We began this analysis of corporate life by exploring a theoretical construct (the Gervais Principle) through the character arcs of Michael and Ryan in The Office. The construct and examples provide a broad-strokes treatment of the why of the power dynamics among Sociopaths, the Clueless and Losers.
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This helps us understand how the world works, but not how to work it. So let me introduce you to the main skill required here, mastery over the four major languages spoken in organizations, among Sociopaths, Losers and the Clueless. I’ll call the four languages Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk. Here’s a picture of who speaks what to whom. Let’s use it to figure out how to make friends and influence people, Office style.
The Calculus of Organizational Dynamics
The Gervais Principle operates at the slow tempo of promotions, demotions, layoffs and hirings. The bulk of organizational life, however, plays out much faster. One conversation at a time. The different species in the organization speak different languages. If the MacLeod Hierarchy and Lifecycle provide the space and time, and the Gervais Principle is Newton’s law, the various languages together constitute calculus. You have to learn calculus before you can do anything useful with the theory.
Among our three groups — Sociopaths, Clueless and Losers, we have four unique languages. Powertalk is the in-group language of the Sociopaths, and that’s what we’ll talk about in this post. Posturetalk is the language spoken by the clueless to everybody (they don’t have an in-group language since they don’t realize they constitute a group). Sociopaths and Losers talk back to the Clueless in a language called Babytalk that seems like Posturetalk to the Clueless. I’ll cover Posturetalk and Babytalk in the next installment. Among themselves, Losers speak a language called Gametalk. This is the only language that has been properly studied and documented. I won’t cover it at all, but you can learn all about it in the pop classics on Transactional Analysis (TA, a Neo-Freudian school) from 30 years ago (now available in updated editions): Eric Berne’s Games People Play and What Do You Say after You Say Hello and Thomas Harris’ I’m OK–You’re OK. Yes they’re dated and have been parodied to the point that they seem campy today. No that does not mean they are useless. Yes, you need a brain to read them critically today. Add these three books to the two I already referenced (The Organization Man and Images of Organization).
Finally, Sociopaths and Losers speak rarely to each other at all. One of the functions of the Clueless, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization. But when they do talk, they actually speak an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk if it were worth naming. It is the ordinary (if rare) utilitarian language of the sane, with no ulterior motives flying around. The mean-what-you-say-and-say-what-you-mean stuff between two people in a fixed, asymmetric power relationship, who don’t want or need to play real or fake power games. This is the unmarked black triangle edge in the diagram.
Let’s do the most important language, Powertalk.
The Elements of Powertalk
Here are two examples, of good and bad Powertalk respectively.
At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.
Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)
David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.
- Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
- Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
- Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
- Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
- Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
- Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
- Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
- Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?
The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.
We can speculate with a fair amount of certainty what someone like Michael would have said in such a situation if his and Jim’s roles had been reversed. He would have been so gratified by the attention that he would have babbled out an incoherent and epic narrative without further prompting. Wallace would have taken the information and walked away without paying.
A Powertalk Trainwreck
Here is the second example, illustrating Michael’s inability to speak Powertalk. This is during Michael’s salary negotiation with Jan, again shortly after their affair has been revealed and there is a clear conflict of interest to maneuver around. Much to Michael’s dismay, Jan insists on Toby’s presence, to maintain a witnessed appearance of perfect due process.
Jan offers Michael a modest raise, which he knows (thanks to being coached by Darryl, as we saw in the last post) to be a lowball offer. He is shocked. He feels betrayed. He has no idea it might be useful to hide his inner reaction with Toby present. His response:
“Jan… After all we’ve been through…” (with a hurt, puppy-dog look in his eyes)
Jan struggles desperately to return to the necessary script of due process. Toby, in one of his rare (and revealing) displays of perfect Schadenfreude, starts scribbling furiously and gleefully. A dull and routine HR role has suddenly turned meaty. A train wreck is imminent. When Michael furiously asks him what he is scribbling, Toby mutters under his breath, “taking notes for the deposition.”
A cut later, we see that Jan has given up trying to get Michael to talk on the two seamless levels that a Powertalk script would have required. She switches to Babytalk, hopelessly attempting to separate an official on-the-record talk track with a through-gritted-teeth coaching track. Finally, she gives up and openly succumbs to the conflict of interest by revealing her negotiating position completely.
She says, “Michael, I can give you 12%, but you have to ask for 15.”
Michael still doesn’t get it. After a little back-and-forth fumbling, and a frustrated Jan telling him to “Just ask for 15,” it is finally clear to Michael what he is supposed to say. He goes:
“I want 15%”
Jan, with a sigh of relief, says, “I can offer you 12%”
Michael, plaintively, comes back with, “But you said 15%!” Even after it is over, he still doesn’t grasp what happened.
If it had been two Sociopaths navigating around an affair, it would have been no fun at all for Toby ((if I recall correctly, Toby is asked to leave at some point where the collapse of the due process fiction is too complete to permit the presence of a real witness — somebody correct me if I am misremembering).
