Some managers love to sweat the small stuff.
When Scott Olsen was an investment banker, his department head reviewed the big presentations he and his colleagues worked on and reacted first and foremost to the documents' formatting. "We are showing him financial analysis that has our clients making or losing hundreds of millions of dollars, and he is commenting on whether this font is a size larger -- or perhaps bolded? -- than this other font," says Mr. Olsen.
The formatting critique ate up time that could have been used to refine the analysis. "I'd have speakerphone conversations with a managing director making sure the font sizes are equal," he says. The preoccupation also trickled down to vice presidents who proudly displayed their knowledge of the managing director's formatting needs and preference for sans serif fonts such as Verdana. Says Mr. Olsen of his former managing director: "It was definitely below his pay grade."
Of all the petty office crimes, managerial piddling lies at the crossroads of all kinds of office neuroses. The possible motives for doing it include perfectionism, egotism, a control fetish, territory marking, the need to justify a high salary to oneself or others and/or a fear of disappearing.
"One of the problems with management is the sheer invisibility of consequences. You put in a whole day's work and what do you have to show for it?" says Len Greenhalgh, a professor of management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "If you have a perfectly smooth running department, nobody else in the corporation knows you exist."
But the pettier a manager's efforts to burnish his image are, the more likely it is that they will gut staff motivation. Tim Orr, who once had a job directing instructional TV programs, says he used to be guilty of icing motivation. One day, when he wondered aloud whether his grueling days would ever improve, an officemate read him the riot act.
"Not as long as you insist on doing everybody else's job and neglecting yours," the seasoned veteran replied, pointing out how much time Mr. Orr frittered away adjusting and readjusting lighting, cameras and audio consoles. Mr. Orr learned he was destroying the motivation of his staff. "It was a stunning lesson for me," he says.
Attorney Timothy Donovan once worked for a lawyer who couldn't help himself whenever he got his hands on anything Mr. Donovan had written. If Mr. Donovan wrote "but," for example, his boss would write "nevertheless." If Mr. Donovan wrote, "The ball is red," his boss would write, "The ball comma which is round comma is in fact red comma not blue," he says. "I simply accepted the fact that even my best was never going to be enough, so I stopped submitting my best."
But while many managers waste time and effort putting their imprint on their employees' work, employees often end up responding with their own tactics. When James Fuller worked for an aerospace company, his boss would volley everything back to him, often citing poor grammatical usage such as the (debatable) placement of a comma before an "and" in a series. Finally, an administrative assistant revealed a widely known trick of the trade: Make an obvious error to satisfy the boss's urge to find something wrong. Says Mr. Fuller: "It worked like a charm."
Some employees respond by striking back. When John C. Westropp worked at a university magazine, he went to the trouble of researching the bad writing habits of his boss, who had a tendency toward "avant-garde" sentence structures. ("In other words, they made no sense," says Mr. Westropp.) He got the chairman of the English department to agree that samples written by his boss were ungrammatical. And the next time the boss took issue with his writing, Mr. Westropp told him: "Some of your stuff is totally ungrammatical because I asked the chairman of the English department."
With the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Westropp concedes that some of his boss's editing was warranted and that his boss probably did have something to teach. At the time, though, he says, it just seemed like a supercilious display of power.
Joe Esposito, a digital media consultant and former CEO, points out that part of the problem is that managers frequently have to serve the interests of constituencies that are unknown to their staff members. Thus, on occasion, what seems like ego may in fact be a response to outside pressures.
He cites the example of a company whose marketing department spent some 300 hours preparing an extensive presentation. After the presentation was handed in, Mr. Esposito says, the boss "contributed 30 or 40 minutes at the end," changing some graphics and then presenting all the work as his own.
"He was doing what he was doing in order to make it appear he had greater control than he had," Mr. Esposito adds. What no one suspected was that in reality, "he was feeling desperate himself."