Warning: This post has salty language, i.e., profanity. Do not read it if you have cultural objections to four- and seven-letter words commonly referred to as “bad language.”


Over the past two days I’ve posted articles on managing down and managing up, how I think you should lead your team and work with your manager, respectively. Now comes the hardest topic of the three: managing sideways.

Managing sideways falls into two categories: the interpersonal relationships that you build with your peers and the conflicts that you try to resolve based on those relationships. I don’t think you can address the two separately because they often influence one another. If you lose a pitched battle with one of your peers because your boss chose that, it can reduce any friendly feelings that you have for your peer. If you work hard on building a strategic relationship with the person only to have them betray you, then you will most likely not want them over for BBQ on Sunday. The many facets of these relationships, the complexity of maintaining a working relationship while currying your fortunes with your shared boss, this makes managing sideways one of the hardest topics about which to write in leadership.

For me, personally, I have another reason why I find this topic difficult to address. The single largest mistake I have made in my career came from an inability to manage sideways. I believe that if I had done it better, if I had taken the time to understand the intricacies of the politics of managing sideways, then I would still sit on the executive board of a 300-employee company rather than as a cog in a multinational bank. Instead, I failed to realize the potential dangers that came from around me. Before I knew it, I had no where to go but out. More about this, later.

Eat, drink, be merry

If you follow the advice in Managing Down, then you won’t fraternize with the members of your team that report to you. So, with whom can you enjoy a tall, cold one? Your peers!

That’s right. You may battle with them during the day for money, resources, people, attention, and bragging rights; after work, you need to show them that you refuse to personalize any strife generated in the office. Don’t let frustration define your relationships with your peers. Unless you work with some hard sons of bitches, you’ll find that a beer (wine? gin and tonic!) after work with someone that reports to the same person to whom you report will go a long way toward easing tension in the office.

Don’t drink? Don’t like hanging out after work? Want to go home and spend time with your family or World of Warcraft? Then, eat lunch with them. Go get a coffee at the local Peet’s and spend 30 minutes commiserating about that perfect asshole for whom you both work. Because you should NEVER complain at length about your own boss to those that report to you.

Instead, talk with your cohort. Listen to them. I mean, really listen to them. Studies show that effective listening makes you more valuable to the person to whom you listen. That can forge a bond on which you can build an alliance with that person in the workplace.

I have very few hobbies in common with other people. I read, I code, I write, I draw, I cook, I eat, I smoke, I drink coffee, and I think about coding. No football. No baseball. No cycling. No spinning. No music. No pop culture. On the Venn diagram of sets of interests, I rarely intersect with others.

I do know how to effectively listen. I know how to make jokes. I know how to say, “That’s cool!” I can engage people in conversation, not just talk at them. That, more than anything, builds interpersonal connections.

If you need help with this, you need to attack this from two directions.

Learn to speak fluidly : Join an improv group, head over to Toastmasters, practice reading aloud, anything to get you talking.

Learn to listen effectively : Then, go sit at a crowded café and listen, really listen to the people around you. Learn to stop thinking two steps ahead to what you want to say in response.

Exercise your autonomy

Since the 1970s, Sesame Street has taught millions of US children that conflict resolution comes from apologies and that the group voice should dictate the actions of the group. It became even more entrenched in the 90s when management gurus talked about “building momentum through joint effort brought on by solidarity of mind.” (I just made that up, but I heard the likes of it for years.)

I believe that when a company gives me the opportunity to lead a team, lead the development of a system or a product, then they have vested with me the authority to make decisions on behalf of the effort that I head. Some companies and bosses do not endow a leader with that authority; quite frankly, the company expects nothing more from a leader in that environment than act as a scapegoat and secretary.

Assuming you have the authority to lead your team as you see fit (within reason and company policy), then you do not need your peers’ approval for the goals that you set for your team. You may need to coördinate with other teams, you will need to communicate the output of your team to your peers, but they should not have their hands in your pie.

Drill Sergeant Jamison at Fort Benning, GA, had the perfect phrase for this. He would say to us, “Men, I’m fucking this chicken! You just watch the feathers fly!”

This does not mean that you should act combatively with your peers when trying to accomplish an objective that spans more than one team. It just means that once your boss has assigned areas of responsibility, run it with all of the determination that you can muster. Protect your people. Own your ideas. Infect your team with confidence in their decisions.

Cross-cutting concerns or integration points between your team and others’ represent potential exercises of power that, unless judiciously exercised, will lead to the destruction of whatever working relationship that you have with the other team leader. You must embody negotiation and compromise in these situations, ever mindful that your team does not get screwed into extra work because of your imperfect understanding of the problem. Pride, in that case, breaks your team’s faith in you. Admit ignorance in your negotiation, learn what you need to know, and return to the negotiation.

Because you have the accountability and responsibility to deliver, you also have the power to craft that delivery how you see fit.

Consensus building for how to fulfill your responsibilities is inane. It’s your responsibility for a reason. At most, you should coördinate with your peers. Don’t let them dictate. At most, let them influence.

