However we decide to define "manager", this group is certainly now the object of a complex of negative stereotypes. When and how did this start? I don't know, and I welcome suggestions. These attitudes may be connected to the antique European aristocratic disdain for those who are "in trade", and to the (I think related) modern intellectual disdain for the world of business. These attitudes seem to have been imported from the intelligentsia into industry through the medium of engineers and especially programmers, who (at least at lower levels) maintain a very different culture from the "suits" in finance, marketing, product planning, and so on.I think Mark's right to speak of "engineers and especially programmers", and I think the key phrase is "maintain a very different culture". Historically, the boss that most people dealt with was the foreman, which the OED defines in the relevant sense as "the principal workman; specifically, one who has charge of a department of work." You began by doing the work, and if you got good at it, you ended up telling other people with less experience or less competence how to do it instead. This could go right up to the top: Thomas Edison began as an inventor, and wound up running a huge "invention factory", the first modern industrial research lab.
Two factors undermined this, though: the sense that promoting high-quality workmen instead of continuing to take advantage of their work made no sense, and the idea that management was or could be a profession abstracted from the particular work being managed. The first factor appeared particularly strongly in computer programming because of the huge disparity in productivity: the best programmers are literally two orders of magnitude more productive than the average. Losing a top steelworker to foremanship might cost the company the labor of 2-3 standard steelworkers, but losing the productivity of 100 merely competent programmers seemed insane. And of course geeks tend to like their jobs, and to be uninterested in (and incompetent at) people-managing. Companies had to deal with the widespread appearance of workers who did not want to be promoted, ever.
At the same time, the rise of the MBA spread the meme among the suits that managing people was a learned profession like law or medicine or engineering, where you primarily apply what you have learned from books, courses, etc. to the requirements of the job. Before that, management had always been seen as a job, like digging ditches or being President of the United States: you can prepare for it to some extent, but mostly you do a job by applying whatever you have to whatever you need to do.
Making management a profession was arguable; the associated notion that you could manage workers with no understanding of what they did was a disaster. Computer programmers were in the forefront of knowing what had happened: they quickly saw that their bosses had no idea of how the work was done, the necessary conditions for doing it, or the difference between what could be done, what could be done with extraordinary effort, and what could not be done at all. The boss had always been seen as a mean fellow (after all, he tells you what to do and can fire you), but now he also appeared clueless and even stupid, someone who could not be made to understand no matter what.
None of the early citations in the OED, nor the quotes that I find in LION, seem to reflect the modern Dilbertian managerial stereotype. That stereotype clearly predates Dilbert — but when did it arise? and where did it come from?Scott Adams is not only a manager now, he has always been one by training: he was an economics major, not any kind of scientist or engineer, and he got an MBA before he worked with his first geek. He is extraordinarily observant (especially for an MBA, I add snarkily) and he actually does grasp how geeks think, but despite appearances he basically sees them from the outside. When I discovered this, the shock was so great that I started to see him as an outsider mocking my culture rather than an insider mocking its excesses (though to be sure Dilbert is harder on suits than on nerds), and I lost interest in the strip completely.
In this context, we have to return to Andrew's question: What is a manager, anyhow? By now, I suppose that the Dilbert empire employs a certain number of people, whom Scott Adams in some sense manages — does he thereby consider himself a "manager" in the relevant sense?
(Note: Even though Mark says he's been a manager since 1980, I think that industrial research and academia still basically run on the old model, and therefore their managers, including him, are mostly exempt from the trend I am reporting here.)