21 November 2009

Sith Mind Tricks, Episode One - The Management Menace


Sure, all good managers and leaders develop a collection of Jedi mind tricks to create business value and further business objectives.  Unfortunately, bad managers are doing something similar, using their Sith mind tricks to further themselves and their agenda, at a sharp cost to the business and those around them.

What are these anti-patterns of reasonable behavior, good management and so-called leadership?  What are the signs and how can you defeat them?

To start with, you need to understand the Sith.  What motivates them?  Like most of us, they want to further their career to earn more money.  But to do this, the Sith put themselves first, furthering their own progress at the cost of their co-worker's progress.  They don't think about win-win, only win and who cares.  They are short-term thinking capitalists.  They make sure they look good even if that means painting others as looking bad.

Attributes of the Sith

Let's consider general attributes of tricks used by the Sith and how to recognize and defend against them.

Attribute #1 - Siths think in the short term.  Sith mind tricks can be used to great effect in the short run, but they generally result in a win-lose situation overall.

So that gives us the first general general way to defeat them - make sure you're taking the complete picture into account, not just the picture the Sith is trying to frame the conversation in.  Like in martial arts - if you fight the way your opponent fights, you will lose.  Draw them into your way of fighting, your framing of the situation, to win.

Attribute #2 - Siths shrivel in the light of thoughtful logic and complete information.  The powers of robust logic and complete information are anathema to the Sith.  They thrive on speaking rapidly, pulling in whatever facts support their position and silently ignoring or discounting the rest.  They lightly thread one-sided "facts" together with just enough veneer of logic to create the illusion of a solid basis for the uninformed around them.

To defeat this, you just plain have to be better.  Prepare more then them, think about scenarios in advance, critically evaluate viable alternatives, and put forward an airtight set of logic and facts to counter the Sith's view.

Attribute #3 - Siths are multi-faced.  The Sith shows whatever face they need to show to get what they want.  The Sith will suck up to their boss, giving the boss a carefully framed view of a world in which the Sith does no wrong.  They will badger peers to their face and attack them from behind.  They will threaten or just generally annoy subordinates who want to end the interaction with the Sith as fast as possible.

You can't really defeat this one, it's more of a trait that identifies a Sith.  The best you can do is keep the Sith's boss casually informed of the reality of things (not the Sith's fantasy view), encourage your peers not to put up with the guff and fold against the Sith's pressure, and empower your subordinates to escalate as needed to help the business avoid a bad outcome.  And yes, this is a lot of work.

Sith Mind Tricks Featured in Episode 1

And now for the main feature - the Sith mind tricks and how to defeat them.

Trick #1 - Power Relationships.  A Sith takes advantage of their power relationships in the business.  They bypass their peers and go directly to subordinates to secure commitments that support the Sith's agenda.  It's much easier to drive their agenda with someone beneath them in the organization, to use their power to force commitments and decisions from a subordinate.  If they had to do this with a peer or with peers and their boss, the Sith would have to make a case for what they want to do.  Using implicit control over someone's job security and salary is an effective way to assure the person will agree with you.

A Sith is all stick and no carrot.  No carrots except for themselves of course.

If you're peers with a suspected Sith, take note of who the Sith talks to when you are in and out of the office and if they take the chance to go around you directly to your resources.  Know who those people are and make sure they feel comfortable contacting you any time if someone is asking them to do something they feel is a bad idea.  If you're organizationally subordinate to the Sith and they want you to do something you feel is a bad choice, insist that you defer commitment until after you've had time to review it with your boss.

Trick #2 - Win-lose "information" gathering during meetings.  Similar to Trick #1 but in a public forum, a Sith's power increases when they get the answer they want to hear in a public forum.  The Sith will latch on to meeting points that support their agenda and discard or attack ones that don't.  They will badger and intimidate subordinates in a meeting to make the subordinates verbally support or at least not disagree with the Sith's assertions.  If anyone does disagree, the Sith will accuse them of "not being aggressive enough" or "not being a team player" in front of the group to cow them into silence and make sure the person doesn't dare speak against the Sith again.  The Sith of course makes sure that they either publish the meeting results or the "right" view gets put on the minutes.  As a result of this trick, the Sith has public confirmation that they're view is "right" (the "win") but of course the the people in the meeting and the business suffer (the "lose").

A particularly nasty form of this trick is for the Sith to power up trick #1 by wheeling their boss into discussions to really put some weight behind Sith's view of the world.

This trick is also known as "the elephant in the room" (the obvious fallacy that everyone can see but can't be discussed without being attacked by the Sith), "the emperor has no clothes" (execute anyone who points out the emperor isn't wearing clothes), and "repeat the lie until it considered truth" tricks.  It is bullied group-think.

If the Sith gets the power relationships "right" (for the Sith's agenda), they can talk complete bollocks, buck naked, surrounded by elephants.  This is Sith heaven (and everyone else's view of meeting hell).

How to defeat it?  Own the documentation and communication.  Take advantage of the Sith's laziness to write up minutes.  Make sure the issues and objections get documented.  Point out previous objections when an anticipated issue rears up.  Make sure key observations and decisions are at your fingertips when the inevitable blame fest occurs.

