I received a really important piece of feedback on my last article. I was asked:
Hey Nick, we all had to deal with this kind of people, but after reading your article, I am left with the feeling that this is about how I can lower myself to their level. Is that what you intended?
Reading the article again, I can see how headings like “Keep your bribes small” do paint a picture of someone who is being deliberately and cynically manipulative. I spent a section of the article criticizing Dangerous Unpredictable Manipulative Bastards (and quietly feeling pleased with myself for coming up with a DUMB acronym), but I also positioned myself pretty effectively as a Manipulative Bastard. Possibly even one who wasn’t entirely safe, or predictable.
The answer doesn’t seem to be as clear or comforting as I would like it to be. Because politics does have a tendency to come down to a fight, sooner or later. And fights have a tendency to get dirty. Is there a difference between punching someone in the face, and stabbing them in the back?
I thought about the subjects that I’ve been planning to address in the Internal Politics content. Things like:
- There’s always one: dealing with an obnoxious critic
- How to defeat a bad idea
- How to get someone fired
- Encounters with corrupt bosses
- How to publicly humiliate someone (and why you shouldn’t)
These are not nice topics. Nice people don’t think about those things, let alone do them. That last one is especially unpleasant and immoral: if you shouldn’t publicly humiliate people, then why tell people how to do it?
There are several reasons. They’re all true, and each will offend some people, while resonating well with others. It’s often a good idea to give people the explanation that will work for them, and avoid volunteering explanations that will cause problems. But sometimes, you’re better off laying your cards on the table as completely as you know how. So here are the reasons:
The power to heal is the power to harm
When I was studying acupuncture, my lecturers never missed an opportunity to talk about a ‘tension pneumothorax’. Tension pneumothorax is an injury to the chest cavity that causes a collapsed lung, and it can happen when you put an acupuncture needle in the wrong place. Badly trained acupuncturists were causing these injuries about once every six months in my state.
In order to avoid poking an acupuncture needle into someone’s pleural cavity, you need to know how it happens, and why it happens. That way, you can avoid making the same mistakes. The job of a surgeon is to cut people with a knife. Cutting people with knives is not nice, and it hurts people. But if you do it well, then you can help the person that you’re hurting.
If you’re going to successfully encounter dishonest bastard tactics, then you’re going to need to understand how those tactics work. That means you’ll be able to do them, and you might even choose to use them at some point. My hope is that I can equip you with better options than the knife, and you’ll therefore choose better options more often than not.
The bad guys are already sharing knowledge
There are places you can go that will teach you how to be DUMB. Consider pages 28–32 of the OSS Simple Sabotage Manual, and just how easy it would be to implement those measures in most workplaces. There are other, more modern sources for how to make people miserable and ruin productivity. I don’t plan to publicize those.
Let’s not allow the bad guys to be the only ones having a conversation about how to engage with politics.
Managers are unreliable sources of protection
Most managers want good things for their people and their organization, and they work to achieve those good things. But not all managers are politically capable enough to do all the things that need to be done. Some managers are DUMB, and their ‘short term success’ might last long enough to be a very serious problem for you. I’ve worked very hard to contribute to a world where we can all rely on managers to get things right, and I’m now convinced that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime. We need methods that will work now, rather than waiting for our preferred utopia to come about.
I have a genuine appreciation for the art form
A few years ago, I was fired by a DUMB manager (whose own career was seriously derailed because he built a bad reputation for himself). Although it hurt and I was angry, I couldn’t help but admire the skill with which he neutralized me. There was an artistry to it: by the time I worked out what was going on, I was literally being escorted out of the building.
Many wise people have suggested that my obsession with understanding people’s misbehaviour is bad for me, and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to repeat my mistakes. I console myself with the idea that other people can learn from them.
On being a poacher turned gamekeeper
Some people are DUMB, not because they are evil, but because they don’t perceive a better option. I was one of those people, up until I found the right mentor. Someone who acknowledged that I was tempted towards the dark side of politics, not because I was fundamentally bad, but because I hadn’t been trained in the methods of the light side. The problems I saw were real: the solutions I was trying to apply were short-sighted and far more naive than I was willing to admit. That was roughly 20 years ago.
I don’t speak from a perspective of moral superiority: I speak from experience. And the people who actively want power, the people who are going to get it whether I help them or not? Those are the people I want to reach the most. They are going to continue to be in charge, no matter how eloquently we might plead for leaders who are saints. And if they realize how profitable it is to be good to people, then a lot of us will be a lot better off, very quickly.
And so that is why I will be ruthlessly pragmatic in assessing methods. Because at the end of the day, what you’re left with are the results. And DUMB people do get results. The question is whether you can get better, cheaper results using enlightened methods. And the answer is “Yes.”