Create and value loyalty

I cannot stress this enough. When you work with good people, genuine people, value their loyalty. Do not betray them. Work hard at working together to do amazing things.

Shun people that pay homage only to themselves, the peevish, the petty. I believe in faithfulness amongst people. This elevates us beyond animalism and validates our humanity.

Do not confuse loyalty and friendship. Friends can act dutifully for one another. Loyalty to an ideal can bind enemies. On the other hand, friends can treat one another badly. Loyalists can betray one another but not the ideal.

Creating loyalty requires only one ingredient: sincerity. You don’t have to act like a walking Hallmark card. Just free yourself of pretense and deceit. Abandon any hypocrisy you carry around.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that I have a sarcastic streak as wide as the Mississippi. I try not to use it for harm; sometimes I fail. Normally, I just say something with a straight face but mean the exact opposite. A workmate told me that I should wave my hand above my head whenever I said something sarcastic so he’d know.

Regardless of that sarcasm, I believe that my loyalty to my workmates and my team encourages others to reveal their own capacities for loyalty.

I firmly believe that you can improve your ability to manage sideways by excising duplicity from your interactions with your peers irrespective of your position at the company.

Dodge blame deflection

“You threw me under the bus!”

I really hate that phrase. I first noticed it about eight years ago. Its continued popularity befuddles me. I’d rather yell, “You’re a fucking back-stabber, you son of a bitch!” I guess that makes for poor TV ratings.

Regardless, if you exclaim either of those phrases, then you believe a peer has blamed you for a problem in which they should share (or own) the blame. They’ll press the blame onto you in conversations with your boss, their boss, the other members of your peer group, their friends on Facebook…. Maybe they really believe that the present misfortune came from your actions or inactions. Maybe they just don’t want to carry blame because they have no courage.

Maybe they just don’t like you.

Blame deflection occurs at all levels of an organization. Programmers participate in it, though rarely on the same team. Managers do it by pushing the blame downhill. CEOs do it by blaming market forces and changing consumer patterns. Little boys do it when they blame their sister for breaking the cookie jar. Chimpanzees do it to one another in their family units.

Whatever the case, blame deflection remains the number one tactic for people to keep their jobs, get promoted, get bonuses, succeed. You can’t directly combat the accusation; the rebuttal will sound petulant (“No, Bob, you are to blame for that!”) or disingenuous (“That’s not true!”). And, dammit!, taking the high road of silence only makes it worse.

How can we combat this when it seems like we have the genetic disposition to participate in this abuse of lying?

Quite simply, you will have to accept the fact that gossip mongers care not for the truth. To most effectively accommodate the truth you must counter others’ shit-speaking by providing an incorruptible example to those around you. If you work as a programmer, a worker bee, a minion, a flunky, then that involves the members of your team, your boss, and your customers. If you have a position as a low-level manager, that means the members of your team, your boss, and your customers. If you have hundreds of people working for you, that means the members of your team two-levels deep, your boss, and your customers. If you act as the CEO of a multinational corporation with assets in the hundreds of billions, then that means the members of your team two-levels deep, the shareholders, and your customers.

When you have the respect of the people around you, they will defend you. When you have the respect of the people below you, they will assuredly argue against rumors of your incompetence. When you have the respect of people above you, then you have protection and advocacy on your side from attacks from peers and peers of peers.

Cunningly plot your next move

Sometimes these policies fail.

Sometimes, regardless of the number of olive branches you extend, that guy who should work alongside you becomes your most fervent enemy.

At this point, you have to eviscerate them. Destroy them. Make them weep.

When you have to do this, make sure that you manufacture nothing. Do not lie. Do not impeach yourself with villainous activity. Keep your fury righteous.

Gather your evidence. Prepare yourself for battle with well-won alliances. Subvert the members of that miscreant’s team to your cause by having your team promote your worth in their hearing. Isolate your adversary and leave them stewing in their own vitriol. Respond with barbs that return the force of their detrimental concern back on them.

  • If they lie, reply with “I hate lies. And liars.”
  • If they falsely criticize you, reply with “You don’t have to stick around if I bother you so much.”
  • If they dissect your words, reply with “I’m quite happy to spend all day defending my words, so sit back, get comfortable, and shut up.”

Get your boss on your side. If the person attacking you falls outside your boss’ purview, get your boss’ boss on your side. Unless you work for Bunim/Murray Productions, then your company would prefer productivity to drama. Demonstrate that you expend your energy moving the company’s position forward rather than acting divisively.

Think strategically. Act tactically. Win.

How I failed to do any of that

I need to start this section with the statement that any bitterness that you read here really stems from my inability to successfully apply the principles listed above. Any dislike you note, well, that’s real. I’ve changed the names to primarily protect myself from lawsuits. Oh, and to protect the innocent.

I joined DataCert in January 2006 as a Senior Software Developer. I worked hard, impressed some folks, and pushed hard for change. The CEO and executive team rewarded me fourteen months later with a promotion to Vice President of Engineering and a position on the executive committee, a seat at the big boy’s table of a $24 million company. I took over the care of the flagship products for the company. I owned them.

