How Dark Managers Can Escape Death Marches

From the perspective of rational managers, entering a death march means inevitable death to their current jobs, or in extreme cases, careers. Therefore they’ll try their best to prevent any of their projects to become death marches. Sometimes they’ll even resign if they don’t think they’d be able to reject one. They’re also willing to take responsibility of death marches by resignations.

In contrast, dark managers usually believe that they can escape death marches without taking any responsibilities, regardless of how many employees they’ll have to sacrifice. For instance:

Let’s say you’re a dark manager and you’ve entered a death march. You know you’ve been setup to fail by your customer so that they can have the cake and eat it by using the products while demanding unreasonable support services and/or even direct compensations for project delays. Unfortunately, the upper management is also a dark manager who decides to just let it happen in order to get rid of you. You know you must escape this death march or your career would be dead.

Fortunately, the inevitable death of the death march can be postponed for a very long time, even though the longer the postpones, the more catastrophic the inevitable will cause to everyone in the project development team. A dark manager will make their decisions as follows:

  1. The only way to escape the death march is to become completely isolated from it before it eventually dies, thus a dark manager must postpone it long enough at all cost to be able to execute the permanent exit plans once and for all. Failure means career death.
  2. The only way to postpone the death march for that long is to ensure that none of your subordinates realize that they’re inside a death march. In case they realize it, you must keep them under the FOG(read Dark Management Keeps Targets Under The FOG for details) so they’ll still want to leave but just feel too trapped there and decided to stay.
  3. Eventually, some of your subordinates will reluctantly leave as they’re completely used up. You must then use all sorts of lies(read How Dark Managers Can Lie for details) to trick newcomers into the death march. Then you’ll have to continue to cheat them ruthlessly.
  4. In the meantime, you need to proactively create exits, and it usually means finding a new job in a new company. As you’d likely be blacklisted the moment the death march dies or you resign, you’ll need to find a company that’s out of reach of the current one to make that blacklist useless. In extreme cases, this can mean changing your profession as well.

Reasonable managers might think that it’s such a false economy that only stupid managers won’t see past that. But actually they’ve a very serious blind spot here, which goes on like this:

  1. You’ve a chicken which can spawn invaluable golden eggs. You can either treat it well to have a small but steady source of golden eggs thorough the years, or you can immediately kill it to take out exactly 1 golden egg right now. Those chickens are the only sources.
  2. A reasonable manager tends to think that the latter choice is stupid as the former choice could have led to 1 single chicken producing many golden eggs instead of just exactly 1.
  3. A dark manager thinks differently — Right after killing the chicken and taking that single golden egg right now, I can simply catch another such chicken and repeat the process. As long as the supplies of such chickens remain abundant, this choice can actually end up collecting many more golden eggs than the more conservative approach. By the time the supplies of such chickens become scarce, I should’ve collected enough golden eggs already, so I won’t even have nor want to care about the extinctions of such chickens.

In the case of escaping a death march, your employees are such chickens, the golden eggs are their invaluable results which are consumed by the customers, and in order to satisfy such customers(the one causing the death march in the 1st place), you’ve to keep killing chickens and replacing them with new ones, or you won’t have a remote chance to fulfill their unreasonable requirements. Eventually, you won’t be able to catch enough new chickens, and/or you won’t satisfy those customers even with this unsustainable approach, and that moment usually means that the death march has finally died. Your goal is to become irrelevant to the death march before this happens, or you’ll be killed as well in order to collect every last golden egg they can get.

On the other hand, reasonable managers will refuse to kill any chicken that can spawn golden eggs, even though it’d mean that they’d be killed instead. And as the earlier the death of the death march, the less catastrophic it’ll be, they’ll kill the death march the moment they realize it, so the other chickens can be saved, and they can at least die more gracefully instead of tragically.

Now let’s talk about another case — You’re facing a death march, and you know that you won’t be able to postpone its death long enough to be able to escape. In this case, you should instead do what a reasonable manager does, so you can at least win some credibility and reputation by appearing to be willing to take responsibilities and prevent the worse. You might even win your subordinates’ hearts too, but whether you’d want that depends on how useful they’re to you.

Like a reasonable manager, you need to convince every stakeholder that not killing the death march immediately merely due to having invested too much into it is a sunk cost fallacy, which is an extremely powerful and prevalent cognitive bias. But you’ll have to make the points across or you’d have virtually no chance to kill it, especially when it’s reached a point of no return.

The situation can become much more complicated and convoluted when the same death march involves another dark manager that can escape by postponing it long enough. Now you’re at odds with him/her — The longer he/she postpones, the more tragic your death will be. But if you kill the death march immediately, he/she’ll stop you at all cost as he/she’d be dead as well. So you either kill it immediately(if you’re able to do so) and be prepared to become his/her enemies, or help him/her escape immediately at all cost so he/she won’t postpone the death march for too long.

Of course, an excellent dark manager should be proficient enough to avoid any death march, as prevention is the only way to deal with it properly. But even the best dark managers can make nontrivial mistakes, so it’s vital for dark managers to have contingency plans in order to stay safe.