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February 2008


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This post is part of the “How to manage the boss” series

  1. How to manage your boss
  2. Influence and power: more on how to manage your boss
  3. How to survive in a macho organization
  4. The Law of Behavioral Replication . . . and how top managers to use it

The key to understanding why so many good ideas are strangled at birth — and so many able people passed over

What do top people fear most? Failure. They’re nearly all over-achievers. They’ve been successful at most everything they’ve done. Failure is more scary to them than death. Many have never experienced it in any form, and they have no intention of doing so in the future. They have too much at stake. Not their wealth (that’s usually tied up in legal ways that ensure they keep that). What failure threatens is far more important than wealth: it’s their self-esteem and belief in their own brilliance; their standing in the eyes of other executives; their super-sized egos and membership of the club of the ultra-influential.

What is most likely to result in failure? Risk.

Executives try to avoid risk wherever they can — not that you’d think so from what has happened in the sub-prime mortgage scandal. If you’re afraid of failing, you have to be afraid of risk. No risk, no failure. That’s why organizations — and those who run them — dislike risk in any form. Even the most innovative organizations try to reduce risk. Ever noticed how everyone jumps on the bandwagon of a successful product? Copying a proven best-seller is a lot less risky than trying to come up with the next blockbuster yourself and risking public failure.

“So what happened with those banks and their risky loans?”

They didn’t believe the loans were risky — plus everyone else was getting on the bandwagon and (apparently) earning vast profits as a result. The biggest risk, way back before the shit hit the fan, appeared to be allowing yourself to be left out of the feeding frenzy. Not being fashionable is risking looking an idiot, when all those who followed the latest trend publish stellar quarterly figures.

For a time, making money was easy. Any fool could do it — and many, many did. They gained an inflated idea of their own ability as a result. It wasn’t risky, because it worked and everyone else was doing it too. The good times were going to go on for ever — just as they were before the dot com boom went bust.

The Law of Behavioral Replication is simple: it states that doing what everyone else is doing is the least risky option. There’s safety in numbers. Take your own path — exercise leadership — and there’ll be no place to hide if it goes wrong; the results are obviously down to you. But, if you follow the Law of Behavioral Replication, you can claim personal responsibility for any success; and, if it all goes wrong, you simply say that you were only doing what everyone else agreed was the right thing. “Mistakes were made” (but not by you, personally).

That’s why there’s such constant interest in “benchmarking” and “industry best practice.” Corporations pay high fees to consulting firms to tell them what behavior to replicate: what seems, at present, to be the least risky and most profitable course to follow, based on the notion that copying whatever is making money for others is a more or less risk-free way to get in on the same act.

Forget about leadership: it takes courage, thought, and independence. It’s way too risky. Jump on a bandwagon and hang on for dear life. Never mind if you no idea how the technical wizards and self-styled Masters of the Universe do what they claim to do. No one else knows either, so you’re in excellent company. Never mind the quality, feel the profits.

“How does knowing this help me, the poor middle manager?”

The same thinking applies when top people select managers for promotion, especially those who might later become members of the executive group. Promotions bring risk. What if those promoted don’t fit in or upset the balance of power? Perhaps try to change what existing members want left alone?

By the Law of Behavioral Replication, the obvious course is to promote whoever looks most like existing top managers. Why change a winning formula? Besides, this appeals to all those big egos, who can’t imagine anyone being better than they are (or think they are).

The more difference between the candidate and current executives, the greater the risk. Women and minorities pose more risk than white males. “People like us” offer least risk. And, as I said before, risk is scary.

If you want to make yourself look as promotable as possible, the trick is to lessen any risk attached to your name. The more you fit in, doing what others do (only better) and never challenging those in power, the less you will appear to be any kind of risk to them.

Many middle managers make the mistake of trying to stand out by being different. The more this works, the less likely they are to make it past executives’ built-in antipathy to risk. They may be highly able, even brilliant, but the perception of difference is a sticking point. The bosses want to use their ability, but only in situations where they can avoid putting the person into a position of power. So they invent some grand-sounding job, and use it to keep the person safely corralled; or they pay bonuses and award salary increases, while keeping the “deviant” still in middle-management ranks.

“So this law stifles all change?”

More or less. The Law of Behavioral Replication works to increase the chances new ideas — and new people — will always appear less “attractive” than existing ones. It favors copying others and following fashionable trends — which is exactly what we see increasing in today’s world.

Because of this law, many — I’m tempted to say “most” — great ideas never make it beyond an initial presentation. They’re too novel — and way too risky. They require going out on a limb, instead of replicating what other “successful” organizations have already done. The more radical the idea (or the person) the greater the risk involved in backing it (or him or her), so the most creative ideas are also the most vulnerable to being squashed.

