Santa is the world’s worst manager

The dreaded annual review.
The dreaded annual review.
Image: AP Photo/Sven Kaestner
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If you’re the kind of person who cares about management, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that our two most enduring Christmas myths are centered on bad leaders. There’s Scrooge, a failing CEO struggling to honor the social contract. (Honestly, give poor underpaid, overworked Bob Cratchit a break.) Santa, by contrast,  might seem to be the picture of sound, jolly leadership. But viewed through the lens of modern management thinking, his methods for keeping children in line actually appear outdated and toxic. Here’s why:

He uses fear and an extrinsic reward system

 A good manager “pumps” fear out of the room, according to Menlo Innovations CEO Richard Sheridan, who’s routinely praised for building a culture of energy and “joy” at his technology services firm in Michigan. Fear impedes learning, creativity, and productivity, according to Sheridan and other progressive “gentler” leaders, not to mention management researchers.

Santa, on the other hand, cares not for your psychological safety. He doesn’t actively scare children (centuries ago in Europe, he had rough sidekicks to do that), but he’s an enforcer, nonetheless, who issues unspoken threats. The modern Santa watches silently from a distance, or relies on informants—it’s never made clear—to keep tabs on those whose Christmas fate he controls.

In fact, Santa’s extrinsic rewards structure—punishing the bad with lumps of coal or empty stockings, while rewarding the good with “rooty toot toots” and the odd cash bonus—is an outright rejection of the latest literature on motivation. Author Daniel Pink, after studying more than four decades of research on motivation, found that “carrot and stick motivators, which are very, very good for certain things, actually aren’t very good for many, if not most things,” as he told Harvard Business Review years ago.

Among the many downsides to if-then systems, he says, is that they invite scheming. “If you give people a very high-stakes reward for achieving some kind of short-term goal, some people will take the low road there. Some people will cheat, that is inevitable,” he said. What’s more, adding a reward to a task that would otherwise come from a place of generosity and a sense that everyone has an obligation to be a good citizenship has been found to be demotivating and corrosive. The best, most cooperative behavior can not be monetized and may feel cheapened when it is.

(This is all beautifully explained in Pink’s Ted Talk, now viewed 21 million times, and available for download from even the world’s most isolated, northernmost locations.)

He offers zero transparency 

Secrecy and mysteriousness was once believed to make  a leader appear powerful, even captivating. Now cloistered leaders are either entirely ignored or targeted by investigative journalists. Most modern leaders choose to instead share information with all ranks of their followers, or at least give the appearance of doing so. The thinking goes that the more informed people are, the more they’ll buy into your mission and feel content. Yes, there are limits to how transparent an executive can be before too much openness leads to distractions and conflict, and slows down decision-making processes, but Santa isn’t in danger of crossing that line. Which list are you on? Why? His rosy cheeked face is inscrutable. Your status is completely unclear until Christmas morning when your loot arrives or it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, some middle-manager parental figures are better than others at clarifying the requirements to pass the present-worthy threshold, which creates an unequal playing field. 

He still relies on annual reviews

Santa’s tradition of doling out gifts, or coal, once per year effectively amounts to annual review. But if you believe that what happens in tech will eventually happen in every industry, this practice  is on its way out,  In fact, one woman, Donna Morris, chief human relations officer at Adobe, can essentially be credited with launching the anti-annual review movement six years ago. Realizing that employees found the process illogical and stressful, and that yearly evaluations weren’t well-suited to a company that calls itself agile, she switched to a “check in” system. Managers and employees at Adobe hold mini reviews, in a sense, every six weeks, or at least every quarter. Five years into their new tradition, Adobe posted its internal documents about the Check In method to an open page on its site, and found 500 companies soon downloaded the material. Now Morris jokes in conversation with Quartz at Work that she wishes she had trademarked the name.

With check-ins, there shouldn’t be any surprises, and everyone has a sense of how they measure up against the targets that dictate rewards and compensation. When a process isn’t working, or a skill has not been sufficiently mastered, managers and employees can react immediately, she noted, but it’s the team’s progress that’s prioritized. The best leaders of our era are less focused on individuals.

He demonstrates binary thinking

Santa has always made pass-fail judgements, meaning he can not incorporate individual personalities, or other factors, into his decision process. In top-down fashion, he simply separates the yes’s and no’s, without offering an system for appeal.

However, the best leaders understand that people are complex, and that arbitrary rules that don’t take nuances—including cultural expectations—into consideration will result in so-called “bad” behavior, that isn’t so bad in reality. Besides, dividing the world into the “good” and the “bad” is indicative of a fixed mindset, and we’re into growth mindsets now.

To alienate fewer people, Santa needs to let go of rigid categories, and—while we’re at it—expand his understanding of gender beyond boys and girls. It’s nearly 2019. And don’t even get us started on labor conditions for the elves.