ManagementSpeak: We must analyze the situation and develop a contingency plan in case of failure.

Translation: Don’t screw up.

This week’s anonymous contributor analyzed “analyze the situation” quite admirably.

Engineering doesn’t begin as a profession or credentials, but as a perspective:

  • Seeing the world as a collection of problems and opportunities.
  • Relying on evidence and logic to validate that a problem or opportunity is real.
  • Needing to understand how things work … the dynamics of the situation, not just the symptoms.
  • Enjoying the process of developing solutions that don’t just work, but that are elegant in their construction, their operation, and how they solve the problem or exploit the opportunity.

There are plenty of other ways to look at the world, and they enrich us all … engineers and non-engineers alike. There’s more to life than problems and their solutions.

But when what you want is progress, you’ll get it from the science/engineering worldview more reliably than from any other.

Except … nestled among the problems and opportunities that constitute the engineering worldview is a thorny sub-set made up of all the ways we pesky human beings avoid clear understanding and elegant solutions, like anecdotes, tribal membership, and the genius even mediocre intellects display when rationalizing their … our … pre-existing biases.

Which brings us to a special class of engineers — marketers, sales professionals, political consultants, and other practitioners of the persuasion trades.

Like all other engineers, persuaders see the world as a collection of problems and opportunities. The ones they’re most interested in are about acquiring, maintaining, and using power … about getting us to do what they want us to do, without our ever realizing why it is we’ve made the decisions we’ve made.

What for us are enriching ways of experiencing the world are, for them, buttons to push and levers to pull to manipulate us.

Did I say them? Depending entirely on the situation, we are often they, because persuasion is one of the most important of leadership skills (see Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World, Chapter 9 for more).

Which leads to two awkward ethical questions:

  • If and how persuasion differs from manipulation.
  • Whether using tools other than evidence and logic for persuasion is, or at least can be ethical.

Understand, I lack access to any universal, unquestioned truths (just like everyone else; otherwise the world would have only one holy book, creed, moral code, and operating system … I did say “unquestioned”). So I can’t prescribe answers to these two questions.

What I can do is give you the answers I’ve arrived at, and how I’ve arrived at them. It’s up to you to develop answers that work for you.

Question #1: The difference between persuasion and manipulation

So far as I can tell, the only difference between persuasion and manipulation is intent, the same as the difference between killing an enemy combatant and murder.

If your goal is an external good, you’re convinced your position is sound, and you’re communicating in order to enlighten, you’re persuading.

But if your goal is personal benefit, what you’re trying to persuade someone of is, to your own knowledge, false or a bad idea, and the result will be to your target’s personal detriment, you’re manipulating.

Question #2: The ethics of using tools other than evidence and logic to persuade

There’s a school of thought, popular among technical professionals, that says our responsibility is limited to providing the evidence and logic of a situation, after which it’s up to the recipient to arrive at the proper conclusions. (Yes, “the evidence and logic of a situation,” is, of course, infinite. Figure there’s a point of diminishing returns and leave it at that.)

At the other extreme is the proposition that what matters is the outcome — that whatever is necessary to cause the other party to reach the “right” conclusion is just fine and dandy, because caveat emptor anyway. My job is to win.

Just my opinion: Information dumping abdicates responsibility, while winning no matter what, no matter how important the cause, ignores the collateral damage that occurs every time someone creates more disrespect for honest inquiry.

Some tools will, I think, always do more harm than good. Take tribalism — dividing the world into us and them and demonizing “them.” I doubt it ever does enough good to justify its side-effects.

Other tools of persuasion, though, have both legitimate and illegitimate uses. Anecdotes and analogies, for example, are perfect for illustrating a point, and for establishing why a topic is important.

If I’m helping someone understand my position, why I’ve taken it, and why it matters, then I haven’t crossed the line.

If they also conclude that anyone who disagrees with me is a disgraceful waste of protein … that’s even better.