Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Fear of the Powerful

One of the things that I encounter from time to time is people who are afraid of me. The thing about this phenomenon that may be a bit peculiar is that the people I'm speaking of aren't people whom you would consider to be timid or weak or in low positions. They're people who are nominally forceful, strong and in positions of relative power.

The other night, we were hanging out with friends talking about what scares us, and one of my friends said, "Well, you scare the shit out me!"

When I asked him why, it came down to him having always been the strongest person he'd known in regard to his area of expertise, and he simply didn't know what to do with someone he considered to be stronger. His having been afraid would have completely escaped me were I not to have asked.

This morning, I started thinking about how people who are nominally powerful manifest fear. It's often not easy to spot and as such, easy to misinterpret. That being the case, I thought it might be useful to share some of ways that I've seen strong, powerful people manifest fear. Seeing that it's just fear can be useful in understanding how to respond.

The Grin-F!^k
The Grin-F!^k (GF) is probably my earliest experience of how people in positions of power do fear. Essentially, to GF someone requires you to maintain a facade of friendship, supportive-ness and agreement while working behind the scenes to discredit and undermine the source of your fear. GF'ing has become almost required learning in the executive ranks of corporate America because it works, quite effectively.

The problem with GF'ing people is that there are side effects. First, because he is duplicitous, the GF'er starts to question the motives of others, "Are the really befriending me or are they just GF'ing me?"

Second, although the GF is used to cope with fear, being consistently duplicitous leads to greater fear. Third, over time, after you've GF'ed enough people word gets around.

I love to argue: not the getting emotional and upset type of arguing, but the classic debating type of arguing. I love it because great arguments require me to be super clear on what I think and why I think it. After a really good argument, I feel like I have a much clearer understanding of both my position and the other person's position. Best of all, after a really great argument, typically both our positions have changed.

Over time, I've become really good at argument and I'm always looking for really good arguers with whom to engage. When I find them, I do so enthusiastically, energetically and with great delight.

The problem that I've found is that many of the really good arguers argue not to play with ideas or to gain clarity or to learn from one another, but instead, they do so to win. The problem with arguing to win is that it locks you into a position; you abdicate flexibility. And since no position is actually right, since every position can be improved upon, arguing to win with a competent person who's arguing to learn will almost guarantee that you're going to lose.

This can become quite unnerving for powerful people who are used to winning (and perhaps always win) arguments. The fear response in these cases is projection, e.g., accuse the other person of simply arguing to win.

You can learn a lot about a powerful person's motivations and fears when they start accusing you of motivations that make no sense to you or that are completely off the mark. What they're telling you is their own motivations and fears.

Disappear People
Many powerful people have what I would refer to as strong powers of denial, a useful skill if you want to attain positions of wealth and power.

Strong powers of denial can be really, really useful. Convincing yourself that things aren't so bad when all the evidence says otherwise, can be the difference between succeeding and folding.

Strong powers of denial can also have really interesting long term side effects. Justifying outrageous compensation because you're a CEO independently of how well your company is actually doing is one of my favorites. Claiming that someone is really good at their job simply because you like them or brought them into this world is another. And of course, there are all the justifications that go into egregious labor practices.

Over time, people in positions of power who've long exerted the latter form of denial tend to surround themselves with others who buy into the same beliefs or who will keep their mouths shut.

Over the years, I've gained a bit more finesse at communicating my observations of the discrepancies between reality and the perspective of the powerful person. I always do so in a manner that proposes workable alternatives, not simply criticizes what they're doing. Nonetheless, at times I find myself suddenly disappeared. Not fired, just not invited to meetings where my opinions might be pertinent to the discussion at hand. In some cases, the really fearful among them have asked me to work more from home, to spend less time at the office.

Question Loyalty
When powerful people have reached the tipping point from fear to paranoia, they'll move from questioning the immediate motivations of others to more generalized discussions of topics such as loyalty, ethics and integrity.

I always enter new working relationships with the shared understanding that I'll be there as long as we're working on something that we find mutually beneficial and engaging, and as long as we like working together. Sometimes we'll end up disagreeing on priorities or how we want to go about accomplishing them and I'll decide to proceed on a different path. For me it's never that big of a deal; it doesn't require us to sever the relationship or to feel ill will or for that matter to not work together.

I've also experienced the flip side of this where someone who worked with me chose another path. I've learned that great people are like great beer, you can enjoy them for a time, but you can't keep them. Again, no big deal, we'll work together again later.

The thing is that not everyone responds this way. Some seemingly power people react with amazing levels of fear and anxiety that are not always perceived as such. First, they'll make a big deal of the whole transaction and take measures to protect themselves from the inevitable fallout of our parting ways. Second, they'll insist that people who are still working with them not have any relationship with me. Third, they'll actually start to question the loyalty of anyone who does.

Of course, all this is just big-time fear to the point of paranoia.

So What
When strong and powerful people manifest fear, the effects can be much more far reaching than those of people with less power and strength, affecting many more people. Because the fearful person is powerful and respected, their actions are often simply accepted by others who feel that their only option is to cope. You wouldn't believe the number of people who get suckered in by the whole "loyalty" challenge.

When powerful people get scared, people who are the source of fear often respond with dismay, fear and anger themselves. It can become a real mess.

The thing I've found really useful is understanding that the source of all the craziness is simply fear. The powerful person is feeling afraid and powerless like any of us feel from time to time. They just manifest it in ways that are different and often much bigger. They're powerful.

Knowing this allows us to not take their actions and responses personally. They're scared and taking care of themselves in the best way they know.

Knowing this also helps us to better interpret their accusations and posturing giving us better insight into the nature of their fears and how we might help with them.

Knowing that all the ultimatums and self-righteous demands for loyalty are just the fear talking also gives us a great perspective from which to support the people who feel caught in the middle. They don't need to choose sides. They don't need to feel trapped. They don't have to join into the dance.

Perhaps you've experienced the fear of the powerful or perhaps are in the midst of it. If so, know that they're just scared and you can help them like you would any one else who is scared.

Have a powerfully fearless weekend!

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