Look around you. How many businesses have truly novel products or services? How many operate in ways that make them stand out from the crowd? Now consider how many are virtually indistinguishable from their competitors.

That’s the Law of Behavioral Replication at work.

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Is competition a universal motivator? Is it worth encouraging? Does it work to bring out the best in people?

In business, competition is everywhere: organizations compete for customers, suppliers compete for orders, and employees compete for attention and promotion. In most organizations, this employee competition is encouraged — even required. But is more competition — competition brought about deliberately or enhanced by management efforts — really the best way to motivate people and bring out the best in them? Is it, as conventional management thinking contends, the universal motivator?

Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.

Sport as a source of business thinking

Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass — and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball right back again?

Business is not a game — though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise — and regulation is often rejected as government interference or frustrated by special interests); but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that — an assumption.

Outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you?

If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose . . . well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.

For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that what actually happens? Don’t many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t being branded a loser often cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and even violence?

Business competition is typically rigged

Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why match organizers try so hard to produce games which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.

Business isn’t — yet — a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seem to be trying to make it one), and so rigging the game to win more easily is not much of a problem. If winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with no effort is the ideal. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you.

That’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way — because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.

Employee competition is rarely “fair” in any objective way. Traditional systems — based as they are on subjective ratings and unstated standards — are heavily rigged in favor of those already in power and their chosen protégés. The way to the top depends more of who you know, and how you play the political game, than what you know or how able you are. Businesses are social systems, with all that implies about influence, schmoozing the powerful, and the power of looking good.

Competition for promotion and rewards is often more about how things look than how they are. It’s more like a scripted entertainment than a genuine contest. The rules for winning are there, but rarely stated openly, despite all the nonsense about “competencies” and appraisals. Rewards are given out on a large subjective basis. Those in power make sure the winners are those who they want to win — those who are most useful to them, the ones they like, and probably the ones most like them as well.

What competition produces in reality

Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention, and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, or winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top.

Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, sport has forgotten sportsmanship, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .

It’s no surprise that competition has also become the chosen window-dressing of business as well. Let those who don’t matter compete as much as possible. They’re all “losers” anyway, so who cares who gets hurt? If competition drags out a little extra effort, that’s good. If it doesn’t, it hardly matters.

The true competition in business has little to do with producing results. It’s all about display, playing politics, and destroying those who stand in your way — even if that means hurting the business as well.

in a world of no-holds-barred competition, those who rise to the top are the most ruthless, the most driven, and — all too often — those with the weakest consciences. Who rises to the top? The most able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?

Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to use every dirty trick they know to cheat their way to the top. When you look at it objectively, competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.

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Exploring the oddities of the work ethic

Many of the choices people make about work are based on a set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I think this group of beliefs is false, outmoded, and generally counter-productive. Even if you accept the idea of the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities. Looked at more closely, it has almost nothing to recommend it.

According to the Puritan Work Ethic, a major part of the value of any action comes from the effort it takes to achieve. Something that demands a long period of extreme effort and determination will be worth more than whatever comes to you easily. Effort is in, taking life easily is definitely likely to lead to all kinds of moral ills.

Part of this nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that anything that tastes bad must be good for you. Another part comes from the (typically American) tendency to attach moral values to almost everything (more about that in a future posting). But the major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it.

Putting a high value on sheer effort only makes sense in the learning phases. Surely the purpose of learning is to be able to do things with greater ease? If you mere value effort all the time, you devalue the idea of learning. The effortless actions of the expert are worth less than the stumblings and mis-steps of the most hopeless beginner.

What is it about hard work that is so meritorious in itself?

It’s hard to get away from the notion that struggling to achieve something increases its value. After all, doesn’t all that effort and striving count for anything?

From the individual’s point of view, the answer has to be “yes.” If I have to exert all my strength and determination to get to some goal, of course I’m going to feel triumph; and the volume of effort I had to expend to get there will increase my sense of joy and relief in arriving. Subjectively, what I had to work hardest to achieve is almost bound to feel most valuable to me. But that doesn’t mean that it is valuable at all, in any objective way.

Suppose I’m a criminal and the object of all that struggle and effort was to bring off a major robbery successfully? Does the undoubted hard work and effort expended make the criminal element somehow less important and the achievement more valuable? Should a hard-working, determined criminal get a lesser sentence than a lazy one?

Isn’t what I am seeking to achieve the true source of its objective value — not the effort it takes me to do it? We praise children when they produce something that, by purely objective standards, isn’t very good. After all, we want to encourage them and recognize what it takes, as a child, to do things most adults do easily. But why carry that attitude over to the adult world? Are there no objective standards of quality? Does everything have to be valued by how it feels, rather than what it is?

