Functional Noise Regularize Your Mind

Defense Against The Dark Arts

Let's start with death. Any 5 year old can tell you that death is bad. It's pretty obvious. But some people try to be intellectual and will argue that death has good side effects. Death helps avoid overpopulation and it motivates you to do things faster. However, more intelligent people will point out that death is clearly bad and we need to find a cure for it.

This kind of reasoning pattern exists for many topics. Scott Alexander labeled the states: uneducated / contrarian / meta-contrarian. To make more sense of this pattern and it's disadvantages, I advise you to first read his article before continuing: Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism.

Now on to the next pattern: politics is bad. Any idiot can tell you that. I'm going to be that idiot explaining it for you here in this post. I want to push through this stupidity, because I have been struggling with my views on workplace politics for years now.

Let me make the case for the following uneducated / contrarian / meta-contrarian take:

politics is bad / stakeholder management is good / politics is bad, create defences.

As Scott explains, taking the meta-contrarian viewpoint is fun, but not necessarily the best. I have to convince myself that I am not falling into an intellectual hipster trap here, so it's time for another blog post.

What do I mean with politics?

Lot's of people hate politics, in their family / friends circle and at work in the office. You know some people that are scheming and gossiping in order to undermine others or try other tactics to get their way. Worstcase, it feels like a Game of Thrones episode with lots of asskissing and backstabbing. I'm not even going to discuss national politicians here. It's that kind of manipulative, self serving behavior that gives politics a bad name. When I talk about politics here, I am pointing at its worst form.

For a somewhat depressing, yet somewhat humorous, read on workplace politics, you can read The Gervais Principle. According to the author, a company is made up of losers, clueless middle managers and sociopaths. The growing layer of middle managers with their clueless politics lead to the eventual demise of an organization. He argues there is no way out of this system, you have to either accept it and become a loser at the bottom, or fully embrace politics like a true sociopath and rise to the top.


So my worst nightmares at work are:

  • Being governed by clueless managers who sit in political meetings all day.

  • Sitting in meetings all day with clueless managers.

  • Becoming a sociopath to win this rat race.

I really hope there is a way to avoid this.

To take another dark turn, let's examine the simulacrum levels. These describe different levels of signals people can send you, starting with statements describing the truth, up to pure perception management:

  • Level 1: Truth: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.

  • Level 2: Lie: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

  • Level 3: Pretend to Lie: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

  • Level 4: Not even pretending: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

Politics happens at simulacrum level 3 and 4. Politically savvy people don't outright lie, because then you can be called out with a simple fact check. No, they will focus on manipulating people's perceptions by pretending to lie, or by completely decoupling from reality and telling you fairytales.

So my definition of politics is all self-serving human behavior focusing on manipulating perceptions to gain status and power at the cost of others, slowly disconnecting you from truth and honesty.

For more depressing material, you can read Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution, which discusses how sociopaths infiltrate subcultures and destroy them from within. It ends with a call to become "slightly evil" in order to defend your subculture. Another body of work that influenced me is Immoral Mazes which goes deep into the cripling nature of politics in large organizations. Even I hope it's not that bad and inevitable.

This is not a happy sunshine fairytale Agile transformation article. This is about me trying to come to terms with reality. I am optimistic by nature, there has to be a defense mechanism, so where do I go from here?

Stakeholder management is good?

For several years now some management intellectuals are trying to convince me that I should work harder at my stakeholder management. They agree politics is not so nice, but they argue stakeholder management is something else entirely. Or they point out there are some good side benefits. Sound familiar? They propose it's good for my personal career (appeal to my selfishness). It's also necessary in order to get things done, to increase my impact in the organization (appeal to my result-orientation). "You need it in order to succeed!", they might say.

I do like winning. So someone advised me to do a stakeholder analysis. It's a simple analysis tool to find your important stakeholders and decide on a strategy. Like all management tools it involves a 2-by-2 matrix:


The purpose is to take a look at your current network and put those people in each quadrant. Put the important people who are interested in your goals in the right top, and the losers in the left bottom. You obviously want to find a few key stakeholders here and focus your attention on those. You want to ignore the losers as much as possible, but you don't have to ignore the other two quadrants. You make sure those powerful unaligned agents in the upper left corner don't block you. And you placate the interested masses with videos and news letters and other media.

It all seems like an analytical and intellectual excercise this way, but its still politics, you are using precious time and resources in order to manipulate people to do what you want. My mind is screaming at me that there is something wrong with this strategy. What's going on?

Let's go back a bit, why do I need to do all of this. What if I don't do anything? The assumption is that I have a piece of information that is valuable for the organization and:

  • Highly influential people who are interested in and aligned with my goals are not aware of this information and cannot leverage their influence without it..

