Back in the Stone Age of electronics, a periodical called Electronic Design was among the premier publications serving engineers in that industry. Eyeball the yellowing pages of that magazine from the 1970s and it’s easy to see why it was highly revered. The first microprocessors had just left the labs at Intel, and engineers were hungry for information about them. Electronic Design covered the emerging technology the way snow from an artic blizzard covers the North Pole.
But there was another reason engineers liked to read the magazine: Its chief editor, George Rostky, wrote editorials that often hit a nerve. Bad bosses were among his favorite subjects. He had a way of calling out reprehensible behavior that resonated with an engineering audience.
Consider this passage from one of Rostky’s missives: “Steve happens to be an excellent engineer but….he insists that everybody do things his way, that everybody think about problems the way he thinks about them. He acts as if there’s only one possible approach to the thinking process. ….The problem lies in the fact that if anybody on his staff takes a different approach, Steve raises hell. As a result, his engineers have pretty much stopped thinking. They simply try to figure out how Steve would want the problem solved – even if it’s not a good way….Some years ago one of his engineers worked up the courage to say, ‘Hey Steve, this procedure is a complete waste of time….Why can’t we drop it?’ In a fury, Steve turned on him and told him he was being negative….Steve finally succeeded in surrounding himself with Yes-men. But he doesn’t realize it..… By weight of authority, he crushes criticism. He has created an atmosphere that stifles creative thoughts, though he’s a strong advocate of creativity…”
Those of us who’ve spent much time in the workforce probably have experienced a “Steve” or two somewhere along the way. And it looks like Rostky sensed something about negative influences in the workplace long before researchers were able to quantify them: Several years after he passed on to the big electronics lab in the sky, the polling firm Gallup found that people primarily quit their jobs because of factors that bosses influence directly. Gallup says 17% of those who resigned in 2006 did so because of management problems. And managers could have fixed at least 75% of the reasons people give for voluntary turnover, it claims. The polling firm also concluded that poorly managed work groups are on average 50% less productive and 44% less profitable than those run by managers with a clue.
Meanwhile, Electronic Design magazine is still around, but it has become a sad shadow of its former self. It never regained the glory of its heydays in the 1970s and early 80s when microprocessors were young. Though the publication may have lost its luster, the words of its late, great editor still ring true.