The Limits of Being Persuaded

by Krishna on August 11, 2012

Jeff Atwood had a post about persuasion, linking to one of my favorite movie scenes where Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda, castigates his advisor for not effectively persuading him to expel Asian residents who were not Ugandan citizens. The conversation goes like this:

Idi Amin: I want you to tell me what to do!

Garrigan: You want ME to tell YOU what to do?

Amin: Yes, you are my advisor. You are the only one I can trust in here. You should have told me not to throw the Asians out, in the first place!

Garrigan: I DID!

Amin: But you did not persuade me, Nicholas. You did not persuade me!

Back in 2007, I wrote a post that referred to this last speech, about how some people want others to behave like saints and excuse their sorry behavior. But let me talk about persuasion here. Atwood is right in that convincing people to do things is important, but he confuses the issue by looking at it mostly from the viewpoint of the leader (the servant leadership style) instead of that of the subordinate. Because getting people to do what you want is very different when you have power over someone and when you do not.

In the standard manager-employee relationship, every boss has many elements of power over the subordinate. The power to fire, the power to choose whom to select when there is a layoff, the power to decide what raise to give, the power over managing benefits (such as vacation timings), the power to allocate funds, the power to show displeasure at subordinates. In short, the power to make someone’s workplace better or worse through various mechanisms (institutional or personal) at their disposal. In contrast, the only major tool an employee has is the ability to quit for another job and that ability depends on an external factor called the job market. Union/HR arbitration, lawsuits, etc. are last-gasp remedies for wildly unacceptable behavior and they cannot be used if someone’s manager is more incompetent than evil.

There is nothing wrong about this dynamic and in many situations, it works. The basic idea is that the boss knows what to do. The boss tells the employee what to do. The employee gets paid for it. When it comes to quantifiable work, such as say hauling boxes from one spot to another, this system works well and even better if the employer provides clear input on how much work should be done within a unit of time, say 10 boxes per hour. Even in work that does not lend itself to quantification, the power asymmetry greases the wheels. The boss wants to get simple things done without a discussion. The thing gets done and people can move on. No time wasted in arguing and analyzing. Similar to how a traffic policeman puts his hand and drivers stop. Everyone respects the policeman’s authority, backed by the power of the law. Things go smoothly.

But in other situations, the multiple kinds of power that a boss has, namely the ability to make unilateral decisions and the power over the affairs of subordinates, do not go well together. What if the boss is wrong in his decision-making? What if the boss not only is making a wrong decision, but is so completely sure about the decision that he is actively lobbying employees and deciding that their objections can be overruled?

Idi Amin had much more power than any possible employer has. What is an advisor to do? How far can they go to advocate a point of view before being branded a traitor and persecuted themselves? What kind of arguments can they use that would shape Amin’s mind which he has not previously thought of and discarded? Remember that any Amin advisor is already in a spot where they are a party to evil and the only question is whether they are doing less or more evil. Any recommendation will not be on the lines of, “Is this ethical?”, but based on some other dimension such as the country’s economic prospects or international prestige. Amin thought that expelling Asians would make his country more prosperous and more powerful, thus gaining more international status, and any advisor who would think of suggesting otherwise brings Amin’s judgment into question.

The reality is that a boss (good or bad) does not need to persuade. If they ask something, it will generally be done. Unless it is something unethical or unlawful, they have the full power of the institution (and the law) behind their request. And if employees do not remember that, repeating the request a couple of times, with increasing intensity, passion or irritation, gets the point across.

An enlightened boss realizes that their first job is not to persuade, but to understand if they are even making the right decision. And that is easy to say, but it is much more hard work. It means being able to trust the collective judgment of your subordinates. It means being able to swallow your pride when your pet idea is criticized. It means controlling your emotions and being neutral when discussing suggestions. Also, being able to agree upon a course of action from someone else and then not turning on it when it fails which eventually will happen because no one is infallible.

But as a manager, you are the one in the direct line of fire for any success or failure, i.e., you are also an employee under someone higher and you can be fired for inadequate performance. If you own the business, the success or failure of an idea can make or break your company. If you think an idea is going to work, would you listen to someone saying it wouldn’t work, especially if they have much less to lose than you do. And whether an idea is right is sometimes a gray area because no one can exactly know the apriori probabilities of risks and success factors.

This means that managers have to tread a fine line. They have to listen to subordinates, but also use their authority to overrule objections. My personal opinion about this is, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Don’t tell how to do every single thing, but set the overall goals and expectations. Get involved more deeply only if people are not meeting expectations that they promised. At that point, it affects your promises and then it is time to push your way of doing things.


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