Total control – the end game

February 8th, 2012 No comments

With misdirection and manipulation a control freak slowly builds their empire up bit by bit. Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that a control freak is not building an empire, they certainly are, it’s just a matter of you spotting what it is. Even if there is no apparent movement then that does not mean they have given up on it. It normally means that they are plotting quietly.

But there comes a time when an extra special push is needed to take total control. A push that overcomes resistance from the enemies that have undoubtedly built up over the years. The final move in the end game.

The first thing you need to do is to pick an enemy, with the following characteristics:

  • a well defined minority community but one that is disorganised
  • one that is already distrusted even if only very slightly, preferably because they are suspected of bad behaviour of one sort or another
  • a community that does not have a good PR machine and is not represented by clear, articulate spokesmen
  • a community that reacts badly to anything that is perceived as an attack, the more the better

Once they have been identified all you have to do is shout from the roof tops that the enemy is trying to take control (of the organisation, society, nation, whatever) and the majority have to step in to defend. That’s right, the most hypocritical action possible, accusing others of exactly what you are up to.

There is no need to argue with the enemy, no need to engage them, no need to even listen to what they say – just repeat the mantra that the enemy is storming the gates as loudly and as often as possible. In fact any form of engagement is generally counter-productive. If you act as though the attack is so important that you are abandoning normal social norms towards the enemy then it strengthens your case.

The original distrust in the chosen enemy is all that you need for people to believe you. It’s almost as though they don’t recognise they had that distrust in the first place – it was subliminal. So when they hear you accuse they enemy, something in their head goes “I always knew there was something wrong about them”. From that point on they are willing to believe the enemy is capable of the worst actions, driven by the basest emotions, without even a shred of evidence to support it, just innuendo after innuendo.

Then there is the rallying call to defend the gates. This triggers another astonishing reaction in people that leads them to put all rationality aside, shut down their scepticism and abandon their natural negotiating tendencies. In short it turns thinkers into warriors, almost like magic.

Some of the most conciliatory, conflict-averse, kind and discerning people can be fooled in this way by a combination of their own subconsonscious and some clever manipulation of their deep instincts. Anyone sitting on the fence, wavering at whether to jump, is going to see the passionate views of these remarkable converts, recognise just how out of character this is for them and take that as strong evidence that the attack must be real, assuming that they must have made the decision based on evidence not emotion.

The enemy cannot now do anything about it. Whatever they do will be seen as reinforcing the claims made about their motivation and intentions. If they deny it then of course they are even worse because they are concealing their motives. If they react angrily then they are clearly aggressive attackers on the warpath. So long as they don’t suddenly develop a good PR machine, they are basically screwed.

The longer it goes on the stronger the message gets and it needs to go on for some time for the message to get through to everyone. Where people fail with this technique is because they move too quickly and don’t let the sentiment whip up to fever pitch. But once the sentiment is there the coup de grace is delivered in the form of a simple promise to the majority “give me these powers and I will stop the enemy”. Provided that the message has had long enough time to foment, then the majority willingly grant these powers. They will fall over themselves to do it they are that concerned.

And that’s it – total control is now in place.

Now you might be saying to yourself – “hang on isn’t this the plot of a film?”. Well of course it is! This is that special technique that has been used throughout history by politicians, dictators, priests and CEOs. How else do you think they got that total control?

On a final note, if you are thinking to yourself that you know of at least one occasion where the enemy really were at the gates and you really did have to hand over power, then all can I say is – that’s just how good this technique is!

Physical discomfort

February 6th, 2012 No comments

A few times now I’ve seen the same facial expression of physical discomfort for the same reason and while I doubt all control freaks share it, I bet they all have some physical tick that appears under the same circumstances.

The reason for the discomfort is when they realise they are not going to get the credit for something that someone has done within their perceived area of control. This might be someone who works for them, or a colleague who does something special in an area they also cover or maybe just an area where that they want to move into and seize from others. To be clear though it does not happen when the person who gets the credit is recognised, but only at that point that they realise it won’t be them. The recognition could come a long time later by which time they’ve normally composed themself and put on an appropriate face of support, though not so overdone as to suggest that this is something they could not have done easily.