The Characteristics of Powertalk
Multiple layers of meaning are not what make Powertalk unique. Irony and sarcasm are modes of layered communication available to anybody. As you’ll learn if you read the Transactional Analysis books, Gametalk is all about multiple (usually two) levels of communication. What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other. Powertalk in other words, is a consequential language.
When the Clueless or Losers talk, on the other hand, nothing really changes. Relative positions remain the same all around. Shifts happen only by accident. Even in the rare cases where exploitable information is exchanged, its value is not recognized or reflected in the exchange. Posturetalk, Babytalk and Gametalk leave power relations basically unchanged. Posturetalk and Babytalk leave things unchanged because they are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Gametalk leaves power relations unchanged because its entire purpose is to help Losers put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts.
Another way to understand the difference between Powertalk and the other languages is with a card-playing analogy. In Powertalk, you play with money (the currency is most often reality-information). In the other languages you are playing with no stakes. The most important enabling factor in being able to speak Powertalk is simply the possession of table stakes. Without it, whatever you say is Posturetalk. The only Powertalk you can speak with no table stakes is “silence.” If you are Clueless or a Loser and accidentally acquire some leverage (like when Phyllis learns of the Angela-Dwight affair), but can’t speak Powertalk, the old adage applies: a fool and his money are soon parted. As those Chester Karrass people like to say, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.
If you’ve watched movies dedicated to the evil sorts of Sociopaths (like say Wall Street or Boiler Room) you might be under the impression that Sociopaths communicate by retreating to places where the Clueless and the Losers can’t hear them. Out there on the golf course, or in private dining rooms in exclusive restaurants, you might think, they let their guard down and speak bluntly, with liberal cursing and openly cruel jokes about non-Sociopaths.
You couldn’t be more wrong. That sort of private candor is actually a type of aggressive Posturetalk prevalent among the Clueless in the more superficially macho (finance) or actually dangerous industries. A fine example is Joe Pesci’s Clueless (in the Mafia context) character, Tommy de Vito, in Goodfellas. I don’t have time to analyze this movie, but a word to the wise should be sufficient: the true Sociopaths in the movie, like the characters played by Robert de Niro or Ray Liotta, never trap themselves in a corner with their own posturing: “I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh…I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how?” Yes, Tommy shoots the waiter (another Clueless Posturetalker who unwisely sasses a Clueless guy with a gun), but that still counts as “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The bulk of Sociopath communication takes places out in the open, coded in Powertalk, right in the presence of non-Sociopaths (a decent 101 level example of this is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Hermoine is the only one who realizes that Prof. Umbridge’s apparently bland and formulaic speech is a Powertalk speech challenging Dumbledore). As the David-Jim example shows, Sociopaths are in fact more careful in private.
Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations. To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. Above all they must be wary of Sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.
So effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members. What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality. Evil Sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the Clueless, of course, avoid individual moral decisions altogether.
Do watch Wall Street or Boiler Room if you haven’t by the way; appropriately, in an Office Halloween party, Ryan comes dressed as Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street and archetypal modern finance Sociopath. Goodfellas is great fun of course, but not as easily translated to non-criminal workplaces. It is based on a true story, as is a more recent Mafia story, Making Jack Falcone. Though distant from our worlds, criminal worlds have the one advantage that they do not need to maintain the fiction that the organization is not pathological, so they are revealing to study.
How Not to Learn Powertalk: Toy Guns and Treacle
Assuming you have table stakes, how do you learn to speak Powertalk as fluently as accomplished Sociopaths? That’s hard, and I’ll provide a couple of pointers at the end. It is illuminating though, to look at a couple of examples of how not to acquire the skill. People who try earnestly to learn Powertalk from recipe books end up merely expanding their Posturetalk vocabulary. There are two good examples in The Office. I’ll call these vocabularies Toy Guns and Treacle. These are vocabularies within Posturetalk that reflect Clueless attempts to mimic Powertalk, so this is actually a bit of a preview of Posturetalk.
Toy Guns is the vocabulary of empty machismo.
The example is again from the Michael-Darryl salary negotiation. Michael prints off negotiation guidelines from Wikipedia and attempts to use a series of recommended formulaic tactics.
First he tries switching chairs and rooms to disorient Darryl. He merely disorients himself.
Next he tries to follow a rule to “not be the first to speak.” Sadly, he can’t stand the tension and, oblivious to the irony, breaks the silence with “I will not be the first to speak.” At which point Darryl calmly comes back with, “Alright, I can start.”
Finally, the abject performance reaches its nadir when Michael forces Darryl to adhere to the ritual of writing down his opening offer and sliding it, folded, across the table. When Darryl attempts to just hand it to him, Michael insists on the sliding. Darryl humors him (the basic motivation in Babytalk is “humor the baby” — we’ll see why next time).
Treacle is a vocabulary drawn from apparently win-win/play nice frameworks, but deployed with adversarial intent.
