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F.A.Z.-Column by Emanuel Derman : Horrible Bosses

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Bild: picture alliance / APA/picturede

To manage people you have to like wielding power and you have to be able to make decisions that require you to hurt some and reward others. Why neither boss nor being bossed is the life I prefer.

          4 Min.

          It’s no fun having a boss.

          For the first thirty-five years of my life, I didn’t have one. I grew up, I went to college, I went to graduate school, I became a theoretical physicist. As a postdoc and then an assistant professor, I floated, trod water, or sank beneath the waves, based on the quality of my research. That quality was, of course, judged by others, but they weren’t my bosses.

          (Deutsche Übersetzung: „Hey, Boss, ich hab Talent“ von Emanuel Derman)

          I felt I was working for the love of the field, not for money, and that seemed to me the best way to go through life, a grand luxury not afforded everyone. But working for love has its own burdens, many of them connected with the fact that love gets mixed up with ambition, and, even worse, unrealistic ambition.

          From office to office

          As it happened – as it was meant to happen, Bokonon would say –  force of circumstance made me leave for a job on the fringes of the business world, at what was then AT&T Bell Laboratories. And there I got my first boss.

          In academic life, my office had been my castle. If I wanted to pretend I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there. I didn’t have to answer the locked door when someone knocked – no one could make me. No clock dictated where I should be or what I should do, except with regard to occasional teaching. No one could tell me what to do or what to work on. Nor could anyone dictate whether I went to a movie on a weekday afternoon and then worked in the evening, or didn’t work at all on some days. All they could do was judge the results, over the longer run.

          At the Labs the mail deliverer simply opened my door and walked in without knocking at all. Suddenly, I was like everyone else, doing what my boss wanted, for money.

          Encountering the cult of manageriality

          My first supervisor was a pretty decent man. He liked to make me xerox things late in the afternoon, sometimes too late for me to make the long vanpool ride home. He told me to take notes at group meetings. He said I had a nice handwriting, a compliment that nevertheless accentuated our power differential.

          At the Labs approximately every four workers had a supervisor, every four supervisors a department head, and every four department heads a director. Above were four or five more rarified levels, all enough to employ tens of thousands of people. Often, in the five years I spent there, I heard someone proudly say: “I just came back from a four-level meeting!” I never found out whether this meant that someone from Level 4 was at the meeting, or whether people from four different levels had been there simultaneously.

          Our center’s director, the boss of the bosses of bosses, liked to roam the corridors, competing with everyone at everything.  Once, in a pretentious water-cooler discussion on meditation as a route to humility, he more or less insisted that he was already humbler than everyone else.  He used to say that you could never comprehend the activities of someone two levels or more higher than you; their activities were destined to be forever a mystery.

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