Note: I’m having to redact swearwords on my blog these days, because the advertisers don’t like them and that means I make less money. Now I’m a skint student, I need all the pennies I can gather.

I first heard of the term “sh*tburger” through my friend in the Royal Marines, who used it to describe an awful task he had to get his subordinates to carry out. If late on a Friday orders came in meaning everyone would be working the weekend, and some of the unit were already halfway out the door and looking forward to some time with their families, my friend would say he had to ask them to eat a sh*tburger.

Anyone who’s been in the military will tell you that servicemen put up with all manner of harsh conditions with very little complaining provided the commanding officers have been honest with them. In other words, if they need to run 10 miles, don’t tell them they need to run 5 and then spring the next 5 on them later. Outside of basic training, this sort of stuff doesn’t go down well and really erodes trust between the officers and men. Soldiers are professional men, who expect to be treated as such: if they need to run 10 miles, tell them so and they’ll figure out how to do it.

If the men run 10 miles and it transpires they need to run an additional 10, you’re asking them to eat a sh*tburger. Even in the military, especially a unit as tight as the Royal Marines, this needs to be approached with caution (we’re talking peacetime here, not the middle of the Battle of the Bulge). A decent officer will straight-up acknowledge he’s asking his men to eat a sh*tburger and he’ll be somewhat apologetic about it. He’ll also take great pains to give the impression the sh*tburger he’s asking them to eat is not a result of his poor planning or incompetence, nor of his desire to please his own senior officers. He’ll dress it up as something out of his direct control that his unit now needs to get done, and as professionals he expects them to get on with it. There might be a bit of chimping from the men, but under those conditions they’ll knuckle down and do it, in part because they don’t want to let down their fair-minded CO.

If the men get the impression they’re eating sh*tburgers because their CO is too poorly organised to arrange the transport back to base after a 10 mile run, they’ll be absolutely livid. Now this might not seem important – after all, the officers of the French Foreign Legion probably didn’t care what the legionnaires thought of them in the 1890s, but times have changed. I was speaking to a Royal Marine officer in August who told me his approach to giving everyday orders to his men is to start with, “right lads, this is what we have to do” in a very calm, reasonable voice. This is sensible, particularly if there is brutally tough NCO with 20 years experience and a waxed moustache on the receiving end of your words. If they don’t like you, they won’t mutiny but they can make your life an awful lot harder (which I’ll write about in another post). In summary, even if you’re a Royal Marine officer, respect runs in both directions through the chain of command and simply ordering your men to eat a succession of sh*tburgers of your own making is not on.

Back in civilian life, I always saw a large part of my job as a manager to act as an umbrella, keeping the sh*tburgers off my team’s plate. In a modern corporation, sh*tburgers rain down from on high as if pumped from a machine, and a huge percentage of them are unnecessary. I understand if a platform catches fire or there’s an oil leak, everyone is expected to run around eating sh*tburgers. But if in the course of normal, steady-state operations someone comes running in demanding my team eats a sh*tburger because he’s left something way too late, or neglected to communicate something, or is unorganised, or his own department hasn’t done its job, or is panicking because someone high up has merely asked, “where are we with that, then?” I see it as my job to look at it and go, “nah”. Not that I’ll refuse to do it, but I’m not going to ask my team to cancel their weekend, skip essential steps in the process to meet a deadline, do a half-arsed job, or compromise their professional integrity because someone else has screwed up. As I’m fond of saying, “your f*ckup ain’t my emergency.”

What most people don’t realise is it’s a manager’s job to manage the hierarchy above him, particularly his own manager. A manager has an obligation to protect his team from unnecessary sh*tburgers, not blithely hand them down as he receives them. If you’re given an unreasonable deadline by your manager, it is your job to question it, to push back, to do whatever it takes in terms of popularity and career progression to avoid asking your team to eat unnecessary sh*tburgers. In the course of my career I have seen less than a handful of managers actually willing to do this. Like I said in this post, a lot of modern corporate managers spend around 95% of their time looking upwards, grovelling their way to the next promotion, and view their teams purely as an inconvenience. As such, they have no qualms about relaying sh*tburgers downwards as fast as they come in, and they’d sooner throw their children into a pit of lava than push back against their line manager.  But there have been some exceptions, and one Frenchman in particular stood out from his peers by a mile by his willingness to challenge his own hierarchy and support his team members should they be put in an unreasonable position. If only there were more like him.