The example is from a Sociopathy sideshow: Angela’s fiefdom, the Party Planning Committee. In the episode in question, Phyllis attempts to use textbook “nice” manipulation methods (such as “active listening” and “effective feedback”), which she learns from some unidentified training material. When Phyllis repeatedly screws up (getting a sign printed wrong, and then failing to get forks and knives along with spoons), Angela blows up. Phyllis tries to manipulate Angela into “effective feedback” mode by asking the formulaic question, “How does that make you feel?” Angela, with icy sarcasm, explains that she is feeling “angry” because Phyllis is “stupid.” She then proceeds to explain (icy sarcasm continuing) what forks and knives are.
For those of you unfamiliar with this stuff, the way “effective feedback” is supposed to work is that the criticizer points out the specific behavior in question without judgment, and then explains how the behavior made him/her feel. Preferably when the incident is immediate and fresh. It is supposed to lead away from the toxic business of labeling others and evoking defenses. Great in theory for people whose interests are aligned.
But when a bad-faith incompetent like Phyllis attempts to use the technique to deflect a tirade from an angry Sociopath with no reason to be nice, initiating the “effective feedback” psychology parlor game is about the same as putting on a sign labeled “Kick Me!”
Predictably, Phyllis got kicked.
Why the Textbook Material Fails
So what is going wrong here? Why can’t you learn Sociopath tactics from a book or Wikipedia? It is not that the tactics themselves are misguided, but that their application by non-Sociopaths is usually useless, for three reasons.
The first is that you have to decide what tactics to use and when, based on a real sense of the relative power and alignment of interests with the other party, which the Losers and Clueless typically lack. This real-world information is what makes for tactical surprise. Otherwise your application of even the most subtle textbook tactics can be predicted and easily countered by any Sociopath who has also read the same book. Null information advantage.
The second reason is that tactics make sense only in the context of an entire narrative (including mutual assessments of personality, strengths, weaknesses and history) of a given interpersonal relationship. The Clueless have no sense of narrative rationality, and the Losers are too trapped in their own stories to play to other scripts. Both the Clueless and Losers are too self-absorbed to put in much work developing accurate and usable mental models of others. The result is one-size-fits-all-situations tactical choices which are easily anticipated and deflected.
And the third and most important reason of course, is that your moves have to be backed up by appropriate bets using your table stakes, exposing you to real risks and rewards. A good way to remember this is to think of Powertalk as decisions about what verbal tactics to use when, and with what. The answer to with what is usually a part of your table-stakes. The stuff you are revealing and risking. If you cannot answer with what? you are posturing. You are not speaking Powertalk. In the Jim-Wallace example, with what was Jim’s superior knowledge of the Michael-Jan story.
Bottomline: you cannot learn Powertalk from books. Which leads to the question: is there any way to learn it at all?
The Art of Powertalk
Even in the hands of fluent Powertalkers with an understanding of their own credibility, command of the language is simply not a formulaic or procedural skill. It is a thinking skill. We’ve learned so far that it is a very thoughtful and calibrated use of language based on an accurate and current sense of your actual power. It is a game played with real stakes. Just knowing whatever few rules exist is of no real use, it’s merely a basic condition of participation.
There is a reason I used an analogy to vocabularies in the last section. Remember those kids who earnestly memorized big word lists for their SATs and the GRE? Notice any of them winning literature Nobel Prizes? Vocabulary expansion efforts can at best put the finishing touches on organically acquired language skills. There is no shortcut to organic language acquisition; reading well-written stuff and writing constantly is the only way. The same holds for Powertalk. You learn through real Powertalk conversations with other Sociopaths. Betting real stakes (information, credibility, labor and literal dollar money). You get played for a sucker a few times along the way before you wise up. Even if you are a good Sociopath, you learn to swallow your distaste and occasionally play hardball when you have to.
But if you do have the table stakes to join important conversations, and the mental toughness to play risk-and-reward games with every conversational move, there are a couple of skills worth practicing.
One skill is storytelling, and I covered aspects of this briefly before (Bargaining with Your Right Brain). With enough practice (a LOT), this gives you big-picture control over conversations.
Low-level utterance-by-utterance control is much harder, and the one thing you cannot do is engineer 7-8 meanings and calibrated amounts of power and leverage into every line you utter, through careful word choice. You don’t have the luxury of minutes or hours between responses (you can do that over email though). In most conversations, you have tenths of a second per response. In that time you must steer the tempo of the conversation — its rhythms, emotional subtext and energy level — to affect power equations the way you want. Chapter 3 of my book Tempo covers these things briefly.
By the way, for those of you who have the stomach for a rather academic look at organizational languages (what you could call silo or guild languages rather than power languages), try this paper: On Languages for Dynamic Resource Scheduling Problems, by Warren Powell.
So that’s it for this time. In the next part, we will look at the world of the Clueless through the lens of the Duning-Kruger Effect.