Trick #3 - Divide and conquer "information" gathering.  This trick is much like #2, but the Sith relies on trick #1 to corner people individually to extract the answer that they want.  The Sith quickly identifies who is weaker in the team, who doesn't like to argue, who is less informed but also opinionated, and/or who has an axe to grind with their boss and goes after them to get the answer they want.  They will use whatever technique - sucking up, threatening, or badgering - will work to get their answer played back to them by the hapless target.

Once they have that answer, they use it to go after the others on the delivery team saying that person X on the team said that the Sith's answer is The Answer and use it as a way to get The Answer from others on the team.

This trick can be countered by empowering everyone on the team to give the answer they think is right, not one they're being cowed into.  If that doesn't work, insist that certain team members take a "teamwork view" by empowering them to discuss an answer with key (stronger) peers before they respond with an answer to the Sith.

The Sith are good at praying on the weak and indifferent, defeating one person.  They aren't so good when the team works together and is exquisitely aligned.

Trick #4 - Top down scheduling.  Similar to Tricks #1-3, but focused on delivery deadlines.  This trick has the Sith demanding delivery of something from the delivery team by a certain date.  Why the date?  Maybe it's tied to the Sith's bonus, or a commitment they made to their boss or customer without consulting the delivery team.  Regardless, the Sith will assert a delivery date that the delivery team thinks is impossible.  The delivery team does their best to re-estimate, cut corners.  They offer up scope, resource, quality, risk, and technical balance trade-offs to decrease schedule.  The Sith won't accept any change to these (often because they don't want to take the time to understand them), and may even creep scope some because of new requirements that come up during the trade-off analysis.

Over the course of several meetings, the top down date becomes "The Date" and the Sith actually starts accusing the delivery team of "slipping the schedule" and "not making their dates".  The Sith uses Tricks #1-3 to make sure that the team stops pointing out that the delivery date wasn't their date and they never committed to it.

If scheduling reality starts to interfere with scheduling fantasy, the Sith will allude to legal and contractual disputes if the delivery isn't made.  If that doesn't whip the team into shape, the Sith threatens the team with loss of revenue, the business going Titantic, and everyone losing their jobs if the delivery doesn't happen to the Sith's top-down dates.

Why does the Sith do this?  They believe the best way to manage a team is setting aggressive deadlines and threats.  The Sith thinks they can do a better job with top-of-mind scheduling than a knowledgeable team that has spent a lot of time on project planning.  They want control over all project dimensions to better drive their agenda, even though they don't know jack-schlitz about the details.  The Sith thinks they know better, and don't trust the team anyway.  Most likely the Sith is projecting their own problems onto the team.

What happens as a result?  The Sith's ability to get real information drops to zero.  The Sith doesn't want real information anyway, they want their own view of the world spoken through the mouths of the team so they have someone to take the fall when the project fails to deliver "on time".

And how do you defeat this trick?  The counter-trick again is to control the documentation and communication around key observations and decisions during the project.  Keep key historical points at your fingertips.

Of course, the Sith have a counter-counter trick to this.  When the project ends up failing right where the team said it would, they just accuse members of the team of not taking a strong enough position against their view and convincing them that they're right.  It helps to create key information and decision point milestones in the project, carefully document the project reality at milestone (facts, not interpretation), and widely distribute the milestones.  You need to document and communicate the milestone results before the Sith can.  If you communicate the truth enough times, it usually becomes... truth.

What's the triple counter?  You have two choices.

Choice #1, and probably the easier.  Go find a job where you don't have to work with this person ever again, nor a company or bosses that endorse people like this.

Choice #2, much harder.  Put all the information together, create an airtight view of Sith behaviors and decisions during the project, take it to their boss or your mutual boss and go on the attack.  Recommend you take over decision making authority.  Only do this if you're very confident of winning because if you lose the Sith will own you.

The Epilogue

For a few, there is no hope.

Some Sith are just too far gone.  They are a "nasty piece of work" in an otherwise pleasant place to work.  They've pulled the wool over the eyes of their Boss, their peers don't want to be around them, and their employees are driven through fear.  They are ravaging the organization to improve their personal position.  No matter where you work, there will be at least a few around.  Maybe they're customers, maybe co-workers, or maybe just "friends" of friends socially.  You aren't going to change them, and you may not be in a position to drive them out of your circle of interaction.  Just be careful with them, document your critical communications, and make sure you're well prepared every time you interact.

But for most, there is hope.

Not all Sith mind tricksters are beyond redemption.  Maybe they've dabbled with the dark side in a moment of weakness, frustration or stress.  They're in the gray area, and maybe you can help them out by pulling them back into the light.  I know I've been there before, having just done something regrettable to power through a situation, when a Jedi master has come along and kicked me in the backside and back into the light.  If you can do this for someone, it'll feel damn good and you'll have helped your company out as well.  You owe it to them to at least try.

(There are many more Sith Mind Tricks.  Continue learning how to defeat them in Episode 2 - Attack of the Drones.  Coming soon to a blog near you.)

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