Sadistic b*****ds are drawn to participate in committees for the opportunity to feed on others’ misery. Business Technology‘s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that a decent IT leader should recognize this tendency, and take decisive action to pre-empt such bullying by denying it an opportunity to manifest.
I take a very dim view of so-called technology steering committees. It’s not that I don’t value the opinions of my co-workers; rather, I object strongly to the essential nature of the ‘steering committee’ construct itself. Either the committee has no authority over the IT department (making it little more than a focus group) or it has some sort of binding authority over the IT department (allowing non-technical people to dictate technology decisions to the experts). In the latter example, such committees inevitably and inexorably draw the unwelcome attention of malicious, vindictive, and petulant abusers – bullies, who use the committee structure as a license to wreak havoc on anyone who might have previously displeased them. Bullies are drawn to committees the way vultures are drawn to fresh carrion on an empty motorway.
As an example… Back in the mid-1990s, computers were still relatively rare in most offices, and data networks were few and far between outside of high-tech companies. I was working as an Executive Officer (second-in-command) for an Army medical company at the time, and my talents as an amateur IT boffin had been reported up to our headquarters’ headquarters. I’d been handling PC management and repair for our medical battalion for two years, because I was one of only five or so PC owners in our 335-person unit. I understood which end of the 5.25” floppy disc went into the drive, so I got to be Top Geek by default.
The always-loveable Army decided in 1995 to evolve our report writing and training schedule generation from electric typewriters to automated, PC-created content. Our Group HQ decided to invest heavily in this sexy new trend, and set aside funds to quintuple our installed PC inventory. Every company was promised a new PC, with the promise that productivity would (somehow) significantly increase. Huzzah! The only problem was that they had no idea what brand, model, or configuration of PC they needed to get the most out of their investment.
Back then the HR people were more likely to have PC experience than the workers in other departments, since the HR clerks did the most typing. Therefore, our Group C.O. tasked his senior-most personnel officer at the Group HQ to research the small computer industry and come back to him with technical recommendations – and the man utterly botched it. Yes, the fellow owned a computer; that fact alone didn’t make him qualified to make technical recommendations. He owned a credit card, and could afford to buy a computer. He wasn’t capable of making it do anything. Desperate, he reached out to his peers for help, and my boss’s boss gave me up. Thanks for that…
For most of the next year, I spent three to four days per week working out of the Group HQ complex in an old, repurposed kitchen in a de-purposed mess hall. I’d bring in stacks of industry magazines and newspapers every day, would read all the latest research, and would prepare written technical recommendations on brands, models, configurations, designs, and support plans for the top Personnelist. He, in turn, would skim my reports and would kick them back for rewrites based on criteria that he actually understood – like font size.
Eventually, Colonel Bob (the Big Boss) started demanding actionable plans from us and called for a meeting of all his senior commanders and staff to decide on our future technology standards. I was tasked with evaluating the various brands and models of PC parts that might meet our needs – not complete systems, mind you, but individual components. We weren’t going to buy compete systems – we were going to assemble our own PCs from parts. I was aghast, and struggled to explain why this was a terrible idea to the Personellist that was (notionally) in charge of the effort. He was too scared of Col. Bob to do anything other than comply meekly with whatever he was ordered to do.
I wasn’t invited to the committee’s first meeting; the Personellist took my short paper on PC chassis options into a meeting and brought it back three hours later covered in incomprehensible red scribbles. He demanded that I re-write it to be ‘more accessible to a non-technical audience.’
I drafted another version of the paper as quickly as I could and turned it over. The Personellist slogged defeatedly back into the fray with a fist-full of photocopies and was gone for hours. When he finally limped back into the old kitchen office, he looked like he’d been the victim of a mugging: he uniform was soaked with sweat, he radiated exhaustion, and he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He thrust his marked-up copy of my paper back to me and told me to have another new version ready for him the next day.
We went back and forth like this for several weeks. I’d generate the technical recommendations, the Personnelist would deliver them to the committee, and (hours later) would come back demanding insane rewrites. Eventually, I managed to sneak into one of the ‘steering committee’ meetings to defend a particularly difficult technical subject (ISA-bus expansion card modems)… and I was horrified by what I discovered:
- The Group C.O. had summoned all of his battalion and company commanders and sergeants-major to attend these marathon meetings. 95 per cent of these blokes were technically illiterate – but they were ordered to both vote on and to argue about technologies that made no sense to them, merely to satisfy Col. Bob. It was obvious that they’d all rather be anywhere else than in the conference room because…
- …the committee meetings were held in a sweltering conference room in the new Group HQ building. It was July in Texas, and the room lacked effective air conditioning. It was 40+ C outside, and nearly that inside the room. The afternoon sun blazed through the windows, making the room an oven with cheap plastic furniture.
