Managers, wanna-be managers, and folks who want to understand managers simply need to read the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green and Joost Elffers.
I’ve purposely not done any background research on this document because my first reaction to this list was profound and I wanted to stare at that reaction. There’s some pretty evil shit documented there as well as some basic truths about what managers are up do on a daily basis. I can’t tell if the guys who wrote this are serious when they write “Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability”, but after several readings, yeah, I think they’re serious.
My problem with this list and how it relates to managers is that some many of the “rules” involve psychological torture of those you’re trying to lead and that strikes me as a good way further the intense knee-jerk reaction regarding managers. “That guy is a power hungry jerk’.
Part of management is navigating your way through some tricky political jungles… Part of management is getting folks to comfortably bend in a uncomfortable direction. A good manager is a person who is playing to a strategy and isn’t merely stumbling around squashing fires all day.
Management is chess. When you’re presented with a problem, you sometimes need to sit back and take a look at the board, figure out the consequences of each of move, and, most importantly, pick a move. In my experience the move and how you pick it does not involve 48 laws, it’s only three words. Subtlety, Subterfuge, and Silence.
Worst performance review ever. I’ve just delivered a painful performance review to a fictional employee and he doesn’t get it. Two weeks I spent writing this thing, gathering peer feedback, and rewriting and he’s sitting there like everything’s dandy. I’m not about to fire this guy, but given his current trajectory, he’s two years from becoming irrelevant and I want to nip this in the bud, but it’s radio silence.
“Are you clear about the areas I want to work with you on?”
Now, the point of a performance review has nothing to do with the review, it’s the discussion. It’s about constructively conveying information about the performance of the co-worker and then chewing on it a bit. You want to see some form of processing of the information you just dumped even if it’s just a pile of follow-up questions.
I was getting nothing.
So I moved on. It was our 1:1 and I had a list. We started with the first item which, last week, read “Thoughts on moving forward on Project X.” This week it read, “Lack of progress on Project X, next steps, and goals.” The second item had read, “Hiring status” and this week it read, “Weekly goals for resume review, alternative sourcing strategies.” Yes, I’d rewritten my entire 1:1 with the performance review in mind.
The employee in question wasn’t comfortable with the strategic broad-strokes I’d painted in his review, but he certain got it when I carefully reconstructed his 1:1 to support the review. By the end of the 1:1, I’d piled his to-do list so high, we were actually back talking about the performance review because it was that advice that was going to help him get the work done.
To me, using subtlety as a manager is the ability to elegantly handle complex situations. This elegance, this ability to cleverly handle the complex, only happens when you have time to consider your response. That’s the other half of subtlety. It’s the ability to look at what’s happening around you and make a make a distinction between useless noise and emerging relevance.
Say it with me, “sub-ter-fyooooooooj”. We should make shirts, it’s that fun to say, but what does it mean? Subterfuge means “intrigue, deviousness, deceit, deception, dishonesty, cheating, duplicity, guile, cunning, craftiness, chicanery, pretense, fraud, fraudulence”. Those definitions cover a lot of territory, so let’s refine it for the sake of this piece.
Relative to management, this does not mean “deceit, dishonest, cheating, fraud, or fraudulence”… it’s everything else. I’ll explain.
We were at a crossroads at the start-up. Too much to do, two vastly different directions in which the team wanted to head. There were the infrastructure folks who wanted to spend three months replacing the application server and then there were the interaction folks who wanted to improve the usability of the application. The VP listened to both sides and then he decided, “Infrastructure! Long term scalability!”
The interaction folks were pissed. Their response, “Who cares about long term scalability if no one wants to use the product?” Oh yeah, I was also the manager of the interaction folks and I agreed with them, but I had to throw my engineers on the infrastructure work because we didn’t have the capacity. I was talking with existing customers and they weren’t pulling their hair out because the application was sluggish, but rather because it was an interaction nightmare. They were spending most of their time trying to figure the damned thing out.
The lead interaction designer, myself, and an engineer sat in a conference room fuming in silence when it popped in my head. “Hey, people are visual creatures, how long to throw together a prototype that shows off what we were thinking?”
My engineer, “A week!” Good time to point out how enthusiasm reduces all engineering estimates by a third. My engineer continued, “But I’ll need Frank.”
“Here’s what we’re going to do. I want you and Frank to work on this after 5pm, after we’re done with our infrastructure work, and I want you to keep this on the downlow. If, after a week, we like what we see, we’re going public.”
Herein lies the hard part of subterfuge. Depending on where you are standing, my plan could be viewed in any number of ways. The other engineering director would have called it, “Disobeying a direct order” whereas my boss, who got wind of the effort two days in, called it “a skunk works project” and told us to proceed. Phew.
Our skunk works took us three weeks, not one, but when we showed off our work, the VP of Engineering and VP of Marketing were impressed and wanted to see us finish the work. Rather than sacrificing the infrastructure effort, they gave me two reqs so I could hire a team to do the job right.
Subterfuge is a risk. The infrastructure director never quite trusted me after that even though I still went out of my way to keep him in the loop after we went public with our work.
The use of subterfuge for good means keeping the intent honest. If you’re going commando to do what you believe is right, it doesn’t means someone isn’t going to be pissed, but it should allow you to sleep at night.
Your most annoying employee sits across the table and he’s on a roll. This guy is total and complete personality clash with you and he’s in his second hour of rambling about something you don’t understand. My advice is simple:
I mean it.
Now, if you know what he’s trying to get at and you’ve continued to let him blither, ok, you can start talking and directing him elsewhere, but if he’s valiantly trying to get to the point, you must shut up and listen. Your silence is giving him a chance to get something out.
I’m not a fan of public speaking. I’m not comfortable with the all hands meeting where I’m laying out the next six months of work. My natural state is one of introspection where I’m soaking in the world and the skill has taken me far because so many folks out there just can’t shut up. While all this talking is going on, I sit quietly and nod… learning what all these yammering people are about and carefully file it away for future reference.
Managers lead and a lot of managers translate that into “managers lead by talking”. Combined with the tendency of employees to not say no to these managers, you can see why a lot of us have turned into professional windbags. We think we’re guiding you by filing the air with our thoughts. There’s a time and place for that, but in order to fill the air with something relevant, you’ve got to gather and process data.
In silence, you can assess.
My favorite use of silence is a huge cross-functional meeting with a group I’ve never worked with before where I have no role other than listener. It’s a table full of people I don’t know and I feel like I’m sitting at the worst poker table ever because everyone tells you what they got.
Remember this, in most business, everyone’s basic agenda is visible after they’ve talked for about ten minutes. I’m not talking about who they are as a person, I’m talking about figuring out what they have and what the need. In poker, you keep this information hidden as best you can because your money is on the line. In business, everyone throws their hand on the table, stands up, points at their hand, and says, “People, I’m one card away from the nut flush. Who’s going to give the queen of hearts?”
Asking for what you need is a good strategy in business, it’s called collaborating. Each time I hear “I need”, I learn another bit about those I work with and, in time, I can construct a better picture of how to interact with my co-workers.. Still, I’m also wondering about that guy in the corner who isn’t saying a thing. His eyes are darting around the room just like mine and I’m curious… what is he getting out of his silence?
Business isn’t War
The 48 Laws of Power are the real deal, but they are focused on war, not business. There’s a book if you want to know more, but read wisely. With each successful year on the job, I find myself adjusting to the ever increasing complexity with which my peers play the game of management. Fifteen years in, I can safely say there is one law which is true; if you’re only interested in building power, you’re going to lose.