In adult life, effort is more likely to be a sign of incompetence

We recognize expertise in large part by the way the expert makes extremely difficult actions seem effortless. Where we would huff and puff, and grit our teeth, and produce a pitiful result, the expert smiles and brings off a brilliant outcome without visible effort. If knowledge-work activity takes great effort and determination, that must mean one or more of these descriptions apply:

  • It’s something you have never done before, you are not competent in doing it, or you lack the know-how and training required. Basically, you are out of your depth.
  • It’s something you haven’t done for a long time, so you are extremely rusty. Once again, this means you are not competent.
  • You hate doing whatever it is, you have no interest or aptitude for it, and you are only involved because you have no choice. As a result, you are likely to be unmotivated as well as incompetent.

Effort and determination are needed to learn; but when learning has become expertise, the true sign of excellence is that even difficult things can be done effortlessly. It’s worth the effort to learn something well precisely because it makes doing it easy, once you have learned enough.

If you follow the reasoning of the Puritan Work Ethic, learning to do something easily devalues it. To stay with high-value work, you would always need to be doing whatever you do with least ease: things you are poor at and do badly.

Happiness is what comes easily

If you want to be happy, leave the Puritan Work Ethic way of thinking behind you. Work is mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work.

The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In part, it means “effort;” but, in the sense of “gainful employment,” there’s every reason to aim for a state where what you do contains little or no work (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.

Don’t fall for the nonsense of a value system based on the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. They were only happy “mortifying the flesh,” like their extreme fundamentalist descendants.

If something is hard work for you, even after you’ve spent time practicing and learning how to do it properly, give it up. Focus on doing what comes easily to you and you’ll get better results — and have a happier life as a result.

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This post is part of the “How to manage the boss” series

  1. How to manage your boss
  2. Influence and power: more on how to manage your boss
  3. How to survive in a macho organization
  4. The Law of Behavioral Replication . . . and how top managers to use it

How to handle today’s macho bosses, using the Laws of Executive Behavior

The Laws of Executive Behavior summarize what matters most to those who must play the game of office politics at the highest levels in an organization — and that’s just about anyone who wants to succeed. Only by understanding those laws, and using them to get the results you want, will you be able to influence your boss to go in the direction that makes sense for you.

In this installment in our series on the Laws of Executive Behavior, I’m going to look at how to survive in a world of macho bosses, based on knowing and using the ”rules” for success in a typical macho organization.

The vast majority of today’s organizations are infected with the virus of short-term, macho, Hamburger Management (”Never mind the stress, lack of ethics, wild risks, and long-term decline, look at the short-term profits”). Your boss already knows these rules, consciously or unconsciously, and is going to stick with them; in a macho organization, they’re the basis of all his or her success, esteem, and rewards. If you try to change the boss’s behavior in ways that threaten to break these unwritten rules, you’re wasting your time. To survive intact, even prosper, you have to find approaches that work within them; you have to subvert them from within.

The Law of Winner’s Choice

As I noted in previous posts in this series, the job of organizational politics is resolving competitive disputes peacefully, and promoting enough harmony within the ruling elite to allow top people to concentrate on the organization’s current business goals.

How are those goals set? What determines the complete set of goals, norms, and expectations that is typically summed up in the term “organizational culture?” We know it comes from the top, but how does it come about?

The answer lies in one specific law of executive politics: the Law of Winner’s Choice.

By the Law of Winner’s Choice, whatever is the current dominant group in the game of executive politics gets to make all the “rules” everyone else must play by. So if a group of hard-driven, profit-obsessed, macho, arrogant, short-term thinkers run the organization, they’ll set the rules for success. You win, you make the rules.

With almost unfettered power to change the rules of the game — and block any changes others propose — the current executive team can make sure the business works in their favor. You win the political game, you have the greatest influence on how it’s played from then on. That’s the Law of Winner’s Choice — and any attempts you may make to ignore or work around it are going to fail.

How to survive

Here’s what you have to do to use this knowledge to survive in one of today’s macho, Hamburger Management organizations:

