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2021-02-14

The 48 Laws of Cooperation

1. Choose a decent boss

Robert Greene's first law of power is to never outshine the master. Humans are petty and quick to envy, he reasons. So if you give your superior an unadulterated taste of your potential, they will feel jealous at best and threatened at worst. Better if you stay out of the spotlight to avoid conflict. You can revenge yourself when the tables turn.

Of course Greene has a point. There are envious and incompetent people out there. Some of them happen to be bosses. But not all bosses happen to be envious and incompetent.

Even if the manager class appears to be more envious and incompetent than the general population,1 that's hardly enough evidence to justify groveling before every superior.

Choose your boss

Ultimately, you choose where to work, who to work for, and what kind of culture to belong to.2 So if you can, choose to work with a boss who doesn't have the kind of insecurity that requires them to put everyone else down.

If you can't choose your boss (because you've applied to a faceless corporate) and end up having a problem with them, well, that's what HR departments are for. And if both your boss and the corporate checks and balances are dysfunctional, go look for a new job because you've found rot at the company's foundations.

A great boss gets their employees to go beyond what they expected from themselves. They take pride when you flourish. Choose a boss with the confidence to let you shine.

Now, I hate to admit it, but I don't have a long career of working in corporate yet, so much of this is romantic hypothesizing. I'll make sure to come back to this when I've had more hours in the field.

Beyond what the individual can do, there's a lot that an organization can do to avoid paltry squabbling among its members:

Squash the hierarchy

Hierarchies are not evil. They are inevitable consequences of the need to bring information together in one place so that important, long-term decisions can be made with sufficient oversight.

But overly rigid hierarchies are fragile and corruptible: when the rules for rising become clear, the nefarious begin to game the system. In retaliation, we've seen a few companies try out "flat organization".

There are different philosophies, but they generally generally share:

  1. A restricted selection of job titles (Zappos has two kinds of managers, Valve eschews titles of all kinds).
  2. Self-organizing "squads" or "circles" (with self-elected project leads). Think Google's 20% time but 100% of the time.
  3. A short-term, piecemeal take on problem-solving (much like in agile development).

The success of companies like Zappos, Valve, and Patagonia show that this structure can work, especially with smaller companies and predictable business models (e.g., retail). But it's an open question to what extent these structures can scale. And how well they can translate to markets that require longer-term planning (e.g., building a rocket that can get to Mars). And there's a separate question as to whether these organizations are truly "flat":

"[Valve] is a pseudo-flat structure where, at least in small groups, you're all peers and make decisions together . . . . But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company and it felt a lot like high school. There are popular kids that have acquired power in the company, then there's the trouble makers, and everyone in between." — Jeri Ellsworth

Hierarchies emerge naturally because of cumulative advantage (among other reasons). Small differences in reach and influence compound over time, so power centralizes. With money, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" (the Matthew effect"). So too with influence in organizations.

There's a balance between the extremes of rigid military hierarchy and hippy pseudo-flatness. To reach that balance, perhaps the most important thing to develop an active disrespect for chain of command.

In a 2018 memo to Tesla's employees, Elon Musk had the following to say:

"Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the “chain of command”. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere."

Musk's main complaint is that chains of command distort information (think the telephone game). And "[t]he way to solve this is [to] allow free flow of information between all levels." In addition, an overly strict chain of command carries the risk of eroding accountability: your chance at promotion becomes solely determined by how you appear to your superiors and not how you act to your underlings.

When an employee is welcomed to bring complaints about a boss to the boss's boss (and is actually heard), hierarchies avoid becoming too rigid. This aim is also why many companies engage in some form of regular peer review. So that employees' opinions about bosses are formally brought into decisions about promotions.

Separate concerns

Next to subverting hierarchies and conducting peer reviews, another way to limit bosses feeling threatened is to draw a clearer separation of concerns between technical and managerial employees (and with any other relevant categories). To separate "boss" from "manager". This disentangles promotional ladders, which prevents the managers from feeling directly in competition with their best employees.

Take a lesson from Peter Thiel's in Zero to One:

"The best thing I did as a manager at PayPal was to make every person in the company responsible for doing just one thing. Every employee's one thing was unique, and everyone knew I would evaluate him only on that one thing. I had started doing this just to simplify the task of managing people. But then I noticed a deeper result: defining roles reduced conflict."

As companies get bigger, some redundancy in roles will be inevitable. But this principle of Thiel's (a corollary of the competitive exclusion principle) continues to apply: clear role definitions prevent conflict.3 Say I'm a project lead whose highest hope is to one day reach C-suite. And I've just taken on a mid-level dev who is scarily competent. With a clear separation of concerns, promoting this dev to senior dev, then tech lead, etc. no longer means creating a rival for my next promotion. I feel safer.

Manage expectations

Even if you have the most competent manager in the world, they may still have a good reason to be unhappy when you outshine them.

Managers aren't just about managing and organizing people; a core part of their responsibility is to manage and communicate expectations. When you outshine, you fail to meet your expectations. You fail towards the more positive direction of the two, but it remains a failure in communication—in keeping your manager informed of where you are and what you're capable of. Enough of these failures, in either direction, and you make the manager's job unnecessarily difficult.

An organization's ability to match expectations to reality is largely function of its development strategy (e.g., Scrum, Kanban, Extreme programming). So if you exceed expectations, it usually also means you're not cooperating with the development workflows. For people to come together to do more than they could individually, they have to sacrifice some autonomy. If you can thrive individually but fail to make the sacrifice so you can thrive collectively, you probably should be on your own.

The other risk with "outshining", in the sense of you taking the spotlight, is that you may present a fragmented image of your team when the situation calls for unity. This is probably why strict hierarchy remains the structure of choice where the cost of internal discord is high (such as in the military). The seemingly minor disagreement between you and your manager, once out in the open, may grow into dissension. And dissension metastasizes.

When you set high expectations for yourself and meet them, that's not outshining. It's shining, but it's not shining any more than you ought to.

Summary

When you choose a new job, you choose your boss. So choose someone who has little envy and enough self-assurance to let you shine. And if you can't choose, make sure the company has checks and balances to handle petty managers.

If you are the boss, think about ways to make protect your employees from less savory managers. You have three main options:

  1. Squash the hierarchy: Experiment with flatter structures, trim the bureaucratese job titles, and try out 20% time.
  2. Separate concerns: Establish clearer role definitions and disentangle the promotional ladders to prevent managers and workers from competing with each other.
  3. Manage expectations: You want your employees to shine, not necessarily to outshine. To that end, make sure your systems of planning actually match reality. Sample a variety of agile development methods and find what works.

Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. A few possible explanations for this phenomenon: 1. The Peter principle: employees rise to their "level of incompetence" 2. The Dilbert principle: companies strategically promote incompetent employees to management to get them out of the workflow. 3. Putt's law: "Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand" ↩

  2. I'm assuming that you belong to a privileged group that has some choice in employment. ↩

  3. This may actually provide a critique of flat organizations: more flexible roles can lead to more frequent overlap of concerns and, in turn, conflict. ↩


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