Consider the cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish engage in what might be called tactical deception. When a male cuttlefish courts a female in the presence of other males, he displays a male pattern facing the female (courtship), and a female pattern facing away, to deceive the other males.

Copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium
Copyright Monterey Bay Aquarium

And like their cephalopod relatives the squid and octopus, cuttlefish squirt a black ink into the water when they’re caught by something threatening, obscuring everything around them as they make their escape.

When Cuttlefish managers display different personalities or express different positions and opinions to different colleagues, it isn’t to improve their mating success (okay, it might be, but let’s keep this on a professional level, shall we?). They do this to build political alliances, saying what they think they need to say to whoever they need to say it to in order to persuade everyone around them that I’m on your side.

Because Cuttlefish managers say what they think a colleague wants to hear, with little regard for consistency from one conversation to the next, they’re rarely able to remember what they said to a given individual about a given subject, once they’ve spoken to two or three others about it afterward.

And when someone inevitably calls them on an inconsistency, Cuttlefish managers squirt out their version of black ink … an acoustically opaque collection of sound waves that closely resemble speech, replete with grammar and syntax but utterly devoid of meaning while they make their escape to another meeting.

Some Cuttlefish come by their … plastic?  approach to position-taking from a misplaced desire to be cleverly Machiavellian, although Machiavelli would have sneered at their ineptitude.

But in most cases, Cuttlefish-ism seems to be more a consequence of the creature’s invertebrate nature: Lacking a spine, Cuttlefish just don’t have it in them to say anything to anyone that they think might result in rejection or disapproval.

If you don’t know someone is Cuttlefishing you’re in danger of basing your own actions on the belief that you have their support on some issue that matters. When it turns out you don’t, you’ll be the one left holding the bag.

Which is why your tactics for dealing with Cuttlefish start with detection. Fortunately, Cuttlefish, as noted before, aren’t particularly subtle about their deceptions. Talk to them about a subject a few times and you’re likely to get a clue or three; talk to colleagues you respect but with whom you disagree, mention what the suspected Cuttlefish told you, and ask if they’ve discussed the matter with him (or, her).

If the suspect agreed with all of you, he/she is no longer a suspect. He/she is a confirmed Cuttlefish.

Dealing with Cuttlefish isn’t all that hard either, so long as you keep your wits about you. Among your alternatives:

  • Document: You’ve discussed something with a Cuttlefish. He indicates his support. Instead of being happy about it, send him an email summarizing the situation and stating that you’re glad you and he agree on the issues and best solution. If things get dodgy later on, you’ll have the email to haul out as you say, “What I’m hearing you say now is different from our last conversation about the subject. What’s changed?”
  • Congregate: Your Cuttlefish detection system has resulted in a positive identification (that is, you and your colleagues have compared notes). Call a meeting with the Cuttlefish and your friends to reach a consensus as to what the plan should be for dealing with whatever the issue was. In the meeting, ask the Cuttlefish to be the first to suggest a solution. And then, have fun.
  • Be last in line: You already know you’re dealing with someone who will tell you whatever you want to hear. Take advantage of this: Wait to discuss whatever the subject is with the Cuttlefish until it’s nearly time to act. Then, have the conversation you need to have, listen carefully to the position the Cuttlefish expresses, and document it. You win!

If you’re a SCUBA diver, seeing a cuttlefish in its native habitat is something special. But if, instead, you swim around the cube farms and offices of a modern corporation, spotting a Cuttlefish manager is an experience that’s neither special nor rewarding.

It is, however, better than being taken in by this mollusk’s camouflage.

I once saw a bald eagle soaring over the lake where our cottage is nestled in the woods. It looked magnificent, and the experience was made even more awe inspiring when the eagle swooped down to …

Well, it swooped down to snag a fish some tourists had left to get its attention so as to snap a magnificent photo of a bald eagle dining on a fish that looked just as if the eagle had accomplished something.

As Ben Franklin pointed out to his colleagues when they were choosing a national bird, the bald eagle rarely does its own hunting. Mostly it either acts like a more attractive buzzard, enjoying a gourmet meal of carrion, or it waits until some lesser bird catches something and then chases the hunter away and enjoys the spoils of theft.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPoor Ben. In the middle of The Enlightenment, debating with exceptionally intelligent and well-read colleagues, his evidence and logic still lost out to the importance of an impressive image.

The Bald Eagle

In an organization, Bald Eagles are managers who takes credit for the work of their employees.

Now to be fair, good managers do deserve credit for their teams’ accomplishments. Well, not the accomplishments themselves, but for building a team capable of the accomplishments — arguably more important than the accomplishments themselves.

But that isn’t what Bald Eagles do. They (the managers, not the raptors) get in front of the team to take credit when the team gets something important done, while hiding behind the team and blaming it when something goes wrong.

Oh, and, like their emblematic avian, when even a very small bird attacks them or their team, they cower and fly away, leaving their teams to fend for themselves.

Root Cause: What causes a manager to become a Bald Eagle is something of a chicken-and-egg story.

Okay, eagle-and-egg, and yes, as everyone knows by now, the egg came first; dinosaurs had eggs. And dinosaurs are sometimes the root cause, as in the Bald Eagle manager reporting to a management dinosaur who doesn’t understand the difference between getting something done and building an organization that can get things done.

Sometimes, in a case of trans-species transformation, a Bald Eagle is a former Remora who got promoted — someone who rose from the ranks of individual contributor by stealing as much credit and sloughing as much blame as possible. As managers, Bald Eagles are no more competent at any of the eight tasks of leadership than they were as Remora-like individual contributors. And never having experienced the feeling of competence they aren’t likely to become competent at them.

But with more authority and power than a Remora, Bald Eagles don’t have to just ride along waiting for scraps. They can grab the credit away from those who actually deserve it, and they do … because they can, and don’t have anything else going for them.

Dealing with Bald Eagles: If you discover you have a Bald Eagle reporting to you, the solution is simple: Get rid of the feathery bugger, because why would you do anything else?

That’s the easy one. If you find you’re reporting to one, the solution isn’t all that complicated either.

First, get over it. In the past, for example, I’ve ghostwritten articles for managers higher up in the food chain who got credit for my brilliant (well, relatively speaking) insights. I concluded there was no reason for me to get all riled up about the situation: I was paid for the time I put into the appropriated opus, after all, so the only problem there was my lack of ego gratification.

And second, remember that before anything else, all organizations are built on webs of interpersonal relationships. When you’re producing something worthwhile that your own Bald Eagle manager might misappropriate, ask your personal internal network to review your work in progress.

Once you take this step, there’s no need for you to make a fuss if the Bald Eagle does claim credit, because there’s a pretty good chance the claim will come to the attention of one or more of your goombahs. When it does, they’ll spread the word.

And if they don’t, you still have the get-over-it option at your disposal. As long as  you were paid for your time and weren’t asked to mis-report your hours … sure, there’s the injustice of it all. But between getting credit for the results and getting paid for the results, personally, I’ll take getting paid every time.

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It appears the well-known story of Franklin debating the relative merits of the bald eagle and wild turkey with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — the archetypical example of image trumping reality — is, in fact, apocryphal, an excellent (and ironic) example of how most of us, given a choice, will prefer a good story over what actually happened.

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And thanks to Paul Schaefer for suggesting and describing this week’s beast.