A fascinating book, “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene, outlines the principles of acquiring influence and power over the actions of large groups of people. The lessons are drawn from ancient times to the present, but with an emphasis on the eras of royal governance: kings, queens, emperors and the drama of court life.
While rule by birthright has long been displaced with various forms of rule by the governed or by dictatorial control not determined by lineage, the laws of influence and power have not changed much. Greene makes no judgment about whether he recommends following the laws. Rather, he lays them bare and fully explored.
The Eighth Law of Power says, “Make other people come to you. Use bait if necessary.”
I have seen this law in action often in the world of business, relationships, neighborhoods, clubs, almost anywhere there is a group of people with a desire or need to act collectively. Here’s how it usually goes:
“Thank you all for coming to this meeting to decide the office layouts for our expansion,” said Frank, the facilities manager. “Have you all had a chance to review the schematic showing proposed departmental arrangements and individual office assignments?”
The meeting continues, with some questions and comments. A couple of people see that they would prefer each other’s proposed location and offer that change. All agree. Generally, things are going well and it looks like the meeting will wrap up on time with everyone in agreement. With five minutes left to the scheduled meeting duration, Frank seems pleased.
“This is great,” Frank says. “Very productive meeting. Looks like we got all the questions answered, so I’ll compose the final plan and…”
“Excuse me,” Arline says, “I’m going to need more time to study the plan before I can say it meets my department’s needs.”
Frank is dumbfounded. Arline has not said a word all meeting, including when her group’s location and office assignments were being discussed.
“If you weren’t in agreement with the developing solutions, why didn’t you say something a couple of hours ago?” Frank asks, obviously frustrated.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the full plan in total,” Arline says. “I need to make sure I’m considering my team’s needs properly. I can get back to you after I convene my department and have them review this.”
“But that will delay our decision at least another week, maybe more,” Frank says. “Why didn’t you poll them for their needs and come prepared to represent them today? You knew this meeting was to make decisions, and the invitations went out a month ago!”
As Frank gets more irritated, Arline simply gets calmer. “Frank, I can understand your defensiveness. You’ve worked hard on this plan. Why don’t you call me next Friday and I’ll be able to tell you how much progress we’ve made in analyzing the impact of this plan on our group effectiveness? I’m sure you don’t want any office schematic to create a risk of not meeting business objectives.”
Arline gathers her materials and takes her leave, stopping to speak briefly with two or three others who are at her level of management, ignoring those who are not.
Frank gets back to his office and sends a meeting invitation to Arline for the following Friday, and begins working out alternatives if he can’t get Arline’s agreement on the plan that everyone else accepted.
The effect of this behavior by Arline is that she has positioned herself to be the one in control of the planning process, the ultimate design outcome and the pace of progress. This is the power of the holdout, the last person who needs to approve something before progress can be made. It works particularly well when the organization values consensus.
People who apply the Eighth Law of Power are not necessarily conscious of it. The power-hungry sociopath would be, of course, but most people who apply the law do so because they did it once and experienced a positive outcome: They gained more control of a decision that was going where they didn’t want it to go.
We all learn our behavior in a variety of ways, often unconsciously. To prevent others from using the Eighth Law to the detriment of progress for the larger organization, you can apply the counter-measure: don’t chase the “yes.” What this means is that you don’t pursue the holdout to gain their approval.
Frank’s response should have been, “Well, everyone has had the same amount of time to review these plans and to explore them with their groups. We will proceed as currently envisioned by next Tuesday unless you identify material flaws that would affect your group’s ability to succeed. I can make time for you Monday if you like. Any unresolved issues can be taken up with the CEO that afternoon. I will let her know in advance that we may need some of her time.”
By setting the deadline, rather than letting Arline delay until the next Friday, control is maintained by the group majority consensus. By noting escalation to the CEO, Frank makes Arline aware that her issues will be scrutinized from a companywide standpoint, not just his.
Consensus is great when everyone looks to help each other in the process. People who use the Eighth Law, whether consciously or not, can employ a consensus culture to increase their personal influence by simply holding out. But if the train is leaving, with them or without, they will tend to figure out a way to get on board.
Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at email@example.com