Management Terror Theory

“Hi-five?”

There’s a semi-recent theory in psychology called Terror Management Theory and it concerns how we all try to live with the fact that we’re going to die. It says that in trying to deal with this we build churches, create nationalities to celebrate, busy ourselves with projects (like writing) and enter other worlds through books and video games.

Management Terror Theory is, on the other hand, the way we all try to cope with the inevitability that managers will terrorize the store you are in. Specifically I am referring to upper managers who are not typically in the store. So this would include people coming out of town, people in “corporate” or folks who are district managers.

Often these people will say they are coming to a given store. This does a few things, the main part is to scare the shit out of the store managers and make them panic. Once they panic and worry about the upper management comes they instill that panic on their subordinates by making sure they are going to work harder and faster and make things perfect.

The subordinate now has much more pressure because of the impending reign of terror that this member of upper management will rain on the store. They will likely be more stressed and made to believe that their performances could be watched more closely than usual (both that day and especially the day of) and so this can lead to paranoia.

The paranoia can make employees careless and thus ironically undermine their goal of achieving perfection for the store that they are working in. Often times they will have little to no idea when the managers from corporate (or wherever) are going to show up and what they will specifically be looking for in the store.

Maybe the managers will grade them on some area of their work they don’t often have to think about and their own manager doesn’t think about it. In cases such as this the manager could be screwed and subsequently so is the subordinate because shit tends to run downhill.

The big part of the “terror” is in not only not knowing when the upper management is visiting but also what they are visiting about. And even if they know both of those elements, upper management can always change their mind at the last second and decide to come earlier, later or (best of all!) never!

Recently at the store I work, we’ve had a few times where an upper manager is supposed to come in. I’m never given the exact times and so even for my night shift I’m worried I’m going to have to switch everything up. But both times I’ve been forewarned about it, the manager either never showed up or showed up so early I never had anything to worry about.

The sense of unending anxiety this prompts in me and my co-workers is not only harmful to us in terms of stability but it also reinforces criticisms I’ve made of hierarchy. As I said before, shit rolls downhill and while this isn’t by itself a reason to oppose hierarchy, a system that tends to maximize the pace of the shit itself is still something to worry about.

For example, the anxiety that store management gets is easily transferable to the people under them. They can give as many or as little details as they want. Employees may ask some questions about when and why but even that is unlikely because often times they may just want the conversation to be over.

It’s funny to me how store management is nervous or even acrimonious towards the possibility of of upper management showing up. It’s almost as if store management doesn’t like being managed itself. Now if only the store management could channel that vitriol and look inwards and maybe understand why employees don’t like to be managed either.

It should be noted that I’m not actually proposing a new psychological theory about management and how it works. This title and phrase is mostly a cute play on words I thought of a few days ago. I kept thinking about the sort of anxiety I constantly feel when I have to not only worry about upper management but then their boss.

At my job we’ve had a store manager leave because of their own frustrations with the company. So in order to fix this the upper management decided we needed a new store manager. Despite the fact that, as far as I could tell, things were roughly the same. Maybe the office was in crisis but it didn’t seem like that. It seemed like the schedule was still getting posted like it usually does and the same for getting paid, so maybe there’s just something I’m missing.

Nevertheless I showed up to work and the upper management guy (and their boss) had either already left or were never there to begin with. I didn’t ask for more details because I was just happy that they weren’t there anymore. But at the same time I wondered to myself, “Would they be back? How soon? With more managers to interview?”

I don’t know if this is some sort of secret psychological weapon against employees…but probably not. What’s more likely is that the upper management is using it as a sort of psychological tactic to keep store management on their toes. And so this transfers down to (you guessed it) the employees which then causes overall anxiety to increase.

Ways to manage this?

I don’t know, I’m still working on the whole terror management theory and dying.

Taxes, death and visits from upper management are all inevitable parts of life. But they don’t have to be and, more seriously, by trying to keep communication open with your fellow workers. Try to see if y’all can figure out when upper management typically comes in and how to best deal with it. How long are they staying? What do they usually check?

Upper management, in my experience, tends to come in disguised and looking for ways to catch employees or managers in a position where they can’t argue they were abiding by the rules. On days where you suspect upper management could be by, you should try to be vigilant and rely on other co-workers to spot them if you have to.

Closely following the rules for a day could be a boon as well but may also be exhausting or more exhausting than your job is usually. It may also be a good idea to try to somehow use the managers against each other although I’m unsure of specifics and this could be a risky tactic that may backfire and get you in double the trouble.

Regardless, how do you deal with the inevitability of upper management?

Hope your week has been full of slacking off!


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