The mentality of this is interesting because most people assume that credit always goes to the person who deserves it, but control freaks know the truth, which is that the credit is entirely free floating. If they know how then they can pick it up wherever they find it. They don’t even have to pretend that they did the work behind it, nor do they need to cut the real person behind the work from the picture.

All they do is consider the group they want to get the credit from and think what is the single most important point about this work as far as that group are concerned and make it seem that they were the first to spot that. Preferrably by repeating this point over and over. Now if you are the person who actually did the work then you are normally trapped by your own involvement at this point. You can’t focus on just one point because you know you work you did is this rich tapestry of benefits and you feel compelled to at least give a glimpse of this, if not to reveal it in all its glory. Unfortunately the single-mindedness of the control freak in just stressing the one point means that will be all that sticks in most peoples’ minds and they end up with the credit not you.

But if by chance or by design you do spot that one most important point and state that publicly in a way that can’t be hidden or forgotten (they will certainly try both tactics so be prepared) then that’s when you will see the physical discomfort on the face of the one who thinks they’ve missed out. And if they are only a control freak in training then they might make the error of picking a less important benefit and trying to make it sound like that is the most important one. But by then it’s generally too late.

Categories: Organisations, People

Everything I do is so much harder than anything you do (the hero expression)

February 1st, 2012 No comments

After a while in a senior position, control freaks begin to deliberately adopt an aura around them that everything they do is really hard. This aura, as with many things control freaks do, is developed both by how they talk and their facial expressions.

On the facial side, they wear a pained expression at opportune moments to give the impression of a being in the midst of a serious battle. Never enough to suggest they are actually losing but always enough to suggest that loss is a real possibility and they are taking a genuine risk. The implication of this expression, and the impact they are aiming for, is that they are mightily brave and a hero for taking this on. The reaction they are after is one of awe at their bravery, sympathy for their struggle and rejoicing at their victory. In short, an epic.

After a while they get so used to adopting this expression that they do it even for mundane things like making the coffee. For special occasions they feign an affliction such as a bad leg and then show just how determined they are by pushing through.

It’s from this overuse of the hero expression that we get ridiculous reactions from underlings like congratulating the CF for climbing the stairs or thanking them profusely for doing something trivial that everyone manages to do ten times a day without comment, like making the coffee. That’s partly because they’ve conditioned people to think that everything they do is heroic and partly because people are so grateful they’ve taken the time off from being heroic to be generous and make the coffee. A win win situation really!

The first mistake you can make in this scenario is trying to understand just what it is that is so hard in what the CF is doing. There is simply no way they are going to tell you and you can majorly irritate them just by asking, especially if you miss the “keep out of my business” clues and keep up the questions.

The expected behaviour of sycophants in this scenario is to talk about the struggle but never the subject of the struggle. Worship the hero not the deed. Until it’s finished of course, which is when the deed is all that we talk about because that is now part of the mythology of the hero. And because when it’s finished, nobody can easily assess just how hard it was to do as the evidence is quickly lost, so it’s now safe to talk about.

The second mistake that you can make, and a serious one at that is offer to help with the task at hand. This implies firstly that you might understand what it is the CF is working on, which is obviously impossible, and secondly that you might actually be able to do it, which is frankly insulting. The only worse thing you could do is offer to help in front of others. That will earn you lifelong hostility.

Offering to help with something else is alway good at this time. The best way to do it is to offer to take on something trivial the CF has on their plate but make it sound like you will struggle to do it, adding to the ego boost.

And whatever you do, when you see the finished product don’t say out loud “Well what was so hard about that?”.

Categories: Organisations, People

“I could talk about …” but then doesn’t

January 17th, 2012 No comments

This is a superb way I’ve seen people establish credibility without ever proving it.

