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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

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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