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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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