There are often situations where a control freak feels it necessary to exaggerate their experience to gain control, but the usual method that people choose to do this is to say too much, which is where they can get caught out. The more they have to embelish a lie, the less convincing they sound. Some believe that the more that someone lies the more difficult it is for them to maintain consistency of fact and that’s how they get spotted. For some that might be true, but in real life there is no such thing as consistency of recollected fact, it is more consistency of recollected emotion that is the giveaway.

So a manageable alternative to an elaborate lie is to say as little as possible and leave as much unsaid as possible. One way of doing that is using this brilliant construction:

“I could talk about a number of times [insert deterrent] where [insert exaggeration] and what I learnt was [insert lie] so I suggest [insert manipulation]”

The brilliant bit is that they never give any details about those times but end up with people treating them as though they had, accepting the lie without question and so being manipulated!

The key to this is the deterrent that has been inserted, that stops any listener from wanting to talk about those experiences. For example the control freak might give the impression that it would be too painful, say by the phrase “very difficult times” or too long a story, say by the phrase “over a long drink one evening”. Or they could deter with the phrase “in excrutiatingly boring detail”, which is doubly-brilliant because it also places the thought that they have analysed it to a great extent. Sometimes people don’t even say anything and just rely on the non-verbal communication to give the impression that those were very difficult times and they would really not like to be asked about them.

Note, that they never explicitly say they won’t talk about them, they always leave that hanging so as to seem as though they offered but nobody took it up. For most people that underlying offer is enough to them to accept what they’ve heard.

The full phrase then become something like this:

“I could talk about a number of times, very difficult times (*long sigh and pause*), when people have said they “just want to get involved” but actually they have then tried to stage a coup and it has been incredibly destructive. I suggest we shouldn’t let that happen here by giving them a chance to “get involved” (*said with as much scorn as possible*)”

So there in one go, they’ve established credible experience without actually having to tell anyone what it is, which is lucky since they’ve largely made it up.

The main danger in this is that pesky person who does want them to talk about what they’ve experienced. Sometimes that’s because they don’t believe them, but it can also be because they admire the person and want to learn from their experience. So it is quite important to prevent that from happening and to have ways to deal with it if it does. Setting the non-verbal volume to maximum is one way to do this effectively.

Another good way is to pick the situation. For example it can be done in a meeting or as a speaker at an event, where there is some degree of formalism, people don’t quite know each other or it is being held in an unusual context. Anything that acts as a barrier to those very direct people who might otherwise cut through the fluff, from speaking up because they are not sure enough of their ground.

If that doesn’t work then there are some ways to deal with the person who pushes for them to talk about those times. The various techniques here are:

  • repeat what they’ve said before. “As I said, …” with the emphasis on the lie because they want to firmly push that this is the important part not the experiences. This is best done if they can give the impression the person is not getting the important point or is not taking it seriously enough. Basically they completely ignore the real question and misdirect onto their own agenda.
  • another way is just to put the person asking down by some other unrelated means or to ignore them. You see this sometimes used rather cruelly (it is always cruel but in this case especially so) when the person asking is not challenging at all but it actually being sycophantic and wants to hear about the experiences of the great person they admire.
  • Then comes the absolute and final fallback, which is to talk about that one and only time where it did happen and use up as much time and patience talking about that so they never have to go onto any other times. This has to be done in such a way as to sustain whatever impression was deliberately given about why they would not talk about it. So if they gave the impression it was painful to talk about – they have to make it painful to talk about with curt phrases spoken through tight lips.

And there you have it – how to get credibility for some things that never happened. Remember the key psychological trick here is the focus on the important point that the exaggeration is intended to substantiate, not the exaggeration itself.

Categories: People

Losing it

December 20th, 2011 2 comments

Control freaks expend considerable energy in manipulating the world around them. There are so many fronts they need to watch for new developments and so many lies they need to maintain. The bigger their ambitions the wider they have to cast their net.

