stories of Machiavellian triumphs at work, part 2 — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

Last week, I asked about Machiavellian things you’ve seen or done at work. Here’s part two of my favorites. (Part one was Monday.)

1. The voicemail

Had a sales guy at my first job in the late 90s who used to take ALL his calls and listen to ALL his voicemail on speaker. LOUDLY. We were a small company with a cube farm. This was the days before caller ID.

So one day some of us called when we knew he was out and left a voicemail saying something along the lines of “Hi Fergus, I went to my doctor and the rash is all cleared up.”

He never listened to his voicemail on speaker again.

2. The switcheroo

When I was rather younger, and back in the days when going to the pub on someone’s last day was de rigueur, one colleague refused to go back to the office at two o’clock. “All that’s going to happen is that [senior manager] will say what a great contribution I’ve made and how sorry you all are to lose me, and he doesn’t even know who I am.”

The answer, obvious to anyone awash with beer, was to take a random other colleague and put them forward as the leaver, whereupon the farewell went exactly as predicted (ROC even took the leaving gift of a squash racket, and I’m not sure that ever got to its intended recipient).

Had we been slightly more sober, we’d have chosen someone who wasn’t himself scheduled to leave a couple of weeks later, but as he said on his own leaving day “What can they do to me?”

The answer was nothing, and in fact the same senior manager trotted out the same platitudes to the same departing worker as he had a fortnight earlier, with never an eyelid batted on either side.

3. The gentle push

I was once hired at the same time as another coworker, but for the lower version of the role while she was in the higher version. She then proceeded to spend every day complaining about the job, so I would always tell her she was so right, she deserved better than that job, they didn’t appreciate her, she should follow her bliss, etc. I think it only took a couple of months before she was applying elsewhere, and I agreed that she totally didn’t need to give this place any warning because they didn’t deserve it. Not long after, they were in urgent need of someone to fill that higher version of the role, and why yes I was free and able to fill it, no problem boss.

4. The new policy

This is not precisely self serving in a personal way, but I once wired a meeting to prevent a new policy going through that I and others didn’t want. The Division Head wanted the department to support a policy that I and others felt was a bad idea. We didn’t want to openly oppose it. So three of us agreed we would oppose it covertly by amplifying any concerns raised.

The meeting started and the policy was presented. One very senior person raised a small issue and so I said ‘I hadn’t thought of it before, but Ida Long has raised an excellent point . . . and then built on that. Another person not in on it agreed and raised another concern and one of my fellow conspirators jumped on that. By the time we were through agreeing with and praising the insightful contributions of others in the group, the proposal was defeated and those who got the credit were the people who had initially voice minor concerns.

It worked so well that I used the same technique to get someone selected for a major honor that the CEO thought had been wired for his favorite.

5. The shadow government

I accidentally created a shadow government. I had an incompetent boss who was promoted way beyond her experience. She had no clue what she was doing, so she just found excuses not to do work until everyone forgot it was assigned to her. She also had a tendency to just repeat whatever other people said, and to take the side of the most recent person who had spoken to her.

I quickly figured out that I could get her to greenlight my ideas by letting her put her name on them. I would prepare a carefully researched and thought-out PowerPoint and share it with her as “hey, here’s a thought that occurred to little old me. I wanted to share it with you to see what you thought — can you dispense your wisdom, O Great Strategic Leader?” She would immediately put her name on it, share it with her boss (she never had her own ideas to share with her boss, so she loved stealing my ideas), then would graciously “allow” me to lead the initiative. I would pretend to be honored, then do her job for her and get the policies I wanted. As long as I always framed it as Seeking Her Guidance and “Gosh, I’d love to do this, thanks!”, she would give me free rein. Within a year, I was doing 80% of her job and functionally running the entire department, making all strategic decisions and setting almost all of the policies.

I don’t think she ever figured it out.

6. The hotel booking

My former manager has a story of being a relatively junior woman with a male boss, and in the way that often happens, she got asked to do a lot of admin things that weren’t supposed to be part of her job and that her male peers weren’t asked to do.

On one occasion, she was asked to book a hotel for her boss. Which she did, uncomplainingly. She found him a hotel very close to the relevant venue… but it was the kind of hotel that’s more usually booked by the hour than for the night. Her boss never asked her to do admin tasks again.

7. The fish cart

A colleague claimed to be so overworked his department head hired a full time temp to do his job so he could focus on his special projects. Turns out he wasn’t doing any work except for himself. He started his own business as a consultant while collecting a salary.

A client of ours ran into him at the beach where he was selling fish from a food cart (another bizarre side hustle I presume) during a work day, he was found out and fired. Last I heard he was running for mayor in his home town.

8. The security passes

I had a government job where my team operated as consultants – technically we had a place in our main office, but in reality we were supposed to be out in the ministries most of the time. So our manager decided we didn’t need security passes to the main office, since we were never going to be there. This policy was apparently fixed, immutable, never ever ever going to change.

Except of course we were there fairly often – for team meetings, for days when our clients were unavailable, days when we had no clients, and so on. The receptionist could let us in easily enough, but we also needed security cards to get back out. A lot of people handled this by leaving with someone else, or asking someone who sat near the door to open it for them. But I decided it would be rude to interrupt people’s work just because they happened to be sitting near the door. So – I called my manager instead. Every time. “Hi Fergus, I’m going for lunch now, can you let me out? Heading off to a client meeting for an hour, can you let me out? Leaving for the day, bye! Oh, can you come and let me out? Thanks so much!”

It took two days to reverse the the policy and get everyone their passcards.

9. The long lunch

My manager hates making decisions, so they often ask me what they should get for lunch. They’re also a bit of a micromanager, and constantly change my priorities minute-to-minute, so I start on a dozen things and finish none of them. On days when they’re really in my hair, I usually suggest a beloved local restaurant known for their huge portions and slow service. It takes my manager out-of-office for about an hour and a half while eating, and after they return, they usually have a “training webinar” that requires a closed door and lots of focus – which is, in fact, a nap on their office couch to sleep off the food coma. It doesn’t work every time, but when it works, it works!

10. The compensation study

A few years back, my company was doing a compensation study. For years, there had been requests from staff that the company release salary band information, and the company had finally promised to share salary bands for staff once the study was done.

Well, the study was completed and suddenly the company reversed its decision and said they wouldn’t be sharing the salary bands after all. Fine. A colleague and I put together a google spreadsheet with salary info (current salary, starting salary, years worked, demographic info, etc.) and shared it with our closer colleagues so those who were interested could share their salaries (no pressure).

When my boss found out and said he felt obligated to inform HR, we released it on the all-staff slack channel. We didn’t make any friends in HR that day, and ultimately only about 10% of staff chose to fill it out. But a few weeks later, the company released the salary bands, and I sent a (public) sugary sweet thank you to our HR team for supporting pay equity.

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