The Evil Hat

You’ve got a problem.

You want to measure, and improve, something about your project or people. You’ve got a good idea about how to do this. Perhaps the metric you want to use is already widely measured. Perhaps it’s been in the industry for a while. It might be a KPI, related to a management incentive or perhaps you simply want to replace your existing metrics with something better.

Before you put that measurement in place, borrow my Evil Hat.

The Seventh Hat

Edward de Bono identified six different ways in which people prefer to think, and created the six famous thinking hats.

Unfortunately for humanity, there’s a seventh way in which we think. It comes unconsciously from our innate desire for an easy life, our craving for approval, and mechanisms of feedback which tell us whether we’re doing the right or the wrong thing. It comes more consciously from our desire to be paid more, keep or improve our jobs, and make our bosses happy. If we’re determined to be evil, we can think of it as a way of manipulating the system for our personal gain.

The problem is, even if we aren’t evil, we do start responding subconsciously to the feedback provided by our measurements and responses to them. Like an electrical current, we tend to take the path of least resistance. If we’re seeing problems as a result of the metrics, we’ll address the problems – and if we’re doing it subconsciously, we may not actually analyze the cause of those problems, or the effect of our changes outside of the system. We’ll respond to praise for achieving the targets, and to criticism for missing them – even if the targets and the praise are implicit.

By putting on the Evil Hat, we can move those subconscious reactions into the conscious realm. Pretend, for a moment, that you have no care whatsoever for the success of your project, your team or the bigger picture. You are merely interested in your own personal gain. You are not interested in making life better for anyone else but yourself. This is what your brain is already doing, before the altruism in your conscious mind or subconscious habit kicks in (and there are plenty of arguments to suggest that altruism itself is merely done for psychologically selfish reasons).

Congratulations. The Evil Hat has just turned you into a sociopath.

Sociopaths can destroy your company or project

When a sociopath wants something, they can resort to any means necessary to get it. This article, Sociopaths in High Places, illustrates some of the behaviour we can expect from sociopaths, including bullying, cruelty, manipulation and outright fraud.

This only happens because sociopaths don’t care about other people. Of course, most of us are born with empathy. We feel other people’s pain. Don’t we?

When we’re stressed, our adrenaline levels rise. We are primed for fight or flight. Our instincts are turned inwards, to our own survival. We are more likely to act in our own interests, and less likely to worry about those around us. This rather lovely article talks about the circular nature of stress and concentration, relating the feeling of compassion to the state of relaxation. The opposite is also true.

So, let’s imagine that we’ve been set some targets, and we’re not meeting them. Our boss (who has targets of his own) is putting the pressure on us. Now we’re starting to feel stressed, which makes us less empathic. Even if we’re not sociopaths ourselves, we’re capable of selfishness, and it’s starting to show.

Sociopaths are in charge

The targets in any company tend to filter down from the top. The shareholders want a profit. The CEOs, board members and upper management are in charge of delivering that profit. Their targets and metrics are clear. As Chris Matts has said when talking about Feature Injection, they need to “make money, save money or protect money”.

Two psychologists, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, started applying a checklist for psychopaths to the boardroom members of corporations, and published some of their findings in a book, “Snakes in suits”. This transcript of a radio interview with the authors and other experts illustrates some of the behaviours they found.

It’s often easier for a psychopath to achieve their goals by destroying others. Certainly, they have no empathic reason to want to help others, and they will protect themselves and the power they amass quite jealously. There are some phrases that we can look for to see if we or our colleagues are becoming less empathic with stress:

“It’s not my fault.”

X did it.”

This is us, protecting our power and our jobs at the expense of someone else. We’re not thinking about the impact on others when we say these things. We’re doing it to protect ourselves.

Of course, true sociopaths and psychopaths (Wikipedia defines the difference nicely) will protect themselves in advance, so rarely have to resort to passing the blame – it will already be obvious to all powerful onlookers that they are blameless. Or, worse, the powerful onlookers will themselves have sociopathic tendencies, and be in cahoots with their sociopathic comrades.