This is why you often see control freaks abandon a whole set of friends when they make it to the next level. It’s not because they don’t like them or don’t think they are good enough for them – it’s because they can save so much energy by not having them on the control list, energy that can be more usefully directed elsewhere.

But even with techniques to reduce the workload there comes a time when all the lies catch up, the effort of controlling the world around gets too much, when it all falls apart. This is as inevitable as day following night, there is no way to avoid it, it is the natural consequence of all that manipulation that it takes its toll inside the mind.

Admittedly for some this might not be apparent, with it looking like they are fully under control throughout their lives but if you look closely for those times when they go rigid, almost wooden, speak through closed lips and have a fixed stare ahead, then they’ve lost it inside and all you can see is the hard shell.

For others it is the cataclysmic breakdown that fiction portrays so well without ever showing the true cause. Every manipulation a control freak attempts is a crime against reality, a headbutt against the brick wall of life and every one has a painful cost in terms of mental health. The dark side of life can contribute significantly to breakdown but if their reaction to the wrongs inflicted on them is to control and manipulate those that are close to them to create a safe bubble, then their demise is guaranteed.

One of the greatest fears that can trigger this is inversion of control. If someone they have spent time boxing in, undermining and otherwise diluting their power, looks like they are unexpectedly about to gain control then that can start the first wobbles. What the control freak cannot cope with is the thought of facing those they see as enemies without that comfort barrier of an imbalance of power. They feel mentally exposed.

Losing it is not the end though, control freaks always bounce back, they have that sheer force of character that will never be lost that enables such resilience. But they have a choice as to how they come back and the wrong choice of trying the same old dishonest manipulation leads inevitably to losing it again sometime later. Like a muscle that snaps, they are forever weakened and all efforts at control strain that same muscle until it gives again.

The other choice, the right one, is epiphany. They can open their soul to feel the pain their actions have caused, feel the pain inside that has motivated them over the years and come out a better person. It might take longer to recover this way but the recovery is permanent and they finally become a useful member of society.

Categories: People

A monopoly of ideas

December 15th, 2007 2 comments

Why do some managers think they are the only people who have good ideas?  Okay, maybe they don’t think that way, but they certainly act like it.

Here are some obvious behaviour display of this weakness:

  • Do they automatically reject any big idea they have not had themselves?
  • Do they always want to tweak something, even if it is the work of experts in a field they know nothing about?
  • Do they only accept something you say when enough other people agree with you?
  • When they have a dumb idea does it take a superhuman effort (possibly involving lots of you) to dissuade them from it?
  • Do they claim other people’s ideas as their own?
  • Do they genuinely forget that the idea was someone else’s and truly believe it was theirs?

A decent manager has to learn to spot this behaviour in themselves and stop it from happening. If they don’t do it themselves then it is unlikely anyone will be bold enough to point it out to them.

Categories: People

Setting up a straw man

November 30th, 2007 3 comments

Setting up a straw man is one of the most blindingly obvious techniques a control freak will use in an argument. I’ve seen it being used so often with such success that I just cannot believe people do not pick up on it more often.

There are two basic ways of setting up a straw man.

The first is to listen to what the other person has to say and then pick something they mentioned that is entirely incidental to the argument. It does not matter if it is entirely irrelevant, all you need is a way to turn that thing into an attack. It is also useful if the incidental statement is one they don’t know that much about and you can claim to know more than them.

For example, you say

“One of our competitors has won an award for a great new invention. Why aren’t we inventing anything?”

I reply

“We can’t waste time and money trying to win awards, we’ve got real work to do.”

Now what goes through your head after this is, “Hang on, I was talking about inventions not awards”, but most people simply don’t say anything and just let it go. Perhaps they’re ashamed they left a chink in their argument that someone could exploit like that. Or perhaps they are distracted.

The second way to set up a straw man is to simply invent one. This works best if you invent one that embodies a whole set of characteristics that others despise and then attibute a heinous view to it, which you then rebut. Politicians do this all the time.

