Sunday, March 29, 2015

Legitimacy in management

"I am surrounded by idiots" is the secret more young managers keep than they want to admit.

The typical promotion path of these middle level managers started as being high achievers. Early in their careers, they put in the time, effort and study to thrive. Gradually they become really good at a certain kind of job, be it developing, testing, or designing, and possess a specific set of skills that make them valuable. Upper management shows it appreciation by giving them raises and putting them in a management position. It is in this new position where the very skills and knowledge which made them successful in the last position that make they feel everyone under them is stupid, ignorant, and doesn't give a crap.

From that turning point, managers start to feel alone in their new role. Everywhere they look, they see people who tried to hold them back, gave up in their careers, and certainly can't understand how their success feels. They start to believe it is human nature and internal drives that led to the difference between them and others. As a young principal architect, speaking for countless of other fellow high achievers, put "I learned that developers are developers for a reason. They don't work hard enough, or aren't bright enough, to be architects".

That saying contains an assumption in it though. It roots from the belief that as an adult, the decision to work hard to get promotion is a purely rational calculation of efforts and benefits. It isn't supposed to be personal. But that is exactly where it goes wrong. Many researches have proven that we human are not as rational as we thought we were. These viewpoints range from that for rudimentary cognitive task, the increment of reward leads to poorer performance, to that happiness fuels success, not the other way around. I believe that getting professionals to actively engage in a project also has a lot to do with how people in management communicate their values, how they behave and whether a proper principle is there to keep words and actions aligned.

The principle is called “the principle of legitimacy". The idea dated back to 1814 and was used in Malcolm Gladwell's book "David & Goliath" to explain the role of lawmakers. Legitimacy is based on three things

  • People have to feel like they have a voice, that if they speak up, they will be heard
  • The law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.
  • The authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another.

#1 implies that employees' opinion must be valuable to management. Usually the foundation of this mutual respect is that within their specific domain, the employees possess a unique set of skills and that make their opinions particularly insightful to those who need it. Though, that rarely happens in this part of third world countries. In Vietnam, employers tend to come to developers because they are cheaper than Indian and have arguably better code of ethics than some of our neighbors. If they want to listen to someone they would come to IDEO already.

#2 states the expected behavior of the employees, as well as the words and actions of management need to be consistent. The equivalent of the law in software development is probably the specs. And among us tech people, it is a mutual understanding that the specs is never complete. For certain parts of the system, an engineer has to make assumption to keep the project move on. If he gets it right, he wouldn't get any praise because people expect it as a part of his job. If he gets it wrong, oh well, he would be blamed as having no common sense. He is said to be a bad seed and has to be let go, even though Urban Dictionary has its best 
Common sense (n): A mythical force that is supposed to bestow knowledge of the obvious. Unfortunately, humankind has proven, time and time again, that there is no such thing as common sense - Urban Dictionary
And by letting go of such "bad seed" rather than improving the specs or creating the buffer to allow certain variants of the specs, what is the message the management is sending to the remainers? That it is building a team of talented, engaging and agreeable fellows? Or that there is no place for people thinking differently from it and therefore everyone has to be in the fear that one day they would get its idea wrong and be let go?

It is debatable whether firing the bad seeds would lead to a better environment, or unless the environment changes, the effectiveness would redistribute itself and new bad seeds emerge. It is much less debatable that when the specs is not based on concrete written rules, but human whim, the predictability the specs needs is lost.

#3 depicts an ideal organization where the product is the heart of the organization and is the result of fine collaboration between various department. But in reality, depends on the organization originality, fields of expertise and office politics, there would be one group that takes the lead on product timeline and puts constraints on other teams. The management loves this team, the adult version of teacher's pet. But for the rest who have to burn midnight oil for unrealistic deadlines and whose ideas are not appreciated properly even though at the end of the day, it is them who do the hard work, everything doesn't sound fair.

