When you’re negotiating, be smart and act stupid.

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, but my pride never lets me accept it. Ego-gratification always ends up taking precedence over financial gain.

This is semi-good career counsel too. When you try to prove you’re smarter than your organizational superiors (superior in position only, of course), one of two things will happen – both bad:

1. You succeed. By both being smarter and spending your energy proving it, you’ve made yourself dangerous.

2. You fail. You’re not executive material – you just don’t measure up.

Keep your ego out of it. When you disagree, you aren’t right and your boss isn’t wrong. You’re discussing and reconciling alternatives, to help fine-tune the program. In the end, your initiative and skill have to advance your boss’s decisions, not your own. This is called “followership” and it’s a valuable and valued skill.

You may be getting peeved, thinking I’m recommending toadyism. Think again. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I’m just giving a practical example of how the workplace punishes sinfulness.

Many readers took similar exception to an earlier column, which pointed out that the ethics of power lead to complications beyond commonplace, day-to-day morality. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and that’s all there is too it, complained some of these readers. Regardless of what I actually said, grumbled others, my column encouraged unethical behavior among the powerful.

Notes from readers and messages posted on the InfoWorld Electric forum on the subject, brought several points into sharper focus:

1. The Edge of the Slippery Slope: Politicians used to gain power to advance their programs. Bad enough, but as campaigning has become marketing, politicians now adjust their programs to gain power. This distinction – gaining power to achieve worthwhile ends vs attaching yourself to whatever ends will gain you power, define (for me) the edge of an ethical precipice. When you’re playing the power game, ask yourself this question on a regular basis: “What am I trying to achieve, and if I achieve it, will I approve of the result?”

2. Means and Ends: The ends, we’re told as children, never justify the means. This guidance provides a useful touchstone … for children. Adults, especially those with some power (and that includes everyone in management) need to apply a more sophisticated calculation.

Every action (the means) has both an immediate consequence, consequences intended to achieve a goal (the end), and unintentional effects as well (side effects). Defining the ethics of an action by its immediate consequence alone is naive – the ethical content of an action must be measured through a complex calculus that takes into account all of its consequences.

You’ve heard this before: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

3. Gut Feeling: Should you trust your instincts when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong? Probably not. Huck Finn pointed this out: “If I had a yaller dog with no more sense than a man’s conscience, I’d shoot him.”

Your gut feelings come from how your mother raised you, and Mom didn’t explain the choices I’d have to make as a manager. An anecdote to illustrate the point:

Several years ago, one of my staff had to insist that a vendor replace a project manager on an installation. Our complaint ended up getting the project manager fired. My staff felt understandably bad about the impact on this guy.

Here was my response: “You knew the guy who got fired. A total stranger now has an opportunity. Your knowing someone personally doesn’t make him or her more deserving.”

After reading the earlier column, my friend Steve Nazian reminded me of a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, who recommended: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

Proving, once again, the value of science fiction to your career.

Those who extol the virtues of small business often say that big businesses hold meetings to plan how they’re going to hold meetings.

Pretty funny stuff, huh?

I thought so too, until I attended eight half-day training sessions on group process dynamics and interaction management several years ago.

There’s some logic in doing this. In most big companies, employees attend a gaggle o’ meetings every week, so making meetings more productive pays off. When managers learn the basics – have an agenda; review old action items at the beginning and new ones at the end; look for non-contributors to conversations and actively seek their ideas – meetings will be more productive.

Running a meeting is as much a part of the manager’s basic toolkit as is a saw for a carpenter.

You can make your meetings even more productive if you follow the guidelines in this column. Warning: what follows requires sophisticated mathematics, and isn’t for the faint of heart.

Step 1: Cut the average number of meetings in half.

Here’s how you got into this mess. At some critical point it became difficult to call meetings because everyone’s schedule had become clogged with other meetings. What’s the logical response? Establish a standing meeting, so everyone will reserve time in advance on their calendars. The consequence: having too many meetings leads to more meetings.

Here’s what else happens: everyone spends so much time in meetings that they have too little time to get work done at their desks. The result: meetings become working sessions, not review sessions, leading to a need for … yet more meetings.

Then a pernicious effect sets in: Employees, and especially managers, lose the habit of time management. Instead, their appointment calendar manages them, and they go from meeting to meeting until the week has ended. Free time actually becomes a psychological threat.

Break this logjam. Encourage everyone to say “No.” It isn’t all that hard. Once you have 20 hours of meetings on your calendar, make appointments with yourself for the rest. Say, “Sorry, I’m tied up the rest of this week. How else we can handle this?” Or, “You don’t need me. I trust you to do the right thing.”

Now you can convert meeting work to individual work. Brainstorming sessions are a prime candidate, since psychologists have proven they rarely work anyway. Substitute a process where individuals develop ideas independently and e-mail them to a central “idea facilitator” who organizes them, eliminates duplicates, and publishes a consolidated list for independent review and evaluation, prior to a meeting to finalize solutions.

Step 2: Cut average meeting size in half.

This is simple. The bigger the group, the slower the progress. Two is best – you can bounce ideas off each other without having to wait your turn too much. Up to seven is okay. Ten is the maximum for anything other than a presenter/audience format.

So why do we have big meetings? Lack of trust. I won’t buy into any result unless I personally had a hand in its creation. All constituencies must be represented in the process or they won’t accept the conclusions.

Design each team to have the smallest number of participants possible while still containing the expertise needed to get the job done. Everyone else? Put them on a “Steering Committee” that meets monthly, or even quarterly, to review and comment.

These two simple steps – cutting both the number of meetings and their attendance – are simply stated. Achieving them will take commitment, vigilance, and strong leadership.

The benefit is awesome. In some companies, managers spend more than thirty hours each week in meetings. The program described in this column would cut that to less than ten. That’s twenty additional hours per week per manager of real work.

You could spend ten of them procrastinating and still be way ahead.