For example, you say

“Some of the team don’t agree with these proposals, they think they will make some customers very unhappy.”

I reply

“Some people will reject all change, they don’t want to see any improvement, they are only interested in protecting their own position.”

Alright, maybe that is normally a bit more subtle in practice, but you get the idea.

So please, if you see a straw man, then point it out, especially to politicians.

Categories: People

But you’re the one who caused the problem!

November 25th, 2007 No comments

There you are in a meeting when someone pipes up with a problem they’ve spotted that needs fixing and your jaw drops open because you know perfectly well that they were the person who caused the problem in the first place.

What seems really odd is that they’ve just lobbed the problem into the conversation with no intention of fixing it themselves but equally not trying to offload it onto anyone in particular. To make it worse they seem to be over-emphasising the seriousness of the problem.  Guilty conscience perhaps?

Categories: People

Perfection is the enemy of the good

November 10th, 2007 1 comment

Everyone has their own limit on what is good enough, what will do, what they will accept.  Some people have fairly low limits and some have extraordinarily high limits.

From what I’ve seen, those who set the higher limits, those that really push others for things to be done well, those that demand perfection, tend to rise up the hierarchy.  They may not come close to achieving perfection themselves in their own work, but this act of insisting upon it from others has real power.

So what makes this behaviour so succesful?  Well, as usual, it all comes down to control.  If you set the standards then you get to control when something is good enough.  You are the only one who can agree to a softening of the demands and accept the work is complete.  If anybody else tries to declare a victory then they get slapped down with a “but it isn’t finished as we want it!”.

This is a technique almost every manager uses, whether knowingly or not.

Now in order to be the one that sets the standards, there is nearly always a bidding war on just how high the demands can go.  There has to be because if someone else sets higher expectations that you then you’ve lost control and someone else has it.  So you have to up the ante by expecting even more than anyone else involved.

You can actually see this bidding war happen in meetings some time, when different managers trying pushing the expectations closer and closer to perfection.  In the end normally the most senior one wins by setting impossibly high standards.  I bet you’ve come across that lots before.

That’s why so many people at the top of an organisation appear to always expect the impossible – because they have had to bid that high so often they have got used to doing it as a matter of course.

But what about those people who actually aim for perfection all the time in their own work?  As far as I can see, those that only expect perfection of themselves and don’t explicitly push others to achieve it, don’t have the same upward path.  If anything they tend to get kept at a static level and taken for granted.

For a start it is too prone to failure.  Some people in their aim for perfection never get anything done, which is a real career killer.  Some people come close, very close but they kill themselves doing it, or they trample on office relationships or they take so long it was never worth it.

For most of them though, nobody really notices.

Categories: People

Sustaining a culture

October 31st, 2007 No comments

The culture of an organisation does not sustain itself. Left to its own devices culture shifts in unpredictable directions as new people arrive with different backgrounds and others, who were part of it, move on.

In small places were the people don’t change then maybe it can remain fairly constant, but even then people forget things or fall prey to their own fears.

So once you have the culture you want, you must actively maintain it. The most obvious way is to get to the new starters and indoctrinate them early on. That’s why most HR departments keep starters to themselves for hours, or even days, before they let them join their team.

But after that, you have to keep up the work by restating the cultural principles at regular intervals. Doesn’t matter if most people are well aware of what you are going to say because it is those that aren’t familiar with the vision that matter. They are the ones who will subconsciously pull the culture in other directions unless they are made plainly aware of where the current culture is.

Another good move is to spot when something happens that is a powerful embodiment of the culture and highlight that so that even the least clued up person understands the message.

I’m sure there are lots of other techniques, it doesn’t matter. So long as you don’t expect the culture achieved at one time to be the same some time later, without any work. If you think like that then you’ll get a shock one day when you realise that almost everyone else now shares a different culture and you are the only one who didn’t move with them.

Categories: Organisations