Management

The American View: Power Plays

Most people despise office politics; they just want to perform their tasks to the best of their ability and get rewarded for their hard work. Learning that the work itself often comes last in upper management’s ineffable priorities can be demoralising … and, in the right circumstances, highly motivating.

When did you first learn about power dynamics? Try to think back. How old were you when you first learned that powerful people with competing agendas can (and will, inevitably) complicate seemingly-simple scenarios for reasons wholly their own? Could you differentiate the players from their objectives and work out why they did what they did? More importantly, were you mature enough to understand how to ‘game’ the situation to placate your boss(es) while still achieving your own critical objectives within the restricted parameters dictated to you?

Many people discover this problem long before they enter the working world. Part of growing up involves coming to grips with the realization that adults are neither omniscient nor wise. Most children are deeply unsettled when they discover that their parents, preachers, and teachers are neither omniscient nor infallible. A significant step towards adulthood comes from setting aside a child’s blind trust in authority figures. The people who should be wise and just often aren’t.

This came to mind earlier this month as I was proofreading my father’s memoirs. In chapter 60, he recounted one of two essential lessons of power that stayed with him throughout his adult life. I’ve included this story here with his permission. He was in sixth grade at the time, so I believe this story took place in the Spring of 1953 in rural Kansas:

Plum Creek School was where I was forced to learn to square dance. It was where I had my first hay ride … It was also where I learned Lesson Two about power. [1]

I suspect that most every player in every organised sport has experienced something similar. The pitch might be different, but people are the same everywhere.

Our playground had no basketball goal. And we had never heard of soccer. That left football and softball. Football was no fun because:

  • half of our 42 students were ten years old or younger
  • half of the other half were female
  • of the others, not many liked football

That left softball. Nearly all the older kids liked that. A half-dozen of us played every day. The rest would join in now and then. We did not have enough for teams so we usually played ‘Flies and Grounders.’ It was a great day in spring when Miss K told us that Mayfield School had challenged us to two real softball games, one there and one at Plum Creek. We needed a team. We needed to practice. We needed a captain. We voted and I was elected. That weekend I had work to do.

First, positions. Ronnie was tall and could catch okay and stop grounders. Naturally he would play 1st base. Gerald, a small 6th grader, the fastest runner in school, was a good fielder and usually threw straight. He would be shortstop. Jerome’s throws, not so straight but always strong, was the only choice for 3rd base. [2]

Our game was slow pitch, and 8th grader Betty would be solid there. As the catcher, I could handle bad pitches and see the whole field to manage things. That left 2nd base and outfield. The only other person in school good enough for infield was Dick, but he was left handed. No professional team had left handed infielders except for 1st basemen, so I put Dick in center field. There he could actually cover the whole outfield plus back up 5th grader Louise at 2nd base. Rose, 6th, and Max filled left field and right. On defense, we were as strong as we could be.

Maybe it was different in the 1950s. When I played baseball in the 1970s, whoever hit a pitch scored because none of us little kids could throw the ball very far with any accuracy.

Then batting order. We had four strong hitters: Ronnie and Jerome, Dick and I. And if Gerald hit even a grounder, he was so fast he might beat the throw. Betty was okay. The other three were automatic outs unless they walked … so I would tell them to swing at the first pitch, then not swing again and hope for a walk. And I would clump them and Betty together at the end of our order so our weaknesses came all at once.

The strategy was sound. Monday morning I explained it all to Miss K. She said, ‘No.’

First, two 8th graders besides Betty and two 6th graders besides Gerald and Rose, wanted to play. They were Rose’s friends.

‘They can’t,’ I said. ‘They can’t hit or catch. They …’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ Miss K said. ‘If they want to play, they can play. You’re captain. Teach them.’

‘But the game is Friday.’

‘Yes it is,’ she said.

‘How much do they get to play?’

‘Half the game.’

‘Half?!’ I erupted.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Don’t we want to win?!’

Most of us would love to ask that of our bosses just to see how they’d react. We don’t, because we don’t want to get fired. Still … it would be kinda awesome …

‘That would be nice.’

‘Well then …’

‘Half the game,’ she said.

I stared at her. Probably my mouth hung open.

‘And you must change your batting order. You can’t have three boys bat in a row.’

‘What?! Why?!’