- Bob himself sat at the head of the table, nearest the room’s only door. He had a small fan secured to the edge of the table that blew cool air at his face… and was useless for refreshing everyone else in the room. Col. Bob also had a chilled Diet Coke delivered to him by his sexy adjutant every hour on the hour, which sat on a lace doily at the head of the table. Everyone else in the room went without.
When the discussion over modem cards began, I passed out photocopies of my technical analysis to everyone. The miserable attendees pretended to flip through the pages for appearance’s sake, but clearly couldn’t have cared less. I presented my analysis of alternatives and recommended engineering solution as quickly as I could… and immediately invoked a withering reprimand from Col. Bob. The man blasted my analysis, claiming that my weighting of factors was misguided, and that my findings were, therefore, suspect. The commanders in the room (mine included) all cringed.
Being a bit of an unrepentant smart-arse, I retorted that Col. Bob was dead wrong. Everyone in the audience froze in horror, as if I’d taken my unmentionables out and dropped them on the table. Even Col. Bob was shocked… for just a second. Then he grinned at me like a hyena and started to argue. I could tell that he relished the sport; it became clear that ‘minion baiting’ was to Col. Bob was cocaine was to an investment banker.
After several minutes of spirited back-and-forth, Col. Bob blasted me with his rhetorical finishing move: he held up photos of the two finalist modems that I’d provided: ‘You’re recommending this model,’ he said, ‘which has computer chips on only one side of the card. Whereas this model has chips on both sides of the card making it the obviously superior choice!’
I couldn’t argue with his logic, since there was no logic whatsoever to argue with. That’s how we wound up spending a thousand dollars of American taxpayers’ money on useless modem cards that were built to meet a pre-decisional standard that industry never adopted. The meetings went on all throughout that summer, and they didn’t accomplish much. In the end, I fixed the problem by ignoring the committee’s ‘decisions’ and ordering whatever I thought was best for the organization. No one cared. By that autumn, I was relieved of my assignment and went back to my own battalion to actually deploy and network all the PCs.
The committee meetings were utterly useless. They made me angry and frustrated until I figured out what they were really for. Analysing them as a sociologist, I recognized that Col. Bob’s ‘meetings’ were simply vehicles for feeding his ego. He had the authority to compel lesser people to stay in a room for hours on end where he could feed off of their fear of him. He tortured his commanders with pointless discussions and provoked arguments simply because he derived great pleasure from the discomfort that he inflicted. The man was an inspired bully. He was never going to accept a democratic decision about any topic on the agenda, and he wasn’t about to end discussion on a subject until he’d sated his lust for others’ suffering.
I tend to think that Col. Bob is the archetype for every small-minded, malicious, and sadistic committee head that ever graced a conference table. Just like Bob, every committee eventually draws someone to it whose agenda has nothing to do with the committee’s intended purpose – the Bob-du-jour recognizes the committee as his or her natural hunting grounds, and can’t help but twist the committee meetings into a playground for the exercise of his or her sadistic appetites. The Bob treats the committee the way a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher treats his congregation: a captive audience that must endure his enthusiastic bombastic moralizing and condescension – or else suffer some other real or imagined torment.
This chance of this phenomenon approaches a near certainty when the senior decision maker chairs the so-called committee. There can’t possibly be a free exchange of ideas or any meaningful discussion when the ultimate authority is lurking in the room, waiting to pounce vindictively on the first hint of dissent or disloyalty to his or her agenda.
I’ve only ever found three techniques to pre-emptively thwart the would-be committee Bobs of the workplace:
- Charter your committees to come up with a recommendation within a finite amount of time. It’s better to have the committee dissolve without reaching a recommendation after their authorized time expires than to allow a Bob to twist the gathering into a perpetual-torture machine.
- Empower one member of the committee to strike (with prejudice) any member of the committee who attempts to corrupt the committee’s intended purpose for his or her own nefarious ends.
- Finally, my preferred method is to don’t charter committees at all if there’s any way at all to get away with it. If you want to solicit feedback from users, then go have a conversation with them. Don’t pretend to empower people to make decisions when all you want is their input.
People like Col. Bob are worse than trolls; a troll simply wants to sow chaos and get a rise out of other people for amusement’s sake. The Bobs of the world are after much more than a diverting afternoon; they crave your suffering to feed their egos. Pay attention. When you encounter a Bob manifesting in your workplace, expunge them immediately. Don’t allow a Bob to make everyone else’s working life miserable.
 The man was irrationally obsessed with 11.5-point Courier. I have no idea why.
 A career-limiting character defect that I’ve never truly grown out of.
 Bob Lutz phrased it thusly in this his column ‘How Bad Cars Happen: The Pontiac Aztek debacle’ from the November 2014 edition of Road and Track magaizne: ‘The danger with the totalitarian management style is that people won’t speak up when there’s a problem. They’ll get their heads cut off or the messenger gets shot.’ I agree.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.