  • Become as thoroughly aware as you can be of what the “rules” are in detail. Not every macho organization is the same. Some are more short-term, others more obsessed with competitiveness and display.
  • Remember that, in a macho organization, nothing counts even one tenth as much as making the next quarter’s numbers. Every suggestion, to have a chance of being heard, has to include some way that your proposal will make this easier, quicker, or cheaper — preferably all three.
  • Always frame ideas or requests in terms of the prevailing rules. If the culture is all about short-term profits (as far too many are), you’ll have to show how your idea will increase them. If it’s about allowing the boss to show off how macho and hard-driven he or she is, suggest that whatever you have in mind is a “tough, no-nonsense approach” that will “get things done,” is “quick and simple,” and will “beat out the competition.” Prattle on about “audacious goals” and “challenging targets.” Use as many buzzwords and clichés as you can. Most “thinking” in macho cultures is based on nothing much more than repeating management clichés in place of evidence — while “theory” is a term of abuse.
  • Keep showing the boss short-term results and piling on the numbers that support your ideas. Be as selective as you like with the data. As recent events in major banks have shown, the vast majority of top executives in macho businesses have no idea what is going on in large parts of their organizations; and most don’t remotely understand the methods being used to produce the results they demand so constantly. Chances are the bosses will agree with whatever looks good and appears to give them what they want, even if it all sounds Greek to them at the time.
  • Help the boss to show results upwards. Provide short, snappy summaries of every quick success. A great deal of macho management is based on swagger and display. Most successful people in such cultures bank on being somewhere else before their mistakes catch up with them.
  • NEVER hint at short-term costs in a macho organization, even if you know they are essential to long-term gains. In most current management cultures, “long-term” is a synonym for “imaginary.” Forget any problems you’re laying up for the future — your boss already has. With luck, you (and he or she) will be out of there before they arrive. That’s what the boss is banking on.
  • Other synonyms to remember: “strategic” means the next quarter; “tactical” means the next week; and “short-term” means tomorrow.
  • Words to use often: “tough,” “competitive,” “results-based,” “sure thing,” “easy,” and — as often as possible — “profitable.”
  • Words to avoid: “risky” (will be seen as major negative); “rational” (taken to mean “dull” and lacking in flair); and — never — “courageous” (implies going out on a limb, which scares the pants off any macho manager). In macho organizations, people constantly parade their toughness, but almost never take the risk of putting it to an actual test. It’s all bluff and show.

You won’t change the culture at the top — unless, of course, you get there yourself one day. Then you’ll be part of the deciding group, by the Law of Winner’s Choice.

Until then, you either have to put up with what’s in place, and work within it, or go somewhere better. That’s your only real choice.

Did I mention that I got out of the corporate world a few years ago?

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Re-runs: Our most popular articles

In case you missed them, here are the ten most popular posts to date on the “Slow Leadership” site, in descending order of popularity:


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Why the “change industry” is a curse and a waste of resources

(This is a guest post by John Fletcher. John is an Englishman now resident in Europe, with a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.)

Browsing through the Amazon.com site recently, I tripped over an interesting statistic. I discovered that there almost sixty thousand titles on change in the business section of Amazon alone. And of those, nearly forty thousand titles have to do with Change Management. (This contrasts, if you’re interested, with only about twenty-five thousand for the Theory of Relativity. Is changing organizations so much more complicated and difficult than understanding Einstein’s theories of the Universe? What’s going on here? )

Change, as represented in the literature, is a vast and heroic undertaking, needing supermen to bring it about, in the face of indifference and opposition from vested interests, and promising to save entire organizations from imminent annihilation.

Change as described in innumerable books

Change, in this view, is not organic, or evolutionary, or even necessarily rational. Change is not introduced; rather a new breed of heroes and “champions” is required to “drive it through.” (I don’t fully understand the metaphor, but I presume it has little to do with driving through MacDonald’s, for example.)

Change is more like a war, in which the enemy are your own employees. Those employees, in turn are expected just to “Work Harder,” like the horse Boxer in George Orwells’s Animal Farm, and to faithfully implement the decisions of the last management meeting — as well, of course, as doing their actual jobs.

What utter, absolute rubbish! Where did all this come from?

Change in real life

In real life, organizations change all the time, if they are any good, subtly adapting themselves to changing circumstances and likely challenges. If sudden radical and violent change is actually needed, it usually means one of two things:

  • There has been some sudden, unpredictable and overwhelming alteration in external circumstances; or
  • The organization is run by idiots who failed to see how the world was going.

I leave you to decide which is more likely.

An Ideology of Change

What is going on, beneath all this rhetorical garbage, is the arrival over the last twenty years or so of a veritable Ideology of Change. All of it is negative, but nothing about it is more dangerous, more intellectually slovenly, and more needlessly arrogant than the phrase “there’s always resistance to change.” This is an (unfortunately effective) way of deflecting questions and opposition, no matter how well founded, and dismissing any dissent on ideological grounds, even before it is articulated.

The Ideology of Change strengthens the short-term thinker over the long-term planner; the slash-and-burn merchant against the careful thinker; the superficial, aggressive personality against the manager who cares for his staff and the organization. It corrupts how we think and how we speak, with results that George Orwell would have recognized. (The inventor of the term “stakeholder buy-in” deserves death, but that’s not really a sufficient punishment for this kind of ideological atrocity, which reduces employees to the level of people holding sharp pieces of wood. )

Nevertheless, in spite of all this effort, all this bullying —all this intellectual corruption — the evidence suggests that most “change programs” fail — a number because they are badly implemented, but most because they incompetently conceived in the first place. So even if, as Joseph Goebbels remarked to Heinrich Himmler in 1934, there’s always resistance to change, those who resist are statistically most likely to be right.

