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How Gotcha Management Keeps Your Business From Growing

What is Gotcha management?

Gotcha Management is a passive-aggressive style of micro-management. Gotcha managers sit back and wait for others to make mistakes. They either hide or don’t define what they want and, at the same time, demand loyalty to their way of thinking.

Working for a gotcha manager, you never know in advance whether your work is good or bad because it depends as much on their mood as it does your performance.

They relentlessly point out mistakes.

Since nothing can be perfect because they never define an ideal outcome, there is always a mistake. There is always something to correct; there is always something wrong.

And so what? Aren’t mistakes bad? Isn’t management’s role to find and correct mistakes?

In a word: no.

The role of management is to create the conditions for success. Management builds and maintains the business machine. Sitting back and pointing out others’ failures is not only not management’s job; it is counterproductive.

The problem is that gotcha management kills initiative and innovation.

Anyone who dares to do something slightly different or new faces the wrath of hidden expectations. Hidden expectations are the ones you have tucked inside your brain and are not making clear to the rest of the world; it is how you measure everyone else without letting them know how you are measuring them. Generally, the assumption gotcha managers make is that their expectations are common sense.

They are rarely common sense.

And, even if it were, working for a gotcha manager is highly stressful for the employees who either learn to tune out the barrage of criticism or leave.

Managers mean well. They often justify their behavior as teaching, supporting, or helping. They want to ensure quality. The core challenge is not their intention but their capability. They haven’t learned to lead or manage (two very learnable things) and are stuck with an employee mindset.

Are you a gotcha manager?

Here is a test, what do you see in this sentence: 

“Sometimes I can here my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living,” 

I use this in workshops all the time, and most people will point out the spelling flaw in the word “here,” which should be “hear.” I put this slide up, and sometimes before I even get to the question, participants will stumble over each other to draw my attention to the misspelling.  

So, the slide goes up, and they are so taken with an error that their brain completely tunes out everything else until they have shown that they can identify the mistake.

The spelling is wrong (and for clarity, I added the spelling mistake).  The question is, can you get beyond it to see the value of the sentence? 

The phrase comes from the book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  It has won prizes and has been discussed on blogs and in literary analyses.   

It is an excellent sentence with a spelling mistake (again, that I added for demonstration).   

Constructive managers will see the mistake but also the bigger picture, the quality of the sentence.  Gotcha managers can’t get past the flaws.  

Gotcha management is management by pointing out flaws.  Every slip-up, mistake, and typo becomes an opportunity to point out how not to do things.

Gotcha Manager
Gotcha Management Is Bad for Everybody

The gotcha management problem is one of expectations.

The manager typically means well.  They are concerned about customer satisfaction; they worry about quality, and they have the experience that people let them down.  

I find gotcha management a lot in organizations that focus on expertise: design, consulting, and accounting, for example.   

And the problem is that these managers are so focused on finding mistakes in minute details that they miss the bigger picture.  You must correct errors, but your management should focus on making sure people write great sentences first and fix minutia second.

Why does gotcha management happen? 

Fundamentally gotcha managers expect everyone else to understand the goal and the process.  They tend to set people loose and then criticize everything that is wrong with their work.  

Since they often don’t take the time or effort to set expectations, the people they manage almost always let them down.

So, they look for mistakes and find them.  

Why gotcha management doesn’t work

First: people don’t ever know what you want. 

We all typically think that the way we think is shared, common knowledge.  

Recently I conducted an experiment.  I gave some experienced bookkeepers a bookkeeping test.  My thinking was that there are few things as standardized and simple as bookkeeping.  

When I proofed the test, my proofers even that the questions might be insulting.  

And yet, the responses varied.  Mostly the answers weren’t wrong; they had just interpreted the questions differently. They didn’t have the context of the way I expected them to answer. 

The problem is the curse of knowledge: we expect others to understand what is in our head, but they don’t. 

Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. for her work showing how pervasive the curse of knowledge is.  She had people tap out simple songs like Happy Birthday, and someone else had to guess what song was being tapped out.

The tappers expected the listeners to know what song they were tapping out 50% of the time.  The listeners got the right song 2.5% of the time.  Why?  Because the tappers had the soundtrack in their head, and the listeners did not.  The tappers had prior knowledge that the listeners didn’t share. 

Communication is challenging.  It takes time and effort, and you cannot expect the people you are communicating with to have the same prior experience.

If you assume that “this is so easy, anybody can get it,” you are wrong.  It is like tapping out Happy Birthday because it is so common that everybody can get it.

But they don’t.  If you want people to know how you do things, if you want them to work the way you want them to work, you must give them the context.  

Second: it is powerfully demotivating

Gotcha management will bind a business in knots.  

Perfection kills productivity.  Yes, there is a time for perfection.  But good management is about seeing the bigger picture and the details, not just the details.   

If your management style is to criticize the most minute mistake, then people will begin to avoid submitting any work to you.  

Well, not all employees will avoid you, only the best ones.  The best employees care about the quality of their work.  So, if they feel criticized whenever they submit a deliverable, they will slow down.  They will check everything repeatedly, looking for the error they know you will find.

If they manage to thread the needle of your expectations, they will keep their heads down and avoid doing anything creative or different.  They will avoid making improvements or suggestions.  

Rote work like this would be great if nothing ever changed.  But change happens, customers need new things, the world adjusts.  The problem is that you want people to improve continuously – that is how you differentiate and add value to your customers.

But if you have taught people to stay in their lane and keep their heads down, they will not change, improve, or even keep up with the times.

Ultimately no matter what they do, their work is never perfect.  The gotcha manager will always find something, no matter how minute, to criticize.  So why take a chance? 

If you are a gotcha manager – don’t worry, there is hope.

If you do this, the reason you do it is that you have probably been burned by people delivering poor results in the past, and you are uncomfortable letting go.  You probably also do not have the structure in place to let go effectively.

So, you have to create the structures and let go.  

Do this by: 

  1. Define your processes and put your effort into training.  The more defined your processes, the less room there is for error, and the less need there is for training.  Combined this with increased training, and you will see improvements in quality.
  2. Ensure that you have the right people in the right roles.  Don’t ask a tax accountant to write marketing emails; it will never work.  So, make sure the right people are doing the right things. 
  3. Delegate effectively.  At first, you assign simple tasks, but you should give your people ownership of their work over time.  Importantly this means that you provide them with the opportunity to succeed and the opportunity to fail.  When they do fail, you look at why, fix the underlying problem, and move on.
  4. Reward imperfect action.  Action drives a business forward; the conversation is what solves problems.  So, celebrate action and progress, even as you identify and correct mistakes.  

Summary and Conclusion

Gotcha management is management by finding errors.  It is common and results from managers’ concern for the quality of their work and deliverables.  But it is also ineffective and demoralizing. 

The way to move out of gotcha management is to focus on defining the work and the expectations, train your people, make sure they can do the work, and delegate effectively.

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