‘Mrs. Peterson and I agreed that would be a fair way to do it.’

‘But …’

‘Please bring me a new batting order tomorrow.’

That evening when Dad came home I blew. I showed him my positions and batting order, explained the reasons and tactics. He listened carefully and nodded.

‘That’s well thought out,’ he said. ‘But what she says goes.’

‘But I’m captain!’ I said.

‘But she’s in charge. She has the power and the right to overrule you. It’s like a professional team: A is owner, B is manager, C is captain, D is the rest of the players. In this case, Miss K is manager. She outranks you.’

Grandfather nailed it. These days, it takes an entire semester of business school to convey the principles: ‘Your boss can fire you for no reason at all. You cannot fire your boss. Adjust your behaviour accordingly.’

‘But she doesn’t know anything about positions and tactics. And who’s the owner of a school anyway?’

‘The school board,’ Dad said.

‘They don’t know anything about any of us!’

‘Probably.’

‘Well if all those others have so much power, what’s the point of being captain?’

‘What’s the point of being anything? You do the best you can under the circumstances. That’s all you can ever do.’

I changed the batting order. Friday, I substituted in the lousy players half the game. We lost on our own field. A week later we lost on their field.’

‘I never forgot.’

The thing is, it doesn’t matter what Miss K’s rationale was for including the four additional players. As an adult, she wasn’t required to explain her logic to a 12-year-old (let alone one subject to her authority). It might have been for a noble cause, like integrating a school activity. Or she could have been trying to restore good relations with the rival school. Why didn’t matter.

What mattered, as far as the young team captain was concerned, was that he had everything he needed to succeed right up until Miss K forced restrictions on him that made winning difficult (if not impossible). I can empathize. There are few things in sport and business that get blown out of proportion more than being put in charge of an activity only to be micromanaged by your boss such that you can’t possibly succeed. No, it’s not traumatic; it is, however, infuriating. Over the years, people have recounted stories to me of being hobbled by their boss far more clearly (and with more vitriol) than stories of being bested by their competition in a fair fight.

‘Why do WE have to draft all of our product specs in cursive script on vellum scrolls when our competitors get to use PowerPoint? DON’T YOU WANT US TO WIN?!’

That’s the key: the catalyst that takes an ordinary story of loss and turns it into a tale of bitter betrayal. The injustice of it is what really stings. The pain of defeat is always worse when the storyteller strongly believed that they could have succeeded if only they weren’t unfairly denied a chance to compete fairly. The indignity sticks with a person. It also often shapes their future behaviour.

I know my father never forgot Lesson Two. After serving his time in the Army and graduating university, my father took up teaching. I remember hearing about his frequent skirmishes with the principals, administrators, and petty bureaucrats holding power over him. All the while, he held fast to his principles and refused to let his superiors dictate his success or failure. You do the best you can under the circumstances.

In his classroom, my father was its captain. Inside his domain, he was in charge. He determined what constituted ‘victory’ for the students on a lesson-by-lesson basis. He set the agenda, moderated the activities, and delivered mentoring where and how it was needed. Throughout his career, my father came across as a pleasant and congenial team player to his bosses, all while being a subversive contrarian when his bosses weren’t looking. He consistently volunteered to work in the worst schools in his district, so that he could dedicate his working life to providing poor and passed-over kids the boost they needed to escape the self-fulfilling failure prophecy imposed by uninvolved parents, indifferent educators, and ineffective curriculum. He was the rocket that kicked kids out of the gravity well and up towards a future of their own choosing.

My father taught me Lesson Two about power through his actions rather than by passing down his father’s wisdom verbatim. I mimicked his tactics as a military squadron commander: do the best you can under the circumstances. Understand that the people above you in the power structure have their own agendas, as do the people above them. If you resist their agendas too fervently, they’ll crush you and force you to comply. Whereas, if you can plausibly deliver what they asked for without the appearance of resistance, they’ll often leave you alone … and never notice that you’re obstinately doing the right thing for your people right under their noses.


[1] Lesson One was an argument he had with some racist adults about baseball legend Jackie Robinson. It’s another great story, just with a different theme.

[2] If you’re not familiar with American baseball … I envy you.

 

Cultural Allusion: None this month; I couldn’t find a baseball movie that fit the theme.


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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