Backseat driving

A young businessperson Tamizh (/ˈtæmɪl/) drives to office everyday, the commute is hard and energy draining in peak traffic, when reaching office there has to be a break to cool down and bring the mindset back to work. Tamizh wakes up early morning, checks email, talks to counterparts in other countries and gets a head start for the day even before leaving for office, even during the drive to office the mind does not switch off from work; after a few near misses in traffic due to preoccupation at work, Tamizh decides to hire a driver.

Each driver is unique in driving style, some drive very fast, some keep the occupants comfortable, some drive very economical, some of them race the car. One can only observe a part of a driver’s characteristic when the owner is around. When the owner is not around, it is not possible to understand how they drive. Tamizh is an enthusiast and a very careful & possessive car owner; it was very hard to give the keys of the dream car which was bought after years of hard work.

The attachment to the car did not end there, Tamizh ended doing back seat driving most of the times unless there was an ultra important work related call to be done. Pothole impacts and sudden manoeuvres by the driver were followed by harsh reactions from Tamizh. Eventually both Tamizh and the driver lost their cool and parted ways. The cycle continued, Tamizh was never able to hire a long time driver; there was no way to have an easy commute and save that mind-space.


Scenario 1:

The driver does not notice a speed breaker and jumps over it delivering a bone jarring thud inside the cabin. 

What should be the reaction?

A: Start noticing every speed breaker that might come up on road and warn the driver from there on.

B: Yell at the driver for being careless and complain about the expensive repairs that needs to be done if driven around like this.

C: Mostly the driver knows it is uncomfortable and damaging to vehicle to jump over a speed breaker, conversation is necessary only if it is repetitive.

Scenario 2:

You want to reach somewhere very quick, but you are also a fuel economy freak.

What will you do?

A: Let the driver know when to shift gear and what rpm they should be to achieve best possible pace and economy.

B: Keep complaining to driver that either we are going too slow or wasting a lot of fuel at every opportunity.

C: Choose what is needed, speed or cost and let the driver do the rest. It is not worth the mind-space spent on saving one of them.

Scenario 3:

The car ran out of fuel when leaving for office for an important meeting one day.

How do you react?

A: You always check with the driver that there is enough fuel before leaving for a trip. You never forget to check for fuel or tire pressure whenever you board the car.

B: You freak out and make sure the driver’s day is ruined so that they dread doing the same thing again.

C: Ask the driver to help you get a replacement transport, let the driver know this is not acceptable as it has huge impact on business in an assertive way.

Scenario 4:

You are on a weekend trip to a nice hill station, your driver on seeing a particular road tells you that is unsafe to take your sedan in that road.

What do you tell the driver?

A: You tell the driver that you will teach them on how to drive in this road, give metre by metre instructions.

B: You let the driver know it is your car and you decide what road to take.

C: You are on a leisure trip and not worth the risk, the driver is a professional who drives all the time for living; better to trust the driver and enjoy the trip to the destination.


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Managers & Leaders I have observed often fall in A, B or both A&B responses. They are big time back seat drivers. These are the people who could spend their mind-space on more abstract, complex problems instead of engaging in managing down activity. People who are handed down orders do that downwards and also pass along the stress. It is too contagious that the entire org ends up managing down which means each one either telling the others how to do or yelling at for not doing the what they are told to do.

Imagine all the brain power and productivity if these minds were focussed on managing themselves and their work, it is easily one level up. I am routinely involved in working in software projects which by nature have ambiguous requirements and a fast ever changing complex technical landscape. What worked well a few years ago is no longer valid, it is very very hard to manage down.

Yet many leaders in large organisations want their companies to be agile Agile and they adopt the manifesto but half heartedly so that none of the instruments of managing down never leave their hands. I could not resist sharing this link here, http://www.halfarsedagilemanifesto.org, the author of that page should have been hit hard by this phenomenon.

What about small organisations and startups? Barring a handful, a majority of them manage down. My way or highway and type B responses in the above scenarios are more common. It takes a great deal of maturity to let go of control and move up which pays off a lot in the longer run even if there were shortcomings in the short run. Those who understand this build empires, others continue to barely manage their territories.

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