The development teams that I oversaw in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Pune had some of the finest people with whom I’ve ever worked. Smart people. Dedicated people. Fun people. People with whom I had worked in the trenches. My view of the company from the software team made me think the company had a startup feel to it though the company had existed for eight years and yearned to go IPO. Exciting times.

My first step toward failure: remoteness

Four guys traditionally ran the Engineering department: CTO Guy, Architect Guy, Evangelist Guy, and MIT Guy. None of them reported to me. I didn’t belong to the clique. My first mistake was I didn’t care about joining their group. They liked drinking and smoking cigars, being masters of destiny. Had we lived in nineteenth century London, you would have found them and their waxed moustaches at the walnut wainscoted gentlemens club sipping sherry and twirling their pocket watches.

What I should have done: I don’t think I ever could have become a “tight” member of this group. However, I could have sought access and kept myself loosely integrated with them. At least it would seem that I ingratiated myself with them. I could have leveraged that falsehood.

My second step toward failure: abdicating autonomy

Evangelist Guy pulled me aside early in my tenure. He advised that I try to build consensus amongst the seven people on the executive committee about the way we constructed software. The person before me had not done that. I thought that it sounded like a good idea.

I tried the consensus building. I wanted desperately to rework the three flagship products. I tried to build momentum for the initiative. The CEO felt ambivalent toward the proposal because the last time that Engineering had done that under the leadership of Architect Guy and Evangelist Guy, they had gone dark for almost a year before they produced something usable. I could understand that. I went to the Sales Guy and the Professional Services Guy. I learned they could couldn’t care less as long as Sales Guy could continue making sales and Professional Services Guy could keep implementing it quickly at client sites.

Later, I learned, Evangelist Guy and Architect Guy had launched an active campaign to discredit the notion of a new version of the software.

What I should have done: As long as the developers and QA produced a solid product in a reasonable amount of time, most of the company wouldn’t have cared if I cartwheeled naked down the hallways. I should have implemented my plan to rebuild the software.

A partial success: build loyalty

Well, I couldn’t fail at everything, now could I?

Intellectual Property Guy, Product Marketing Lady and I launched the first IP module for the bread-and-butter application. We did this because we worked without artifice. We valued our loyalty to one another and to the success of the project.

Product Marketing Lady was one sharp cookie with politicking on the brain. I should have listened more closely to her advice.

Intellectual Property Guy knew so much about IP that I couldn’t fathom his presence at DataCert. He worked in some of the most cut-throat companies in America with some of the most cut-throat attorneys from around the world. I should have taken his advice about squashing my opponents.

Back to failure: dodging the blame

Toward the end of my tenure, Architect Guy won the promotion to New CTO Guy. Evangelist Guy won the promotion to R&D Director Guy. MIT Guy worked for the two of them. They embarked on a crusade to blame me for trying to block their process improvement program.

I thought it was ludicrous. I stayed silent. Blame landed on my shoes, splattered on my pant leg and stained my collar. They pushed hard to ensure that the perception of the Engineering department appeared as dismal as they could render it.

What I should have done: I should have countered this attack by managing up, better. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is run to Daddy, in this case, the CEO. I should have spent more time with him to reinforce my positive reputation instead of letting it get sullied.

My fourth step toward failure: pacifism

My leadership team advised that I fight back. I couldn’t fathom that I needed to fight their smear campaign. It seemed so sophomoric. I thought the work product would speak for itself. Continued expansion and deployment of new versions of the products for international customers. Strong guidelines for running outsourcing operations. The highest output from the development group that they had ever seen.

Nope. Not enough.

Turns out lots of people pay attention to whispers. Pay attention to and participate in. I assume Mark Burnett thinks of these people when he develops a new smash hit for TV.

I didn’t fight back. That was the final death knell of my career at DataCert. I quietly extended my availability to select companies in the area, got a job offer, and left.

I tried to help people that wanted a new job or got axed because they didn’t stay under New CTO Guy and R&D Director Guy.

What I should have done: At this point, I probably couldn’t extricate myself from the intolerable situation. The best thing I could do: bring a keg in on a Friday afternoon and drink with my coworkers while wishing them a fond farewell.

Postscript

Less than six months after I left, they started a rewrite of the foundation of the software just like I wanted. From the marketing description you can find on their Web site, it bears a striking resemblance to my proposal. My legacy lives, just raised by other parents.

Evangelist/R&D Director Guy got fired. He now works with Old CTO Guy at another company.

Architect/New CTO Guy continues his work there. Why shouldn’t he? He has so many stock options with the company that he has to ride that pony until IPO. Otherwise, his effort will equal naught.

MIT Guy still works with Architect/New CTO Guy as the VP of R&D.

Ouch, that was painful

I still smart from the experience. I lost the working with those smart, funny, driven people.

Unfortunately, I can’t deflect the blame. It squarely rests on my shoulders.

I failed to manage sideways.

And lost.