It is human nature to wish to do a good job, given what they are doing, and their capabilities, skills and knowledge. But when employees look around and almost everyone would know someone else who got burned because they had a strong and vivid idea how a system would be built and unfortunately that wasn't in favor of the management. If that many people in your social graph had been pressed by management, does the system seem to be fair anymore? Does it seem predictable? Does it seem like you can speak up and be heard? And if management is seen as the enemy, how on earth would it expect people to change their ways?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Game of Politics

Office politics. As old as mankind. Taboo of modern workplace.

No matter how people avoid speaking of office politics, it remains one of the most popular reason driving people out of the organization they once loved. Those who state their organization is office-politics-free either still have the political forces on their side, or are ignorant.


So can you explain office politics for a five-year-old?

Workplace politics is the use power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it. Influence by individuals may serve personal interests without regard to their effect on the organization itself. - Wikipedia

Okay, that is confusing. When you think of office politics, you are probably thinking about something more colorful, and sometimes, darker. Like
  • When people are against you and you believe a certain colleague is the culprit behind all your miseries
  • When the idiot in the next cubicle keeps getting promoted and is getting his own office now, with a door. While the hard-working you have stuck at the same place for a really long time.
  • When a project failed, slings and arrows are fired and you get sick of all these hideous people that care for nothing but their own welfare
Yep, they are all credited as office politics. Any drama in an organization is.

But that is still confusing as heck. You can feel office politics in those stories, but can you articulate it? And when people don't understand something, they either fear it, or avoid it, or both. Sounds like a good reason why workplace politics became a taboo in modern society.

Office politics is a big game of monopoly

In the game of monopoly, the single governing factor is capital. In the game of office politics it is the flows of information. This applies to both formal and informal flows. What makes the difference between you, your boss and the CEO is not knowledge, skills or experience, everyone knows something better than others, but that the corporate is structured such that people higher in the organizational pyramid receive more information and lower people receive less. Same goes for gossip groups. These groups are abundant sources of informal information, and when an organization is poorly structured, or manipulated, the information doesn't get to management level and managers fail to understand the dynamics of their teams.

In monopoly, the means to acquire more capital is to own as many strategic properties as possible. In office politics, it is to put you into positions with greatest access to the flow of information. It can be as formal as climbing up in the career ladder, or as informal as holding an internal seminar for knowledge sharing, mentoring a neighbour team, or joining a sport club.

As in any monopoly game, you don't really have the option to opt out in the game of politics, in the same way a monopoly player has to keep rolling the dice even though she is surrounded by others' properties. The earlier you accept this, the earlier you have a proper understanding about office politics. That you choose to deny the existence of office politics and its power doesn't mean the political dynamics are not going on. It is not necessarily a bad thing and has to be avoided at all cost, like a monopoly never means to destroy your friendships even if you lose a game or two.

Office politics is all about relationship

People are affected by emotion for more than logic and reason. Which means that when we like someone, we more likely enjoy working with them and willing to do a favor. Remember that even an asshole doesn't want to work with an asshole.

That is neither right or wrong, it's just we being human.

By actively choose to engage in it, the game of office politics allows you to control your code of ethic, manage up, and build better relationship with colleagues.

What you do not know hurts you more than what you know.


Tại vì không biết dịch `office politics` sao cho hay nên để vậy. Cao nhân bốn phương xin chỉ giáo.

Office politics. Lâu như lịch sử con người, huý kị nơi văn phòng.

Chúng ta có thê quặn bụng, nhăn mặt, hay làm ngơ khi nói đến office politics, nhưng quan điểm cá nhân không thay được sự thật đây là nguyên nhân hàng đầu làm đổ vỡ cuộc hôn nhân doanh nghiệp - nhân viên. Ai bảo là nơi mình làm không có office politics thì hoặc là chưa bị chọt, hoặc là không biết gì.


Bạn giải thích office politics cho bé đi mẫu giáo được không?