Return to reality

What, if anything, can be done? Some of the remedies are generic — a move to longer-term thinking; a generation of managers in the Anglo-Saxon world who are properly trained and less frightened; a greater self-confidence in organizations themselves; less worshipping of transient fashion.

That’s already quite a long list, and one which you might think is impossible to bring about anyway. But there are three things that any sensible organization could, and maybe should, do, if only out of self-protection.

  • Recognize that most organizations work well enough most of the time, when people who know what they are doing are left to get on with the job.
  • Understand that major change is a rare event in the outside world, and that, by contrast, internal change is often de-motivating, time-consuming, and dangerous. People work best in stable and predictable environments.
  • Accept that organizations have their own wisdom; and that asking people who actually do the work what changes need to be made is often the most productive way forward.

All this, of course, will be unpopular with the “Change Industry,” with insecure and incompetent managers, with shareholders hoping for miraculous increases in profits, and with business pundits looking for something to write about. They won’t like it at all.

But then, “there’s always resistance to Change.”

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This post is part of the “How to manage the boss” series

  1. How to manage your boss
  2. Influence and power: more on how to manage your boss
  3. How to survive in a macho organization
  4. The Law of Behavioral Replication . . . and how top managers to use it

Some further Laws of Executive Behavior — and how they will influence your boss’s decisions

In this article, we’ll look at those Laws of Executive Behavior that have to do with the key relationships your boss needs to promote his or her career — and how appealing to them can propel most bosses into action in the direction you want them to go.

Politics isn’t about logic or data; it’s about relationships: who is on your side, who is against you, and who you can win over with carefully placed favors. You scratch my back, I’ll support your project or help get your budget passed.

The currency of politics in any corporation isn’t money; it’s influence. The culture at the top of nearly every organization is power-based. But that’s not power in the sense of raw strength. Power in organizational cultures is based on influence over key decisions, especially those that deal with allocating resources and choosing of people for important positions. Winning that power, then keeping it, is essential to getting your own way.

Influence gives a boss the power of patronage: the power to give chosen people a leg-up; the power to bestow rewards — or withhold them as punishment. The more influence you have, the more real power you wield. Fancy titles and big offices may look impressive, but they mean next to nothing without the influence to get what you want done.

Indeed, these material shows of hierarchy are often given to losers in the influence game as consolation prizes to repair some of the damage to their egos. After all, you may still need their support one day. The successful politician never humiliates an opponent — unless that opponent can be removed totally from any further involvement in the business.

The Law of Essential Influence

Influence matters most in the game of executive politics. Without influence, you have nothing. With enough of it, you’re the person everyone seeks out and tries to please.

Essential Influence is whatever produces the impact needed to get your ideas accepted and your people into important positions. The Law of Essential Influence states that gaining and keeping this necessary influence is the primary task of every executive who wants to get to the top and stay there.

As influence produces power, so greater power increases influence. To him that hath, more shall be given. Anyone who has little influence will soon lose whatever he or she has. If you can’t win and keep the essential amount of influence, you’ll have no power. And in a power culture, losing your power is like losing all your money. You’ll have to beg and hope others will throw you scraps. You won”t be able to affect important decisions. The people who looked to you for advancement will be disappointed and whatever title you hold will be meaningless. Everyone will know you’re a loser. You’ll be a nobody.

All this means that you have to show your boss how your idea will increase his or her Essential Influence in the organization. To do this, you need to:

  • Think about the likely political impact of the idea at least as much as you consider its technical or creative merits. It may be brilliant, but if it’s only brilliant, you’ll have a tough job to get your boss to do much with it.
  • In any presentation, give at least as much time to explaining how much others will benefits from the idea as you do to how good the idea is. Whoever controls an idea with a good pay-off has a powerful source of fresh patronage at his or her disposal.
  • Try to talk privately to any contacts you have in key departments in advance. Get them interested. Then let your boss know that others are already sniffing around what promises to be a popular idea. Not only will this help convince the boss that your idea is a likely winner, it will start her thinking that, if she doesn’t take charge of the ideas, her colleagues might just beat her to the punch and grab that influence for themselves.
  • Suggest to the boss that he tries the idea out on influential colleagues, while you get on with the nuts and bolts. He’s going to do this anyway, but it never hurts to show that you understand corporate realities.

The Law of Mutual Impact

The Law of Mutual Impact is a cornerstone of corporate politics. Put simply, it says whatever one executive says or does affects all the others — without exception.

