucracy as a Political Coalition). As any political coalition it entail a significant level of corruption. One way to view corruption is to see it as the way of getting something that should not be for sale by those who have the legal status as trustees of persons or property:

“The corrupt buy or sell what was not supposed to be for sale – a vote, for example, or public property. They turn to personal advantage their legal status as trustees of persons or property. Or they grant only to a privileged few what is purportedly available to all or [should be] available only through open and fair competition.”

If you think about it "turning official position into source of personal advantages" is the essence of behavior of bureaucrats. In a way, this is immanent feature not a deviation. So the legitimate question is "How do modern organizational forms permit it, and what do they do to deter it?" not " How to eliminate it". The latter is naive.

Politics, connections (and first of all family connections), and clever tactics are more important then technical competence in any large bureaucracy. As such large bureaucracy tend naturally evolve in "bootlickocracy". In this environment the treatment of superiors and subordinates contrast so greatly that people to who at the same or higher level who know a particular Double High Authoritarian usually have no clue about the behavior of this "nice guy" toward subordinates. That means that "kiss up, kick down" principle is a clever  Machiavellian tactic that helps to achieve the goal of those managers that practice it.  It exploits absence of flow information between the levels of hierarchy. And the latter is an immanent feature. In a way existence of so many levels and so many middle managers in the corporation is related to fear of "corporate elite" feels about "rank-and-file" workers.

For common clues of aggressive incompetent managers see Empty Suits. Among them:

Those traits are highly correlated with  "double high" (or right-wing) authoritarianism (RWA). The latter is a personality  variable defined by three attitudinal and behavioral clusters which are highly correlated: ( see  Right-wing authoritarianism):

  1. Authoritarian submission — a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives. High RWA score does indeed increase the likelihood that individuals will obey authorities, even if asked to initiate extreme punishments. Specifically, Dambrun and Vatuien (2010) utilized a virtual variant of the classical Milgram study.
  2. Authoritarian aggression — a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be disapproved by the established authorities. This is a strong, stable tendency to look for, condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional behavior. Stories about US ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton demonstrate this type of behavior pretty well.  Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper)
  3. Conventionalism — a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one's society should also be required to adhere to these norms.

So it is this double faced nature of double high (or right wing) authoritarians which makes "kiss up, kick down" tactics for them as natural as breathing the air. As annotation to the book The Incompetent Manager aptly states:

The longest chapter in the book looks at abnormal incompetence and what are called personality disorders. Well-known psychiatric disorders are described in detail and how to spot these in managers. Thus, the paranoid or sociopathic, narcissistic or passive-aggressive types are described in everyday language as well as how to deal with them.

More importantly, the book considers how the pathologically incompetent managers influence organizations and groups to fulfil their often bizarre needs and wishes. The final section of the book attempts to help the reader correctly diagnose incompetence.

It also offers various possible cures: the emphasis is that cure follows correct diagnoses. Some cures for incompetence actually accentuate it.

So "kiss up, kick down" behavior should be viewed as the way for technically incompetent, but organizationally savvy managers to efficiently accomplish their goals, fulfill their (often bizarre) needs and wishes. Nothing more, nothing less. And such managers automatically reproduce this environment by their hiring decisions: also try to hire subordinates with zero technical but good organizational abilities/skills ("subzeros"). Those are sure choice because they (at least at the beginning) will be fiercely devoted to the benefactor who hired them.

Bill Joy once proposed an elegant explanation for the apparently inevitable metamorphosis of cool start-ups into hideous corporations, which he called the Bozo2 Principle. Wizards, he said, hire other Wizards. Bozos hire Bozos. As a company grows rapidly, it is inevitable that some Wizards will slip and hire Bozos, given the scarcity of the former and plenitude of the latter. However, once a Bozo has been hired, he hires another, and "everything beneath them turns Bozo after that." (This is related to Steve Jobs'  "A people hire A people. B people hire C people.").

Bozo2 Principle: Wizards, Bill Joy said, hire other Wizards. Bozos hire Bozos

Moreover the more incompetent the manager is, the more aggressive is he/she with the subordinates:

"Power holders who do not feel personally competent are more likely than those who feel competent to lash out against other people."

So for such people the aggressiveness toward subordinates naturally, frictionlessly correlates with complete subservience to higher-up. Peter in his Peter Principle while generally misdiagnosed the reasons of rise of incompetent managers to high ranks, made one important observation about why the organization tent to cultivate and promote  "double high authoritarians", or at least "kiss up, kick down" behavior as an adaptive strategy.  He cited the example of the mother of George Washington who, when asked how her son was so accomplished as a General, answered: "I taught him to obey."  The question arise why "kiss up, kick down" types are so amazingly successful in modern organizations.  It might be that the modern organization environment has a deep need for such people as they smooth the internal contradictions and conflicts inherent in the large organizations.

