How do I deal with management manipulation?
September 28, 2009 7:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a crappy work situation and I know that the ultimate solution involves leaving my job, but how can I cope with this particular situation in the meantime?

I am an in-house developer for a medium-sized company whose CEO hired his offspring in high-ranking management positions. They get their way via manipulation, boasting of "experience" (though they have no experience in my particular field - in fact, their suggestions have proven a huge hindrance in the past), scheming to get a person disliked/let go and ultimately complaining to dad.

One of the upper-management offspring has decided to meet with me, a low-ranking developer, about a time-sensitive project that does not involve or affect them whatsoever. Junior's input, however misguided, will inevitably disrupt my day-to-day work for a significant amount of time. I already know what will be suggested, believe that it's antithetical to the goals of our entire department, and fear that my efforts and completed work will be cast aside once more. Since my manager is completely ineffective, it's up to me to contend with Junior and tell them what they're not used to hearing: "no".

Caveat: I'm a wuss and seemingly unable to truly grok workplace politics. I know my place in the ranking, but I'm not stupid - I am a professional and want to make sure I'm well-represented. How do I best communicate my expertise in technology to someone painfully technologically-inept? How do I handle manipulation, condescension and veiled threats in this upcoming encounter? Maybe I need to cop a "bless your heart" attitude going in, otherwise I get scared or fooled and buckle. Additionally, helpful documents or articles on how to deal with workplace politics or toxic workplaces, especially for tech folks or introvert/geek types, are greatly appreciated. I want to learn something from this situation, rather than just run with my tail between my legs.

(I realize that I need to leave this job, but blah blah blah economy. I'm working on it. In the meantime, I need to make rent. This is anonymous because my employer is a fan of scouring their employees' social networks for incriminating evidence of "treason". I will read e-mail sent to
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How do I best communicate my expertise in technology to someone painfully technologically-inept?

You don't. Technologically inept relatives of your CEO will not ever, ever, ever listen to the peons.

They will, however, require you to do whatever it is you want to do anyway, if you can arrange for them to believe that they thought of it first. Which is where consultants come in.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 PM on September 28, 2009

I came here to suggest the same thing as flabdablet.

Related, but a little different: a friend of mine uses this technique on clueless and controlling supervisors who think they know something about technology where he'll say something like "Well, I bet a tech guy like you is going to want to [technical term] the [technical term] until [technical term]."--you can get people to back off a little because they don't want to look foolish not understanding what you're talking about. (You do, however, have to be a good enough actor that they really think you believe they understand you.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:44 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar situation, except that I've found something else and am on my way out.

From my experience, if the people higher than you want things done a certain way any anything else is wrong (even when it's right).

What I've done is to just do the job the way I think it should be done anyway. If you're successful then they'd be crazy if they complain about it (my boss was crazy). Of course, if you're wrong then you have to understand that they'll have your ass.
posted by theichibun at 7:45 PM on September 28, 2009

Since my manager is completely ineffective, it's up to me to contend with Junior and tell them what they're not used to hearing: "no".

Your workplace does sound dysfunctional. My sympathies.

I understand the impulse of the peon developer to stand up to perceived meddling by upper management, but that's a great way to get on someone's shit list. You'll get replaced by someone who is more "cooperative," and you'll be marginalized or out of a job.

If Daddy wants to run his company into the ground by letting his offspring run amok, that's his right. You need to keep paying rent. If it is your belief that Junior is going to mandate an approach to the project that is suboptimal or unworkable, then I have some suggestions that may help you deal.

Try to approach your interactions with Junior with flexibility and an open mind. You may be selling him short. (You can stop laughing now.) But seriously, upper management has a view of the business that peon developers typically do not possess. Approaches to a problem that seem icky from a developer's point of view may be "good enough" from a business point of view.

You seem emotionally invested in the products of your work ("my efforts and completed work will be cast aside once more"), and that can be a good thing, except when it's not. This may be one of those times when it is better to take a more detached attitude. In other words, lighten up. Your code is not a measure of your worth as a person. That said, keep your old code (or whatever) around, preferably in a SCM system that is backed up; do not delete it in a fit of pique. Perhaps even keep working on it, quietly, a few hours a week. You never know when it might come in handy.

Get Junior and your immediate management (however ineffective) to "sign off" on any change in direction for your project. This serves to cover your ass somewhat if things go pear-shaped. This can be as simple as typing up a project plan from Junior's meddlings and emailing it to them, saying something like "this is the direction we're going to take on this project, please let me know if you agree with my summary." Don't editorialize. Any reservations you have should be expressed, in writing, to your immediate management, not Junior. Keep copies of all correspondence related to the project. Who knows, trying to get Junior on-record may get him to back off and bother someone else.
posted by scatter gather at 10:21 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think Scatter Gather has it about right. Just as a further point though, if you engage with Junior in the meeting and look interested in what he has to say, he may not take any further interest in the project - it may just be about him putting his stamp on it so he can claim some credit for the outcome, but he actually doesn't care what happens in detail.

You may get a sense of this if he just makes general points and criticisms that can be addressed or ignored with little effort. If he genuinely wants to push the thing in a new direction I would definitely want follow Scatter Gather's advice to get sign off. Then hold your manager responsible for which direction you actually go - ie send the "this is the plan" mail to Junior and Manager, and then ask Manager for guidance when you have to make a call on what features to develop, or if it changes to timescale. That's what dev managers are for!
posted by crocomancer at 4:49 AM on September 29, 2009

ugh, proofreading Fail.
posted by crocomancer at 4:50 AM on September 29, 2009

People who have gotten to positions of power through nepotism and not merit are often especially susceptible to flattery. Be positive about their involvement "I'm so flattered you've taken an interest in my project." Lots of "As you know" and "What do you think" and "How do you think I should approach this?" Use positive spin for everything "Okay, so you want me to add X,Y,Z features. Of course, adding features to the specs at this point will require a fair amount of work. As you know, I'll need to get the time frame approved, so my manager can plan. I'll write up notes from this meeting and send them around so everybody is clear on it. "
posted by theora55 at 6:46 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of the above, and a strategy I've used (as an introverted tech geek): work out where you want things to be and move towards it a little bit at a time. You're not going to "win" the whole meeting first time out, but you might decide there are two or three things you want to go your way. Give on the other things, and (as tactfully as possible) try to get the outcome you want for your "reserved" items.

As the project progresses, you can move the other items your way with "Oh, btw, that thing we agreed isn't going to work because ... But I think we can do it like this ..." Of course, if this guy doesn't understand tech very well he has no way to tell if what you're saying is a small, medium or major change, so it all comes down to how you present it.

I have deviously, dishonestly and manipulatively altered many a circumstance using these tactics. I regret nothing: if they were better people, it wouldn't be necessary, but it is, so they deserve it.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 7:38 AM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try to get Junior to focus on some insignificant part of the project by making it seem more important than it really is, then go along with what Junior wants for that part since it doesn't really matter anyway -- e.g. if Junior thinks mauve has the most RAM, then make the database mauve.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:59 PM on September 29, 2009

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