  • Highly influential people are currently misaligned and would change their mind with this information.

  • Many low influence people can coordinate together with this info in order to create this value.

There is a tendency for people to target the high power, interested stakeholders. This is great for your career. But the real reason is to coordinate talented people and build great products. Now somehow these influential people can coordinate people. Why can't we solve problems more directly without power?

The dark side also always lures:

In order to grow in status, you need to be perceived as more powerful, or be associated with powerful people. When you are more powerful yourself, the assumption is you have higher status and more freedom.

My line of defense so far is that I don't like sitting in meetings all day, talking to boring power hungry managers. That's not my sense of freedom. People who enjoy that are suspected sociopaths. However, I do want my work to have impact, to be meaningful and useful.

But if I don't watch out for these hidden motives, then the dark side takes over. And then if I do manage to become influential I might waste millions of dollars on projects for personal prestige, thereby falling into the same ego trap. On the other hand, if I don't manage to become highly influential, I am still confident enough to believe I occasionally find good ideas that are valuable to get implemented. And I don't want to spend all my time on politics then in order to succeed.

I need to find a way to deal with it all. Definitely in my current job, but also if I'd go looking for another job or build something myself.

Meta-contrarian medicine?

I want to find a cheat code to win without accepting any zero sum management games.

I think the answer lies in engineering culture. What is culture? In an organization it's explicitly described as some shared values or statements, like Google's "do no evil". But these values don't always live up to reality, as is evident by Google dropping that rule. The real culture is just the way people behave on the workfloor. Shared behavior seems my best definition of culture.

I like the Netflix culture at least. These are really smart people, a bit too good at building addictive entertainment, but that's a testimony to their skills. These people never mention much stakeholder management, but are obsessed with culture. Results, independent decisions, freedom and transparency count, not how you spend your day looking busy and useful to others. It can probably be gamed by status seeking monkeys, but feels like a step in the right direction.

My take-away is that a good culture means working with awesome people all day and building amazingly valuable things together. A bad culture means being micromanaged all day or sitting in dreadful meetings where people scramble for power and never make any real decisions. A good culture has some kind of immune system against these bad practices, rejecting bad behavior.

So if I am going to accept it all, lets focus on doing it more efficient, at least a little better, at least try to fail at doing it better. Let's call this approach culture building, or perhaps 'result oriented stakeholder management'? I set good goals and figure out how to make that happen with my network, or where to grow my network with allies, or how to inspire my network or change the incentives in my network.

Never propose something you are not willing to do yourself. So what can I do?

I like transparency, to share information, inspire people, don't keep them in the dark. I am going to be even more transparent. Record more of my presentations, share more code and documents. Make them available as broad as is allowed within corporate policy. Challenge and change the policy if needed. Ideas that help an organization prosper should not be leaked, but unnecessary secrecy inside the organization stiffles innovation. I want to work in highly innovative, highly productive organizations, not political bureaucracies.

I am a strong believer in self improvement and the same can be applied to a community of people. I am going to have to encourage a continuous learning and improvement mindset. The book Accelerate is also very clear about this. High performing organizations optimize themselves relentlessly. They continuously remove any obstacle that stands in the way of high quality, fast deliveries.

I love having freedom to create the right things, to code, to write, to tinker and learn. The freedom to make the right decisions. I want others to have such freedom as well. Freedom doesn't mean you go off and do everything by yourself though. You combine it with working together with all these other great free people.

We should be creating teams and communities with the right culture. A culture that enables people to build good products. Teams and communities you'd like to work in yourself. If you have any kind of influence you should be using your influence for this goal.

Whenever I manage powerful people I do that only to propose good, true ideas and to improve the culture. I don't try to improve my own position for no other purpose and thereby plunging into naked politics. Cast that spell, let it be a defense.

A summary then:

  • More transparancy to inform and teach more engineers.

  • Continuous self-improvement: Inspire and foster an innovative environment, where we learn fast and improve our behavior.

  • Create freedom for others. Let others make decisions and take responsibility.

  • More result oriented networking, no stakeholder management for personal benefit alone.

  • Honesty and truth seeking, else all the above can still be used to spread misinformation.

These are the principles that will ground me, the accountability to uphold my integrity, the wards that guard me against the darker parts of myself. The same principles I want to foster around me, to create communities of light against the dark arts of politics.

Thus I conclude: politics is bad. Stakeholder management is bad when it is used to worsen politics. We need a defense against this dark art. We need teams and organizations with a strong enough culture and the right incentives to resist the pull.