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Additional notes on Statecraft and When Statecraft Fails

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2009. Intercom Q&A: Geoffrey Hart Answers Your Questions. [Essay in response to questions concerning the two "statecraft" articles in Intercom. Published online on 27 November 2009.] <http://notebook.stc.org/intercom-qa-geoffrey-hart-answers-your-questions/>

Intercom: Your first article seemed to have a more proactive stance, while your second article seemed to be more reactive. Can you describe some proactive ways to combat “rats” in the workplace?

Geoff: The problem with being too proactive is that a true rat may take this as a challenge, and may react badly. So "laying low" may sometimes be a better strategy. A safe but more proactive approach would be to consciously monitor what's going on around you rather than passively waiting for information to reach you. That requires us to devote some time to talking to people and actively listening to their opinions about other people in the workplace; most people are eager to offer an opinion, and if they seem reluctant to talk about someone, there may be a good reason for this. In effect, we must consciously build up a network of people who can inform us. It's also important to find people who can protect us against rats, and give them a reason to want to do so. For example, befriending a manager can provide us with a powerful ally who can protect us should that become necessary.

Intercom: What do you think are the five worst things a technical communicator can do to undermine their "political clout" and credibility in an organization?

Geoff: The worst strategy is allowing ourselves to become isolated. When we hide in our cubicles and focus exclusively on doing our own jobs, we become isolated (i.e., we cut ourselves off from other relationships), and thus lose our ability to influence others. The second-worst strategy would be to hide your head in the sand and pretend that none of these games are going on. Pay attention to what's going on, and if you see any "rat droppings", start planning now how to defend yourself. Possibly the third-worst strategy would be to remain ignorant of the rules of the workplace. If you're part of a game, you must understand both the written and the unwritten rules well enough that you can play by the same rules as everyone else. Once someone is finding ways to exploit or harm you, it may be too late to start learning the rules.

I won't rank the other self-defeating behaviors in terms of their overall impact, but one common problem I've seen in technical communicators is focusing on their needs at the expense of more important needs. An example might be the editor who insists on correcting capitalization inconsistencies in a document and thereby misses the ship date for the documentation. It's crucially important that we understand how we fit within the larger picture so we can understand which of our priorities are worth defending to the last gasp, and which ones may need to be sacrificed. "Triage" is an important concept. When managers and other powerful people see that we understand the concept of relative importance (i.e., priorities), and are willing to yield for less important principles, then they are more willing to listen to us when we insist on a point: once they trust our judgment, they are more likely believe that when we're standing our ground, it's for an important point, not a trivial one.

Intercom: You write, “If you pay attention, chinks will gradually appear in the performance of even a skilled deceiver.” Can you provide a few brief examples of how to find these chinks and questions to ask to decipher them?

Geoff: The first thing to note is that each and every one of us is human, and therefore inconsistent. So the existence of inconsistencies is not, by itself, a sign that you've identified a rat. Seeing an inconsistency between what is said and what is done is a warning sign, but the only true clue is a consistent pattern of saying one thing and doing another. So when you see inconsistencies, treat them as warnings that you should pay attention, not a sign that you need to head to the hardware store and buy a rat trap. People who work more by exercising their power (by commanding people to do something) rather than by persuasion (showing why it's a good idea to do that something) are more likely to be rats, but as I note below, it's also a manager's responsibility and prerogative to command; managers are not required to persuade us to act, whereas persuasion is sometimes a tool of manipulators.

Actively trying to trap people into revealing their true inner nature is, unfortunately, a rat's approach. It may be necessary sometimes, but it's also manipulative and disingenuous. Moreover, the more aggressively you try to pressure a rat into revealing themselves, the more likely you are to alert the rat to your plans—they tend to be better at such games than we are. But if you truly believe you've found a rat, and need to convince yourself, it's certainly possible to find ways to get the rat to reveal their true nature.

For example, I've frequently used the following trick effectively: ask a dumb question for which I know the answer, and see whether I get a correct and helpful answer, or an answer that benefits the respondent at my expense. I've used this trick successfully to spot rat salesmen when I was buying a car or a computer: the ones who answered honestly and helpfully, even when it did not benefit them, were usually trustworthy in other ways. On the other hand, salesmen who saw the dumb question as an example of my ignorance and tried to sell me something I didn't need, purely to pad their own profits, were clearly people who didn't have my best interests at heart. This is more difficult to do in a workplace context, but if you understand how a particular answer will help you or harm you before you ask the question, you can often find out something important about a manager or colleague.

Intercom: You state that “sometimes” you can refuse to play. Can you provide an example of a time when you refused to play the rat game, how you approached it, and the result?