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Old News ;-)

The Dumbest Project Manager in the World

An excerpt from The Wall Street Journal Online: To Pin Blame on Bad Bosses, First Go Over Their HeadsBy Jared SandbergThere's only one thing more mystifying than why a person completely undeserving of a managerial position gets one: how they manage to keep it for so long. Everyone knows that politics, connections and clever tactics can vault the most unworthy staffer into a supervisory role, especially in a bootlickocracy. But when that person, defying logic and gravity, fails to fall on his or her own sword, it is stark proof of the fact that justice doesn't necessarily prevail in the office.

The problem of unqualified employees rising through the ranks is well chronicled in Laurence Peter's 1969 book, "The Peter Principle," which argues that people in business organizations rise to their level of incompetence. a href=""


May be...but smart enough to survive and become a manager. I had one like that.. and I yelled at him (rather sermonized) in front of 100 people.. Yeah.. later everyone thanked me for that... and my stock went up....;) Of course, he was one of the reasons for me to leave that place.

How many of you have seen this truth proven time and time again?

There’s only one thing more mystifying than why a person completely undeserving of a managerial position gets one: how they manage to keep it for so long. Everyone knows that politics, connections and clever tactics can vault the most unworthy staffer into a supervisory role, especially in a bootlickocracy. But when that person, defying logic and gravity, fails to fall on his or her own sword, it is stark proof of the fact that justice doesn’t necessarily prevail in the office.

[Jul 01, 2011] Cost Savings

So you're suffering from cost containment? No discretionary spending allowed unless it has a direct impact on this quarter's revenue? No travel unless it's a customer meeting? Absolutely no training or education? No social events? Boring?

And your VP has to approve everything!

Guess what. As a VP I can make anything into a customer meeting, fly where ever I want (even business class), go to any conference I'd like and treat anyone to dinner with all extras.

But I will not approve your expense report for those ten beers you and your team shared after successfully completing a project.

That's Corporate BS!

I don't get it. Why the approval hysteria? Tell people how much they can spend and leave it at that. If they spend more they should be in trouble. If they're under budget, let them have that beer.

And I won't have to get like 100 requests for approval per day.

[Jul 01, 2011] Corporate Truths! Life Cycle of an Employee in a Corporate Trainism

May 11, 2009

It is often said that if you get a job in a corporate you are settled for Life. They give you every thing that you aspire for. Money & Position no more remain a dream. Corporates are known for their pampering. The mere walk into the office, personalized cubical, state of the art facility would fill your heart with joy & pride. However, this lasts only till the time you don’t have any work.

My recommendation to you would be not to follow this rat race of being employed by a corporate because then this cycle would never end. In order to end it, find the real meaning in your life. Know what you were born for. Find out the real passion in you & what would you like to be remembered as when you die. Just an employee to a corporate or do you have more to you?

[Jul 01, 2011] Small Person Behaviour

November 21, 2007 | Corporate Bullshit Wiper

Twenty years of working in a corporate environment has brought me to a point where I have decided to give the insider's comments to the corporate BS we all have to endure. Believe me it's not for our good. I'd know since my day job is to create and implement corporate BS and make you and others believe in it. Let's start wiping that BS off.

I'm not saying that a small brain is a prerequisite for making a corporate career, that would be shooting my self in the foot. But, observing some of my VP colleagues I cannot stop wondering what piece they're missing.

It's not that they're unintelligent. I most cases their IQ would be worthy of a chess grand master.

It's not that they're socially dysfunctional. Hmm, well at least not completely. Most VPs don't look very becoming in jeans for instance. Don't know why ...

But when cornered and in times of change, the majority of senior managers show off the same three features:

Trying to appear bigger than you are is the nucleus of the small person behaviour syndrome, in short Small Person BS. The result of their actions is always Corporate BS.


So I had to spend some time saving my job. Hence the quietness.

Quite an interesting exercise in human bad behaviour. Not so much on my part (I hope) but referencing to my earlier post on re-orgs (

I've endured some serious Corporate BS during the past couple of weeks.

For the moment I'll just give you the menu of topics to be covered in posts to come

Corporate Bullshit Wiper

October 2007
Winning argument?

So, I've spent yet another day at a major industry event. Millions of [insert currency] spent on grand booth designs and ugly ties. The prime argument for being here is to meet intimately with customers. Hmmm, To examine the investment I did some math.

Yet, I signed off on our participation, knowing this beforehand. The argument used? "Everybody is going there! We'll look like loosers if we don't do it". To be exact, it was my argument. Told you, I'm a VP.

I'm not sure how compelling that was. It kind of reminds me about when I, as a kid, asked my mother about going somewhere knowing she would say no. My argument was: "but mom, everyone's going!" I was a bit surprised when it turned out only I got permission to go.

I didn't exactly look like a winner.

Corporate Bullshit Wiper October 2007


So, Siemens , the German telecoms equipment provider was sentenced to pay a €201m fine for bribery. Read the article here:

Are you really surprised? Corporations are run by people and people do bad things. What's the big news?

Actually you can trust people a little more because most have a conscience. Hmm, leads me to believe that some VPs might not be human. At least not humane.

Corporate Values

This is so popular nowadays.

VP trying to establish (fairly general) corporate values and trying to make the staff gather around them to create a sense of common understanding and beliefs.

OK, so things like Customer First are going to be cloned into you DNA and your moral system?