Below senior levels, your actions don’t impact others to the same extent. Junior (and some middle) managers have their own responsibilities and can exercise them with relative freedom. They may even have limited power to make decisions others must follow. It’s prudent for them to consult before taking action, but it isn’t always essential.

As you get nearer the top, there are no decisions you can make alone. Everything is subject to the Law of Mutual Impact. All your colleagues have a deep, pressing interest in whatever you do or say.

Assuming she can act alone is a cardinal political sin and will quickly get your boss into serious trouble. Consultation before action isn’t simply good manners, or prudent, it’s essential. Your boss’s colleagues won’t thank her for acting without notice, especially if what you have persuaded her to do embarrasses them or causes them to lose face. They believe its their absolute right to influence every colleague’s decisions to avoid causing them problems.

Superiors praise decisive action and initiative, so it’s natural to believe higher-level jobs will have the greatest freedom of action and the most direct personal authority. Neither statement is correct. Perfect freedom of action is a myth. What freedom there is at the top — and it’s more limited than you might think — is shared by the executive group as a whole, not held by any individual member. Because of the Law of Mutual Impact, top executives have to consult their colleagues on everything.

What this means in managing your boss is:

  • You must give him or her enough time to consult. Never spring a need for a decision at the last moment. Never try to push action forward by asking the boss to go out on a limb. Only a fool ever does this, and I’m going to assume your boss isn’t one of those.
  • Never place your boss in an embarrassing position in front of colleagues. Whatever differences you may have, keep them private to a time when you and she are alone. If your boss is suspected of having a “loose cannon” amongst her team, her colleagues are going to start watching her too carefully for comfort. It will also be taken as a sign of management weakness.
  • Make sure you brief you boss really well for the consultation process. Nothing will kill your idea faster than the boss raising it with an important colleague, then being asked a question he wasn’t prepared for. It not only makes him feel an idiot, it makes him suspect you’ve sent him off to talk to others about an idea that you haven’t fully thought through yourself. That will put a big hole in your credibility.
  • Whatever your boss promises — however much you wish he had kept his mouth shut and his brain in gear — never make it clear that the promise was either empty or impossible to honor. His senior colleagues must trust that he can deliver, or they will fear he is putting their positions at risk. If he’s got himself into a hole, keep quiet and help get him out. He’ll remember it. If you leave him to get himself out, he’ll remember that for much longer.
  • Never try to short-circuit the process by talking to senior people about your idea yourself. It passes a strong message that you suspect your boss isn’t keeping them informed properly. If they believe that, he or she is dead meat. And, when the boss finds out, so are you.

More in the next installment.

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Why today’s mania for all-out competition isn’t going to help us survive

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie wrote: “While the law [of competition] may sometimes be hard for the individual it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

He was wrong.

The notion of survival of the fittest is widely misunderstood. It isn’t about naked competitiveness; nor does it suggest the toughest, most ambitious, most driven people and organizations will succeed long-term. What it points to is the need to adapt to prevailing circumstances.

In a tough world, coming out top of the heap may ensure your destruction, as those you passed on the way up either refuse to support you or actively gang up to bring you down. The most obvious individual is the first target of predators. The biggest, loudest, and most competitive may use up so much energy scrambling to the top that he or she has none left to stay there long enough to benefit.

Maybe you should consider the alternatives instead.

Every winner is a loser in the making

Life is not a zero-sum activity, where any gain by one person can only come from loss to another. Politicians (and many organizational executives) think it is, because they treat winning an election as a victory over their opponent, not a rational choice between equally honorable alternatives. Corporations too seek short-term market share by engineering a corresponding loss by a rival. The resulting spiral of competition usually means everyone loses over the longer term. Every boom is followed by a bust.

Survival of the fittest means fitting the needs of the times, not being physically fit, flat-out competitive, or mentally aggressive. It also properly applies primarily to sexual competition: the need members of a species have to pass on their genes to the next generation. Yet even there, not all species handle the need to produce offspring in a competitive way. Bees collaborate to feed and tend their grubs, as do ants. Amongst primates, chimpanzees are macho and competitive; bonobos much less so.

DNA studies have even shown that, while the macho males battle it out, the females do a little extra-marital shopping around on the quiet. The winner in the mating game too may not be who it seems to be on the surface. The most aggressive male may be best at protecting his offspring, but some of them may not actually be his.

Balance matters most in the long term

Part of choosing the true means for survival is balance, for anything unbalanced is poorly adapted to its task. Competing may be natural, but the basis for successful competition is complex. There are many times when it only becomes plain — if it ever does — long after the event.

In our mania for instant, black-and-white answers, we’ve lost sight of the competition rules. That’s why people feel lost and uncertain. They’re playing one game and the universe is playing something quite different. Short-term achievement may not always be the same as long-term survival. Winning today may be the essential first step in a looming disaster.

