One night, I had a kitchen argument about managers and taking blame:
Her: A manager must protect their subordinates. And take responsibility for everything they do, even if they are wrong. Agreed?
Me: Well, it's nice. But you don't always have to do it, though. Sometimes there are edge cases when it's better not to. I can think of a [pretty stupid edge case], right here.
Her: No! Always! And your edge case is unrealistic!
I heard "always" and saw red. The argument immediately became a bitter, exhausting fight.
Years later, I figured out how exactly she was right. It's the other way round — if you want to stay a manager, you must protect your subordinates. It's not for them, it's for you.
I mean, alright, fine. It's for them as well. But this is out of scope for now. OUT OF SCOPE I SAY.
Keith Johnstone's Impro mentions — in passing! — how to stay on top of any pecking order.
#7 will shock you.
Desmond Morris, in The Human Zoo (Cape, 1969; Corgi, 1971) gives ‘ten golden rules’ for people who are Number Ones. He says, ‘They apply to all leaders, from baboons to modern presidents and prime ministers.’ They are:
- You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance.
- In moments of active rivalry you must threaten you subordinates aggressively.
- In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates.
- If a challenge involves brain rather than brawn you must be able to outwit your subordinates.
- You must suppress squabbles that break out between your subordinates.
- You must reward your immediate subordinates by permitting them to enjoy the benefits of their high ranks.
- You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue persecution.
- You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your group.
- You must reassure your extreme subordinates from time to time.
- You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks arising from outside your group.
I have broken this list into three: points I like, points I don't get, and other points.
To be on top of the pecking order, you must do what other people in your position do, and you should do them publicly. Give orders in a Slack channel instead of DMs. Mention that you talked to somebody else important (and it was behind the closed doors). Show that you have the privileges that other people don't have.
Your life — like everyone else's — has moments where you look important or successful, and moments where you don't. The moments you intuitively decide to display are an indicator of where in the pecking order you want to be. It might well not be "on top".
If you want to get to a position in the pecking order that you are currently not comfortable with, change which moments you display. "No self-deprecation" is a very basic version of this, and is not enough.
Think about the paradigms in which it makes sense that you are the one who suppresses squabbles.
Low-status people don't get into dealings of higher-status people. Therefore, if you do, you are either doing something stupid, or are higher-status. As long as you can avoid looking stupid, you're golden.
This is the bit that the kitchen argument as about.
I'll add to it: and if the persecution is due, it has to be ratified by you.
This is an interesting one — it never occurred to me before.
It's probably where "team building" comes from. It's not for building the team, but for strengthening the manager's position.
Alright. The key part is "take the initiative" — I'm not doing this yet.
Let's skip this one. I don't yet get it.
I don't get what "extreme" means here. Skip.
"But I'm weak!"
Then don't get into any situations where you will be physically challenged. That's what I'm doing and it works well.
"But this means I'll have to hire people who are stupider than me! That's very bad. Joel Spolsky said so. Or Paul Graham. I don't remember."
No. You can hire people who are smarter than you, as long as they won't challenge you. This is still tricky, but doable.
(Observe how this list is in no way "insightful". It's blatantly obvious, and intuitive, that this is what stereotypical authority looks like. It's much more interesting to think about ways in which you can have authority without following this list, for instance. And yet mastering this list seems like a very good idea.)
Hah. This explains why I always tried to push people under me to become semi-managers themselves. I was telling myself it's so that I would have more competent subordinates — and it's true — but the side effect is that my own status increases further still.
Again: this isn't an insightful list. It's a stupid list. It's a stupid list telling you things you knew already. It doesn't need much discussion, even.
The list can't convince you to do anything. There are good arguments against all of the points above, and I didn't bring up almost any of those arguments.
This is a list for people, like me, who already know that they want to be on top of the pecking order, but need to be reminded how to get there.