We had company over the weekend. My youngest daughter and new son-in-law (a phrase I’m still getting used to) came to visit, which meant taking time out to write a new KJR just wasn’t going to happen.

So instead, enjoy this oldie but very, very goodie (in my not very humble opinion, at least). I’ll be back live next week.

– Bob


Dear Bob,

I know this is a rather odd question, but I need your help with ManagementSpeak. No, it’s not translating it, it’s me translating to it!

I’ve been told that although I speak very well to and/or with end-users, I need to work more on talking with upper management. Three different managers have suggested this, so for the sake of my career and IS survival, I’m taking them seriously.

I’m pretty sure the very thing my manager wants is what you lampoon in your columns. Do you have any suggestions on learning how to translate into ManagementSpeak instead of your normal practice of translating from it? Just as important, can you tell me how to not snicker while I’m doing it?

Dancing around issues and trying to put a positive spin on everything, even when they are potential issues that need to be addressed, seems rather hypocritical. However, in the interest of my career, I have to at least try to overcome this particular “weakness.” Any suggestions, thoughts, or comments would be greatly appreciated.

– Talkin’ Trash in Tennessee

Dear Talkin’,

Here are a few suggestions that may help out. They may sound cynical, but they’re intended to help you be more persuasive, not manipulative. Use them with restraint, or you’ll go home every day feeling like you need a shower.

Rule #1: Never say “no.” You can present alternatives and estimate costs. You can explain that you don’t have the authority to say “yes” on your own. You can “see what the committee thinks about it.” “No” wrecks your image.

Rule #2: Never argue. “I think you’re wrong” just entrenches your opponent. If possible, make your own idea sound like a simple modification to your opponent’s moronic notion. If that isn’t possible, you can usually get away with, “I used to think the exact same thing. Then I ran across a book by Irving Slobodkin, and it made an interesting point.” That way you aren’t arguing — it’s Slobodkin who’s arguing.

Rule #3: Never present an idea as new or original. “I’ve read that some other companies are doing this [this being your great idea] when they’ve found themselves in this situation,” is far better. Why? First, new ideas are risky; “others are doing it” reduces the hazard. Second, nobody inside your company is allowed to be an expert. Why? That would make them better than the rest of us — who do you think you are, anyway? By quoting the experts rather than presenting yourself as one, you maintain the appearance of humility.

Rule #4: Find the upside. There are, after all, no problems, only opportunities. To avoid the cliche, make it a question: “How can we turn this to our advantage?” Many problems really are opportunities in disguise. Most are solvable challenges when faced with the right attitude but disasters when faced with the wrong one. (Don’t be asinine, though. The atmosphere gets icky when managers say brainless things like, “Don’t think of it as being unemployed and unable to feed your family. Think of it as an opportunity to broaden your horizons.”)

Understanding why you should follow these rules should help you keep a straight face and stay inside the fine line that separates diplomacy from stupidity on the one side and simple deception on the other.

Management has a lot in common with chess strategy. Each move you make has more at stake than achieving a single objective. Each should help you build a strong position as well. That means your speech should enhance relationships and alliance while avoiding the creation of antagonism or antagonists.

If all you want is to be right all the time, fine — just forget about your management aspirations. Being right is for staff. Leadership roles require you to be effective as well. Among the many skills this requires is the ability to present intrinsically unpleasant notions in ways that make them seem palatable.

Think of it this way: Somebody once figured out how to make raw oysters sound like a delicacy, not a pile of slimy goo. Sometimes, when you’re leading people, you have to achieve the same, seemingly insurmountable goal or nothing good will ever happen.

Let’s see if we can pull this all together.

In recent weeks we’ve talked about teams and team dynamics. We’ve talked about the too-often perverse relationship between knowledge and certainty. We’ve talked about culture and how its self-reinforcing nature can result in appalling behavior just as it can help bring out the best in people.

Teams, as described here from time to time, are groups of people who trust each other, and are aligned to a common purpose.

Toss in some additional reflection and discussions with various correspondents over the past few weeks and it’s clear that while trust and alignment are important team-ness ingredients, they aren’t the whole recipe.

Another is interdependence. In the world of sports, members of baseball, football, and basketball teams depend on each other move-by-move to get the job done. Golfers competing in the Ryder Cup, in contrast, do root for each other, but don’t nudge the ball when nobody’s looking. Likewise tennis players in the Davis Cup who presumably don’t use mirrors to try to blind members of opposing teams from the stands.

The world of business can be even more extreme: Many companies pit members of the so-called “sales team” against each other in the quest to receive the sales incentives that only go to the top 10% of producers.

And some business leaders still buy into the old MBO (management by objectives) method of setting management goals, assuring that each manager will do whatever it takes to achieve his or her objectives whether or not it’s at the expense of other members of the “management team” trying to achieve their goals.

Does this mean the “sales team” and “management team” are only teams in scare quotes?

Not entirely, because of another ingredient of team-ness. That’s affinity – a shared sense of identity that’s independent of both trust and purpose. Independent, that is, except for a desire to beat other, competing groups.

Which gets us to culture. Shared identity can be and often is independent of trust and purpose. It’s never independent of culture.

Here in KJR-land our working definition of culture is how we do things around here. It’s the informal, unwritten rules the affinity group … the tribe … enforces far more strictly and ruthlessly than HR enforces any of what’s spelled out in the company’s policies and procedures.

Identity politics … tribalism, that is … isn’t limited to politics.

Because if it were, how would you explain soccer riots?

It’s time to connect all this theory to your work-a-day responsibilities as an IT manager.

As the golden rule of engineering is form follows function, start with what you want. I imagine that in most situations, most of the time, you want the men and women who work in your organization to accomplish important results.

Most of the time, they’ll accomplish important results more effectively as a result of teamwork than of working in isolation. So you need to encourage team-building in the trust-and-alignment sense.

But like it or not, achieving trust and alignment is hard work that requires constant, steady leadership. That’s in contrast to achieving an us vs them tribal sense of identity, complete with unwritten rules governing how we do things around here. You’ll get that in spite of your best efforts to prevent it.

What you can do, sometimes, if you’re lucky and the wind is blowing in the right direction, is to channel your employees’ natural tendency to form up into rival tribes, so tribal and team identities coincide, or at least overlap heavily.

It isn’t a perfect solution by any means. Yes, project teams that have a strong sense of tribal identity will work harder and collaborate better internally than employees assigned to a project whose sense of team identity is limited to trust and alignment to a common purpose.

But that same sense of tribal identity will make the team less likely to collaborate with other teams they think of as the them to their own us.

Is there anything you can do to limit the extent to which the tribes take over?

There is. You can keep projects short, so project-based tribes disband before their tribalism starts to dominate the cultural landscape. And, you can populate new project teams cross-functionally, redefining us and them frequently enough to break down tribal animosities faster than new ones can form.

Or, you can do what most managers seem to do: Hope for the best, complementing hope with an occasional lecture about how we’re all on the same team.

That’ll work well.