Five steps to long-term survival

Try these ideas for replacing needless competition, with all the strains and problems it brings:

  • Accept some voluntary constraints on your freedom of choice and action, instead of demanding to have your own way every time. A time is bound to come when you need support from others — perhaps to ensure your own survival. If you’ve alienated everyone in advance, they’ll be glad to see you crash and burn.
  • Try accepting what is “good enough” instead of seeking perfection. There’s an old Spanish proverb that goes: “Take what you want, says God, but pay for it.” The cost of perfection is usually higher then you think — and often far higher than you can afford. Sadly, the bill only arrives after you’ve committed yourself.
  • Try lowering your expectations and matching them to prevailing circumstances. Any half-competent person can make a fortune when everything is going his way. Any fool can lose it again — and more — if he mistakes good fortune for his naturally ability. It sounds exciting to set the highest possible standards, but it often isn’t realistic. Better to choose a lower goal and succeed than aim for the top and destroy yourself. John Wayne was an actor, not a representative of reality.
  • Remember that almost every decision is reversible. Today’s winner is tomorrow’s loser; today’s partner has a better chance of still being a partner as time passes.
  • Nearly everyone would be better off if they paid less attention to what others around them are doing and more to the consequences of their own actions. Getting to the front isn’t always a bright idea. Sometimes that crowd is running straight towards an unseen precipice. There’s not much survival advantage in being first over the edge.
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Why you might need to imitate your children . . . or your grandparents.

Speed and greed are today’s obsessions. To do more and do it faster isn’t something, it’s everything.

People run faster, yet find they’re still desperately short of time. Their state of material riches and time poverty doesn’t make them happy. Mostly, it makes them feel stressed and breathless: they’re always running flat-out to juggle life’s demands and never have time to spend on anything except work.

Here is what Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize winner, mathematician, and philosopher wrote in 1930:

The emphasis upon competition in modern life is connected with a general decay of civilized standards such as must have occurred in Rome after the Augustan age. Men and women appear to have become incapable of enjoying the more intellectual pleasures. The art of general conversation, the knowledge of good literature — who in our age cares for anything so leisurely?

Some American students took me walking in the spring through a wood on the borders of their campus; it was filled with exquisite wild flowers, but not one of my guides knew the name of even one of them. What use would such knowledge be? It could not add to anybody’s income.

The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.

It seems little has changed in 78 years.

The root of the problem may be rather simple

Recently, there have been various media reports about a survey that showed happiness was mostly related to age: the young and the old are happier, in general, than those in the middle years of life.

Why might this be?

One reason that occurs to me is that neither the young nor the old are involved in the world of work. The young have targets at school, of course, but there are people whose job it is to help them reach them. They have their own stresses, but the survey seems to show most are happy. Their dreams are still before them, unsullied by reality. They still believe in the future.

The old have said goodbye to work and come to terms (hopefully) with accepting what they attained and what they didn’t. Whatever the problems of age and failing health, they aren’t striving to get anywhere any more. Now they have nothing to do but enjoy whatever they have.

Only those in between — the people trying to earn a living and get ahead — find themselves locked in competition and struggle. They’re the ones under all the pressure from a society obsessed with getting as much as possible in the shortest possible time. They’re the ones locked in constant competition, fueled by greedy corporations. They’re the ones whose dreams are hitting reality head-on. They’re the ones who often view the future with fear, not anticipation.

“Faster” isn’t the answer

Our ancestors had exactly the same amount of time as we do. Days, hours and minutes haven’t become shorter. There are still 12 months in a year. What’s changed are our expectations about what we should accomplish in the time available to us; what we should have to show for the middle part of our lives, when we build families and careers — and try to turn youthful dreams into mature achievements. As we cram more and more into our lives, obsessed with getting ahead, doing everything faster seems the only way to square the circle.

Time management isn’t the answer. That’s about increasing your productivity, so you can do even more. You need ways to do less in the time you have; to cut out low priority activities, so you have enough time to enjoy the rest to the full; to slow down enough to think about your life and focus on what truly matters.

There is a clear, simple alternative

Slow down, expect less, accept fewer demands, do them properly, and give yourself time to enjoy life.

Your aim should be to wake up every morning knowing you’re living the life you want to live; and living it in a purposeful and satisfying way. Take the time you have and use it well. Instead of being like a hamster in a wheel, running and running and going nowhere, try settling for what matters most to you and ignoring the rest.

My guess is you’ll find you achieve far more that matters. You’ll certainly get more enjoyment from whatever you have.

