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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

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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