Office politics là sử dụng quyền lực và quan hệ trong một tổ chức để đạt được những thay đổi có lợi cho tổ chức hay cá nhân. Những ảnh hưởng cá nhân có thể nhầm tư lợi thay vì mang đến lợi ích tập thể. - Wikipedia

Là một định nghĩ hàn lâm, và tối nghĩa từ Wikipedia. Khi bạn nghĩ đến office politics, có lẽ bạn nghĩ đến những câu chuyện màu sắc hơn, và có thể, đen tối hơn. Kiểu
  • Khi mọi người không ai theo ý mình mà mình tia là con bánh bèo kia là chủ mưu
  • Khi thằng dở hơi bàn bên được thăng chức và giờ có luôn văn phòng riêng, có cửa với cái núm gỗ gụ sướng mê người, mà mình nhân-viên-chăm-chỉ thì cứ chết rú ở đây
  • Khi dự án banh chành và những con người xấu xí này cứ đổ lỗi qua lại làm mình muốn bệnh
Ừ đều là office politics đó. Mà mình gọi bất kỳ chuyện om sòm nào trong văn phòng là office politics cũng được.

Nhưng vẫn lùng bùng đúng không? Mình có thể cảm thấy office politics trong những câu chuyện xung quanh nhưng mà tìm ta một định nghĩa sờ nắn được thì thiệt là khó. Mà cái gì chúng ta không hiểu, hoặc ta sợ, hoặc ta ngại, nhiều khi cả hai. Bởi vậy office politics mới thành ra huý như giờ.

Office politics là một ván cờ tỉ phú

Trong cờ tỉ phú, năng lượng vận hành trò chơi là dòng tiền. Trong trò chơi office politics, dòng tiền là dòng thông tin. Những dòng thông tin này bao gồm tin chính quy và tin ngoài luồng. Điểm khác nhau giữa mình, sếp, và CEO không phải là kinh nghiệm hay kỹ năng, mỗi người điều biết một thứ tốt hơn người khác, mà là tổ chức được cấu thành theo cách những người ở vị trí càng cao, càng nhận được nhiều thông tin, và những người ở thấp thì ít hơn. Mấy nhóm bà tám buôn dưa lê cũng vậy. Mấy nhóm này thừa mứa thông tin chợ trời, trong một tổ chức yếu, hay bị thao túng, thông tin này không đến được phía trên và bậc quản lý ngày càng xa cách.

Chơi cờ tỉ phú, muốn có thêm tiền thì phải mua những miếng đất tốt. Trong trò chơi office politics, những miếng đất tốt là những vị trí tiếp cận được với các luồng thông tin. Có thể chính thống như leo lên mức thang nghề nghiệp cao hơn. Có thể cà chớn như vô team đá banh :)


Trong cả hai trò chơi này, mình không có lựa chọn đứng im không làm gì hết, mình vẫn phải thả xúc xắc dù nguyên con đường đằng trước mấy đứa bạn tốt xây khách sạn hết rồi, vô là chém luôn. Càng chấp nhận sớm điều này, càng sớm hiểu đúng về office politics. Mình làm ngơ với game show văn phòng không có nghĩa nó không diễn ra. Và office politics tự nó không xấu, cũng như cờ tỉ phú chưa bao giờ được tạo ra để mấy đứa bạn bo xì nhau dù có thua nợ đầm đìa.

Office politics chính là cách đối nhân xử thế

Chúng ta bị ảnh hưởng bởi cảm xúc nhiều hơn lý trí. Nghĩa là khi mình mến một bạn, mình thích làm việc với bạn đó hơn, và không ngại giúp đỡ người ta ít nhiều. Nên nhớ là cả thằng dở hơi cũng không muốn làm việc chung với một thằng dở hơi khác.

Và điều này chẳng sai hay đúng, vì mình là con người, vậy đó.

Chấp nhận office politics là một trò chơi, và chơi giỏi, giúp mình "giữ cái thiên lương" và xây dựng những quan hệ tốt trên cả công việc.

Những gì mình không biết thì làm mình đau hơn những thứ mình biết.