How to Win Autonomy and Influence Pointy-Headed Managers

While Dilbert's exact job description isn't known, programmers seem to identify with Scott Adams' cartoon anti-hero as a kindred spirit of sorts. Onerous or impossible project requirements? Check. Pointy-headed, obtuse managers? Check. Overly bureaucratic, process-centric corporate hierarchy? You betcha.

Workaday life doesn't have to imitate a comic strip, however. In many corporate cultures, a little psychology can go a long way. To be sure, in the most risk-averse, controlling, and process-centric of cultures, most codejockeys are going to continue to lead lives of quiet desperation. There's simply nothing that can be done, short of quitting and finding a new job.

But in many corporate environments, it helps to know your pointy-headed adversary. So the next time you're presented with an impossible project deadline, unreasonable project requirements, or still another level of bureaucratic indirection, you might want to use a little psychology.

"If they're not going to be reasonable, and willing to discuss things, you have to tell them the most important thing that they want to hear: 'Yes, you're right,'" says Jeff Grigg, an independent programming consultant.

This is what Grigg calls (thanks to self-help guru Dale Carnegie) the "How to Win Friends and Influence People" approach. "Tell them they're right. It doesn't matter how wrong and crazy they are, and how unreasonable their plans and demands are. Tell them they're right, and you'll do it exactly as they said."

The idea, Grigg says, is to avoid putting your pointy-headed boss on the immediate defensive. "Now that they're relaxed, and you have refrained from being confrontational with them, propose a risk reduction strategy, to ensure that they look good in front of their leaders," he suggests.

It also helps, adds Grigg, to couch your case in pointy-headed management-speak, e.g., "It's an industry-recognized best practice" or "It will position us to accomplish your complete vision."

Michael Spayd, a principal with Cogility Consulting Solutions, knows a thing or two about overly controlling corporate cultures. As a former CMM process assessor, Spayd dealt almost exclusively with such organizations.

As a result, he takes an even more clinical view of the psychology of dominant corporate cultures. "I work with an organizational cultural topology, it's like a Meyers-Briggs [personality test] for organizations, and there's four cultures," he explains, noting that two of the most frequently encountered are control cultures, i.e., the worldview of the pointy-headed boss, and collaboration culture, the dominant orientation of the programming pits.

It's something of an understatement to say that these two cultures don't naturally get along. And in some cases, Spayd agrees, you're going to have a management culture that is almost entirely inflexible.

But Spayd, like Grigg, believes that a little psychology can go a long way. "Look, there are some cultures where you're just not going to be able to get them to compromise. They're just too oppressive. The people are too narrow-minded," he agrees. "On the other hand, you have to start with mutual respect, which means you have to start with respect on your side--not on their side. You have to show them that you respect where they're coming from in terms of their control-culture orientation."

So in cases where you're presented with an impossible project, deadline, or request, Spayd stresses, the last thing you want to do is challenge your pointy-headed manager: "Going back to the Meyers-Briggs analogy, if you have a boss with a very different [personality] type than you, if you devalue the way that they need to assimilate information and their style, you're going to have a really hard time working for that person."

In some cases, he says, it's possible for two very different cultures to coexist, that is, for a sub-culture to thrive within the context of a dominant (even control) culture, provided the sub-culture appears, from the perspective of pointy-headed management, to be toeing the corporate line.

"Let's say you're embedded in a control culture, and let's say your software project team is a collaboration culture, and in general, [for programming] that's the best way to go," he says. In cases like this, Spayd suggests, coders might want to think in object-oriented programming terms. "You would have to have a defined interface to the culture on the outside, and that requires different calls. [So] you report very differently and abstract data very differently [when you're dealing with management] than you do inside."

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