Law #13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest,
never to their mercy or gratitude
In this new Huttle series, I will explore power dynamics in the workplace utilizing one of my favorite books as a backdrop: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Ever since I discovered this book at a B Dalton bookstore 16 years ago (this was back before every bookstore chain was destroyed by Amazon), I’ve found myself often referring back to this book to understand the wide variety of power plays I would see unfolding before me on a daily basis.
One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that in most organizations it takes a certain type of personality to make it to the upper echelons of management. I’ll describe this personality as a mixture of sociopathy with a healthy dose of narcissism in a relentless pursuit of ever more power at the expense of others. When people talk about tiresome office politics, they are usually referring to defending themselves against this type of never-ending power dynamic. Upon reflection, a lot of organizations are almost like Game of Thrones episodes - just without all the beheadings and wanton violence (if you’re lucky).
With this Huttle series, I’ll select one of the 48 Laws of Power as detailed in the book (they won’t necessarily be in order) and discuss how they apply in the modern workplace. For this post, I liked the concept of this law in always appealing to other people’s self-interest - never to ancillary concepts like ROI or alignment with strategic objectives or silly things such as reason and logic.
Early on in my career when I would lead a discussion to evaluate technical options, I would always discuss the relative merits and drawbacks of the options under consideration. I soon discovered that a lot of people (especially the senior clients I was dealing with) didn’t really care about what option was the most logical one to follow. They only cared about which option would make them look better and / or further consolidate their power base - bonus points were given if this could be accomplished at the expense of their various rivals inside the organization (because when it came time for the next promotion, “there can be only one”). Hopefully this option was also one that benefitted the larger organization as a whole, but that was usually just a tangential consideration.
My key mistake early on in my career was in focusing the conversation on doing a straight evaluation of the various options and then showing how the preferred option was the best one for the client. What I should have been doing (and wound up doing later on in my career) was taking the preferred option and framing it in the lens of why this preferred option best served the self-interest of my client. It’s a subtle difference, but one that actually got me to client agreement quite faster - and oftentimes I wouldn’t even need to go through all the evaluation detail if I was convincing enough. This was especially true in situations where the self-interest of my client was at the expense of one of my client’s rivals.
Admittedly, this is a very dirty game and one that I’m glad I’ve left far behind in the past. Because to paraphrase Cersei Lannister, “when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you [get fired].”