Geoff: When I worked for the Canadian federal government, all employees belonged to one of two unions. During a particularly stressful series of salary and benefits negotiations, which seemed almost certain to end in a strike, it became clear to me that a local union leader was more interested in proving how powerful he was by browbeating everyone into voting for a strike than he was in reaching an agreement that would benefit the union members he nominally represented (including me). He was clearly angered by anyone who disagreed with him (as I'd learned by talking to him about various other matters over the years), and often went to great lengths to harm anyone who directly opposed him (as I'd learned from talking to people who had worked with him over the years), so it was clear to me that directly opposing him would not end well for me.

When it became clear to me that the prevailing sentiment was strongly in favor of a strike, and that I had no power to change that opinion, I faced the dilemma of how to avoid directly opposing him while still being true to my own beliefs that the settlement being offered by the government was not unreasonable. In addition, this was early in my post-university career, so I had very low savings, and I really couldn't afford to receive no salary other than a pittance of strike pay while the strike lasted. Knowing when the strike votes would be counted and acted upon, I arranged well in advance to take a few weeks of vacation at that time so that I would receive vacation pay. By doing so, I neither directly opposed the union leader by crossing the picket line nor did I sacrifice the income I needed for my family to survive. I earned some harsh words from the union leader and several others who supported him when they found out what I was doing, but I persisted in explaining to them that although I did not support their choice, I had made a deliberate effort to find a solution that would let me not oppose them. They accepted that logic, and though it did not earn me any friends among this group, neither did it earn me any enemies.

Intercom: Have you ever encountered or heard about an office rat that had been reformed? How did that happen?

Geoff: It can certainly happen: people sometimes catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror and don't like what they see. I tend to err on the side of believing that people are capable of change for the better, but I won't bet my personal safety on this, because some people really are "evil", however you choose to define that term. So I try to give even rats an opportunity to behave well.

I'm drawing a blank right now about examples of outright rats who knowingly reformed themselves, but that's not because they don't exist; rather, it's just a question of me not having dealt with enough rats over the years that I can provide many examples. I did once have a colleague with rat tendencies (though she was not an outright rat), and who was manipulative and out to get her way by fair means or foul. Knowing how she worked, I was able to take steps to protect myself (by learning from my social network about the kinds of things she was planning) and by not falling into her little traps. Eventually, I was able to turn her into an ally (or at least into someone who generally stopped trying to manipulate me) by steadfastly refusing to play her games, and by instead doing my best to do the right thing with and for her while not being drawn into doing the wrong thing.

In the end, we became colleagues, though not friends, because it was easier for her to cooperate with me than it was for her to fight me all the time. (In effect, I out-stubborned her by offering an ongoing series of carrots to reward good behavior and by never letting myself be forced into a situation where I'd need to use "the stick" for bad behavior.) This worked because (a) she wasn't evil, just manipulative, and (b) we had roughly equal levels of power in the workplace, so there was little she could do to force the issue. But I've also outlasted managerial rats through a similar approach. There's no guarantee that this will work with a manager, since a sufficiently nasty one can make things so unpleasant for you that you have to leave or give in and play their game.

Intercom: What are some of the pitfalls you’ve seen in the “perception versus manipulation” line? As in, how do you give the right perception to a coworker without appearing to be manipulative?

Geoff: I think the trick is to ensure that the perception matches the reality. That boils down to something akin to the golden rule. Maintaining a high ethical standard, and striving to always help people rather than manipulate them, without overtly collecting "debt markers" that you can use to manipulate people, will gain you a public perception as the kind of person who can be trusted and liked—because you are trustworthy and likeable. In my experience, if you treat people well, they'll reciprocate.

You start to lose trust and people's affection as soon as you begin playing rat-like games with the goal of being perceived as nicer and more trustworthy than you really are. As Yoda notes in Star Wars, "once you start down that path, forever will it control your destiny" <g>. Now please note—I'm not proposing George Lucas as any kind of ethics guru. But the point is still valid: trust and affection are difficult to gain, and once you've lost either, it can become prohibitively difficult to regain them.

Intercom: Which do you think might carry a technical communicator further (in their job, or beyond): influence or authority? If a technical communicator has much influence in their current organization, but no authority, how do they turn the influence into saleable points on their resume that will get them into a position of authority elsewhere?

Geoff: I've found that influence is more powerful than authority. (Though if you want to split semantic hairs, true authority can also be said to stem from your ability to influence people.) When people understand that you are worth listening to (i.e., that your advice is worth hearing because it's generally correct and effective), they'll listen to you even if you occupy the lowest slot in the organization chart. But if people don't trust or like you, then no matter how great your nominal authority, people will find ways to drag their feet, to avoid doing what you ask, or to do only the minimum they can get away with. They may even actively seek ways to undermine your power over them. In short: influence by persuasion can be more powerful than authority by means of commands.

All that being said, sometimes you do need to exert your power. Managers who submit every decision to a vote gradually lose the respect of their employees and other managers. Indecision and an unwillingness to take responsibility for making a decision can be every bit as deadly for one's ability to exercise power as the refusal to ask anyone's opinion or to act after considering the advice of others.


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