Corporate BS!

Whatever values you chose will have different meanings for everyone. For it to work as guiding stars you really have to believe in them but the second you make your own interpretation and internalize them you have automatically created a disconnect and the point is moot.

Budget time

We're heading towards Christmas. Ooops, sorry, the Holiday season is approaching. But before that it's the feast of budgeting.

Do you believe any of your planning and thinking ends up in the corporate budgets? Of course not.

Truth is that most budgets equal whatever you did this year plus 10% revenue minus 10% cost. Giver or take some percentage points. God forbid any new investments if you're out in the field.

In the best case VP looks at market trend charts like this and tells you how much you need to do to keep up with competition.

Hmm, don't they always look like this? Even the year before the slump. Does anybody really look back? Hindsight is a scary thing because it means you have to analyze your mistakes. VP doesn't like that too much.

And VP really believes in charts like this:

VP will use words like "synergies" and "optimize" to push you to do more with less. OK, I guess it's a good thing as a principle to be more effective as you move forward.

But it's Corporate BS because: The bigger the gap, the higher the VP's bonus gets. And do you think VP will lose his job when you don't succeed. Maybe, but only after you lost yours.
Posted by Outsider on the inside at 11:44:00 AM 0 comments
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Trusted Partner

You've all heard it. VP saying: "We're going to climb the value chain and become the trusted partner or advisor to our core customers".

Yeah right. If you've done the same thing for the past hundred or so years, chances are that you will keep doing exactly that. Your place in the food chain ain't changing.

Unless you do a corporate sex change. Which will be as painful as the real thing. For more people!

If you're really serious about it, there are no two ways about it. You must cut off what you have and get some new stuff in. Well folks, that means getting rid of people. And they aren't likely to cut themselves off. Especially not the guys with titles starting with capital C.

So, if your customers aren't taking your advice. Take a hint!

Posted by Outsider on the inside at 5:01:00 PM 2 comments

Paying good money for bad software

Strange tale, strange author, well known poster (but it looks like it is not about open source software ;-)
Two hypotheses: (1) The author of the tale is a typical small IT fish, a story teller with over-excited imagination who never has been IT manager. Not a very gifted story teller, if you see his actual role in this tale as a very stupid accomplice. We cannot assume that he suffers from Daune disease as the story implies, can we ? But assuming that he suffers from it is the only rational explanation of his behavior in the story. (2) This is "yet another tale" of cronysm and nepotism dominant in the IT. In this sense nothing new or exiting. It's just "deja vu all over again"

When I went to work for a company I’ll call “Heart of Glass,” a firm that imports and sells high-end glassware, I was initially hired as a programmer. At the time, HoG had only one warehouse and five retail stores, but we worked hard and the company grew.

By the time we added our 10th retail outlet, the VP of retail sales (I’ll call him “Andre”) decided that we needed PoS (point-of-sale) software. By now I was IT manager, but Andre never consulted with me about his plans for the software acquisition. Apparently, because IT’s primary responsibility was maintaining the warehouse software (the only system software we were running at the time), Andre figured he could buy a PoS package without any input from us. This turned out to be a big mistake.

The vendor he chose, “LMNOP Software,” sold other retail system software too, and Andre decided to purchase its warehouse package as well. That way all our stores would be supported by one vendor. By the time the deal closed, we had 25 outlets. We installed the software in every one.

Surprise! LMNOP’s software turned out to have some nasty bugs, and its support team was clueless. I made a few phone calls and found my way to “Kaitlin,” the only programmer at LMNOP who seemed to understand the software. Unfortunately, she was way too busy to provide day-to-day support. So Andre decreed that whenever something went wrong, the store manager was to call me. Without source code, all I could do was call Kaitlin. And increasingly Kaitlin wouldn’t even call me back. I did the best I could, and gradually I began to figure out how the apps worked. Or didn’t.

We fade to black -- and fade back in three years later, by which time we have four huge warehouses and 150 stores. Andre finally figures out that LMNOP’s software is a total disaster, and the IT department hears rumors that the company will be developing its own in-house system. But (surprise!) no one actually talks to us. Instead, Andre sends me a memo: The new PoS software will be written by … Kaitlin, who has recently left LMNOP under questionable circumstances.

Her contract states that she must produce the product in two years -- a goal no one in IT considers remotely realistic. Sure enough, two years later, all Kaitlin’s got to show is a PowerPoint presentation describing how the project is going to look some day. To the utter disbelief of the guys in IT, Andre rewards her by appointing her VP of Retail IT.

Another year passes, the company president finally realizes that Kaitlin is never going to produce the PoS software. He tells her that her employment will be terminated in three weeks, and offers her a dazzling severance package. Then he tells me to learn everything she’s doing so we can take over her job when she leaves.

When I ask her for documentation, she can’t produce any. She claims that when she found out she was being fired, she deleted all but a handful of her files “because she was sure we wouldn’t need them.” Yeah, right. After she walks, the president orders the IT department to “just fix it.”

I can find several lessons in this disaster, but I’ll mention just one for now: Talk to your IT department once in a while, especially before you invest a ton of money in new software.

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