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Why understanding the Laws of Executive Behavior is the key to success


In this short series of articles, I’ll try to illuminate the murky world of executive power and influence; show how and why bosses act as they do; and suggest how you can use this knowledge to manage them. These people affect just about everything about your job, your pay, and your working conditions. Shouldn’t you know what’s going on in their heads? Shouldn’t you know how to place some sensible ideas there?

To be able to have a reasonably enjoyable and productive time in your chosen work, you have to know how to manage your boss. In fact, it’s rather more important —and often more useful — than knowing how to manage subordinates. You can use some degree of authority to cope with handling them; they expect to be given instructions and objectives. Bosses believe they should the only ones giving the orders; and they don’t accept that you have any right — or need — to manage them either.

That only means you have to be subtle about what you are doing, not that you shouldn’t be doing it. If you’re going to make a successful career in ninety-nine percent of today’s organizations, managing your boss is essential to success and sanity.

To do it, you must first understand the Laws of Executive Behavior. Only when you grasp why the boss behaves as he or she does can you start to turn that to your advantage.

The imperative need to preserve the status quo

Bosses have a unique advantage in the corporation: they set the rules for the game. That means they always need to keep things more or less as they are. If the rules change, it may no longer be to their advantage.

In addition, those same rules are the ones that allowed them to make it to their present position. Since playing the game that way allowed them to win, they automatically assume that it’s the right way to operate. They game as played today produced them, didn’t it? It has to be good.

That’s why you need to understand the rules, not try to change them — openly, at least. The only change most bosses welcome is whatever makes their position stronger. Suggest otherwise and you’ll find your ideas rejected in a heart-beat.

Bosses play office politics all the time — it’s more than 90% of their job

Very few bosses do any actual work; by that, I mean produce things, sell things, design things. That’s what their subordinates do under their direction. The job of the boss is to set objectives, supervise what is being done, get the required resources, and deliver the results called for by the next level of bosses above them.

All of that is political. There are no fairly set ways of doing any of these things, like there are for designing how something mechanical works, or doing double-entry bookkeeping, or setting up a computer network. What rules there are can be so easily “bent” as to make them little more than surface expectations.

Take preparing budgets. There may be “rules” for how the budget is laid out, what it should contain, and how it is presented — all done by subordinates — but there are no firm standards for how choices are to be made made between the various calls for resources. Besides, we all know that budgets are designed to produce a particular outcome, with about as much relationship to the plain truth as a politician’s promises at election time.

Politics are the means human beings have invented everywhere for resolving disputes without physical force. When nations are in serious dispute, there are only three ways to resolve matters: by appeal to a higher power (such as international law), by negotiation (politics), or by force. There’s no good outcome of civil war within an organization, so politics have become the universal means of resolving or avoiding disputes. They work because they allow a group of successful, competitive, determined, and assertive people — all of whom have outsized egos — to cooperate instead of fighting one another to a standstill.

The first Law of Executive Behavior: For “Judgment” read “Politics”

Whenever something is stated to be “a matter of judgment,” you can be certain of two things:

  • That judgment will be exercised by someone in a position of power — a boss.
  • The true basis for the judgment will be political.

You need to understand that bosses must constantly have a close eye to the political implications of any decision: who will support it, who might try to change it, who might be angry about it. Since they will be identified, personally, with the decision and its effects on all the other bosses, they need to guess at any political fallout.

Even more important, their future career is bound up in the outcome, since promotion isn’t so much based on abstract merit as contacts and political affiliations in the ruling elite. Whom you can get to support you is more important than what you have actually done. Getting the required results — or failing to get them — can either get you to first base or block you altogether, but actual promotions are . . . guess what . . . “a matter of judgment.”

This why many really good ideas never get beyond the boss: they’re too risky politically. What’s more, the unthinking subordinate who came up with the idea presented it purely in terms of how useful it might be in technical, practical, production, or marketing terms. He or she said nothing about how it might help the boss in the political game.

If you want your idea to be taken seriously, you need to find ways to suggest some of the following points:

  • It will make your boss look good in the eyes of more senior people.
  • Important people at senior levels are already known to be supportive of similar ideas.
  • It will be “one in the eye” for rival departments.
  • It has a strong chance of public success.
  • Any failure can swiftly be hidden or denied.
  • It can be pursued without publicity until the right time comes to make it known; and canceled without anyone’s knowledge, if it looks to be in danger of bombing.
  • You think the idea will never succeed without the ability of the boss to have a word in the right ears (Flattery always helps).

If you manage to convince the boss that your idea makes sense politically, he or she will be publicly linked to its success, and any failure can be hidden, you’re in with a chance. Then — and only then — will he or she will look at the technical feasibility and benefits. Get those right too and you’re home and dry.

In the next part, we’ll look at some of the Laws of Executive Behavior linked to relationships, and how to use them to manage your boss more effectively.

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