So to answer the question Matthew McConnagay poses here, you push back on the unnecessary sh*tburgers. You ask your manager straight-up whether he pushed back on what was clearly an unreasonable request, and if not why not. Most of the time you’ll get a small, effeminate shrug while he bleats “but this is what the boss wants so we have to do it” or some dishonest guff like “but this is the nature of our business”, but at least it makes him uncomfortable. Many managers, especially weak ones who want their subordinates cowed and compliant, interpret silence as contentment. Believing their actions are being met with approval, they are emboldened to continue in the same manner. Keeping silent allows bad managers to justify poor behaviour to themselves and keep their consciences clear. It allows them to go home at night and look their wives and kids in the eyes instead of hanging their heads in shame. I would prefer a consistently bad manager to be made uncomfortable; say something, and you make them uncomfortable, far more than they let on. Subordinates are under no obligation to give their superiors a comfy ride at their expense.

But here’s the odd thing: I don’t think batting back sh*tburgers whence they came did much damage to my career. Near the end of one assignment I was told of a conversation which took place by a third party who was in the same room:

“Oh wait, no. We have to perform a HAZID before we send it to Engineering, or Tim will just refuse to accept it and hand it back. He’s done that before, we need to do this properly.”


“Yes, he’s awkward like that. But he’s right, we are supposed to do a HAZID before we pass it to Engineering. In a way I respect that he maintains the standards. He’s a pain in the neck, but maybe we should all be more like that?”

Of course, if you’re more worried about your career then it’s best to cooperate fully and  do whatever your boss tells you without question, regardless of the effect it has on your team. But you’d better get used to the taste of sh*tburgers and being despised by your subordinates.


20 thoughts on “Sh*tburgers

  1. I remember one particular boss that was a company man through and through. If you cut him in half, he’d be like a stick of Blackpool Rock with the company name and logo all the way down to his toes.

    Anyway, at the start of a particular project, he asked the team “How long will this take?” and was told “About 2 weeks”. “OK, I’ll put a week down in the plan. We can do it””.

    This went on for every phase and task required to complete the project where he approximately halved the timescale to look good to his boss.

    He then looked keenly around the table and asked “Now, is everyone committed to the project?” He was vastly not amused when I commented that anyone who committed to that timescale should also be committed to a lunatic asylum (but with a more – Ahem! – sprinkling of Anglo Saxon words, if you follow my meaning, since your advertisers don’t like swearing).

    I left about 6 months later. It was like bursting a boil – painful at the time but the relief afterwards was enormous!

  2. Some advertisers don’t seem to mind.
    Today’s ad all over this article:
    “There is a new anti-clogging drain device that makes those pesky drain clogs disappear.”

  3. Had a boss once who was unable to say “no” to anyone. Absolute disaster – lied to everyone and blamed people for “changing their minds at the last minute” or “it’s the XX team, they’re being unreasonable” instead of saying “No, they cannot do it” or “The XX team has asked and I’ve agreed”. Worked for him until we all worked it out. Forced out shortly afterwards. A big part of the job of management is telling people the truth. Down and up.

  4. I always saw a large part of my job as a manager to act as an umbrella, keeping the sh*tburgers off my team’s plate

    THIS is, IMHO, one of the most important things a manager can do. Assuming his underlings know what they are doing by far the best thing he can do is stay out of their way and stop others from getting in their way

  5. In my 37-year academic career, I only had one department chair who “managed the hierarchy.” He also had the ability to chew you out without humiliating you (as I found out personally) or making you hate him. Needless to say, he was the best administrator I ever had or even heard of.

    He was assiduous at promoting his faculty, getting them awards, demanding more resources, etc. When I asked why, he said if his faculty looked good it made him look good. Needless to say, he had to leave for greener pastures.

    Of the nine or so other department chairs I served under, two were insane, one was a perfect autocrat, five were so-so, and one was very good.

    In general, the faculty in academic departments do their own thing without any guidance or management from the hierarchy, but good chairs really, really help, and bad chairs have to be endured. There’s no actual fragging in academia.

  6. Why are you studying for an MBA as opposed to teaching it?

    If I spent less time deflecting shitburgers, and could be arsed to add a team-management seminar to my training portfolio, I’d love to do it alongside you.

    Right, that’s enough brown-nosing for a day.

  7. “Of the nine or so other department chairs I served under, two were insane”

    My PhD supervisor (and I hope I am not narrowing things down a bit too much here), was once fired, along with his whole department, because his boss told his DC that he (the DC) was in his (the boss’s) opinion, in need of urgent psychiatric help.

  8. Two things occur to me.

    One – some people below you want to go around you to make themselves look important and higher profile as a way of securing a promotion. I used to say *explicitly* that my job was to be air cover for the people doing the work but to do that I needed to know the details and the truth. Implying then that managing upwards around me to self promote was going to leave them uncovered. It ain’t my problem if junior didn’t share and was waving their stuff to higher ups without telling me first.

    Two – reflecting a comment above – managers look good when teams do good stuff. Good managers don’t need to take credit for subordinates work or stop them presenting to seniors as if there is enough glory it rubs off on everyone. Not an attitude shared by the drones of the corporate world.

    Three – MBAs can be very useful when classmates speak up about real life. And add extra points when needed.

  9. @Phil B: Why didn’t your team just inflate the initial timescales you gave him by 50% to account for the cuts they knew were coming?

  10. Back in my conscript days, as an NCO a large part of my job was training the platoon commander, usually a brand-new two loot with what his senior officers would call a good military attitude. If he didn’t listen to his NCOs we would make him look like a (word not in the approved advertising vocabulary) and he would disappear from our lives. If he did listen he would soon be promoted and we would have another two loot to train, but the weight of (word not in the approved advertising vocabulary) falling upon us from dizzy heights would be diminished by being intercepted by our former trainee.

    The key to what the Verbal Judo people call the “Sword of Insertion” is, after agreeing with the orders you have been given, to say “You do of course realise there’s an easier way to do it.” When your boss/senior officer hears this, he or she should have learned by now that only a damfool would refuse to listen.

  11. @ JuliaM – one of the problems with that approach was that he had worked his way up and actually knew what the job entailed. As Tim pointed out, good engineers make bad managers. His problem was that once he became a project manager, the status and extra money sort of went to his head and the dizzy, glittering heights of climbing the greasy pole beckoned. A “This time next year, Rodders …” attitude took over and he was using his team to springboard himself a promotion on the basis that he could do twice as much as anyone else with the same resources.

    @Sackerson – my saying is “Life is like a S#!t pie with a crust on top. You don’t realise just how bad it is until it is WAY too late!” But I’m a bit of a cynic like that, as you may have realised by now.

  12. Hey, look at that, a shout-out. Cool.

    Tim, your advertisers sound like a bunch of [yeah, that’s not helpful, mate! – Tim]

  13. Why are you studying for an MBA as opposed to teaching it?

    Hmm, I never thought about that!

    If I spent less time deflecting shitburgers, and could be arsed to add a team-management seminar to my training portfolio, I’d love to do it alongside you.

    Now you’ve got me thinking. I reckon I could put together half a dozen 30-60 min training modules on how to manage, and how to survive in a modern corporation.

  14. When I was a manager, my superiors would unthinkingly pass work down to me and my team – often with a deadline of yesterday. When my team and I were working to capacity, I would show my superior my team’s work programmes and ask that my superior decide what should be postponed. This often resulted in some challenging conversations; but I always won. My team were intensely loyal as a result, and in consequence would respond positively when I had ask them to do extra work.

  15. Back when I was in, the dread was the Friday evening signal that had clearly sat on a desk at HQ for days with an Urgent Technical Instruction to inspect the fleet for something terribly unlikely. Particularly because you never knew of this was the one that was justified.

  16. The thing with Yes Men managers is that they’re generally useless across the board. Their role is simply to be a middle man. They’re also the people who when there’s a serious failure and senior management want a report on what happened just ask me to write a report and hand it to senior management. But I know they don’t understand what I’ve written. Senior management could have just popped down to see me.

    And it’s not universally true, but a lot of women in middle management of software are like this.

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