As the stress mounts, the more clever amongst us will start protecting ourselves. We keep those emails, do everything in writing, and insist that processes are followed, making sure that we cannot be blamed for anything more than being cogs in a giant machine. The more creative amongst us find ways of becoming more influential and indispensable – hoarding knowledge, hiding our lack of skill, making friends in high places, setting others up to take the fall. As the habits develop, we become more and more sociopathic ourselves. Anyone who finds themselves unable to dispense with morality leaves, and the company culture is now fully riddled with blame.

Sociopaths can save your company or project

As Robert Hare says in the radio interview:

Enlightened self-interest is not a bad idea for psychopaths, and try to indicate or convince them that there are ways in which they can get what they want and need without having to actually harm other people. “Enlightened self-interest is not a bad idea for psychopaths…” Now it’s easier said than done, because their behavioural patterns are fairly entrenched. But these are not stupid people, I mean the range of intelligence amongst psychopathic populations is the same as it is in the general population. These are people who know what’s going on.

So, what’s going on?

The word is spreading. Self-organising teams, in which the members are not merely cogs, are more performant. Employee empowerment and learning improves company morale, reduces expensive employee turnover and can help make money. Transparency in the workplace fosters productivity. Incremental delivery reduces risk, resulting in more successful projects and more fulfilled staff; even governments are listening.

It turns out that in most cases, doing the empathic thing – creating positive cultures and professional experiences for employees – is also the most profitable thing, helping those sociopathic CEOs. It’s the most productive thing, helping their cahooting managers. If it involves transparency, it’s hard for anyone else to manipulate, and because an enabled, positive, productive workforce creates options it reduces risk and provides the greatest possible control in the event of uncertainty.

The sociopaths of the world – CEOs, managers, and democratic governments – are also starting to listen. If you know yourself to be a sociopath or a psychopath, you’re in a position of power, and you’re not paying attention, then you’re losing this race.

If, however, you are already cynically manipulating your company culture to be better, faster, more productive, empowered, self-organising, transparent, learning, improving, Lean, Agile, incremental, feedback-driven, forward-thinking, creative, optimistic and prepared, then congratulations. You are about to rule your slice of the world. Just what you always wanted.

Put on the Evil Hat

By pretending to a certain amount of sociopathy before we start introducing metrics and targets, we can ask ourselves, “How will we respond to these targets?” Will we game the system, manipulating these in a way which serves our purposes, but not the whole? Are they perverse incentives in disguise? Will we see anti-patterns emerge as a result?

We can also use the Evil Hat to turn this around. What metrics and targets could we put in place that would lead to even more productive behaviours? That would lead to success, and therefore maximise our personal gain? How can we make sure that the things we’re measuring are the things we most want?

It’s Good to be Evil

I was in a meeting when someone suggested introducing a KPI for measuring team leaders. “One of their jobs is to remove obstacles from the path of the team,” a manager suggested. “We should measure how many obstacles they remove.”

“Excuse me a moment,” I grinned. “That sounds like fun. Just let me put on my Evil Hat, and I’ll tell you what I’m going to do in response…”

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7 Responses to The Evil Hat

  1. Andy Palmer says:

    Oh, I like this.
    I think this is an extension of Black Hat thinking (what could go wrong? how can I manipulate this?)
    Can I suggest the colour Obsidian? 🙂

  2. liz says:

    I’ve been playing “Dragon’s Age: Origins” too much. Evil can still save the world 😉

  3. Lisa Crispin says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding why I should want to wear the Evil Hat. Are you saying that by looking out for myself only, I would have a greater positive impact on my company and team?

    • liz says:

      If everyone looked out for themselves, believed that they had power to engage other people’s help in getting the best for themselves, and considered the system as a whole, then, yes, you would have a greater positive impact on your company and team by behaving in this way. The best possible outcome for yourself is usually something like earning more money, or learning more, or enjoying work more. The most effective way to achieve this kind of environment is to get the entire team or company focusing on their delivery and working together, transparently, while getting better at it, which it turns out is quite fun anyway.

      Alternatively, use the Evil Hat to consider what will happen if a different system is put in place. Think, “If I were an Evil team leader, and someone was going to measure me based on the number of obstacles I remove, what could I do? Ooh, I know… I’ll make sure there are lots of obstacles! I can get my mate from Infrastructure to help. And I won’t prevent the obstacles from hitting the team in the first place. ” Etc.

  4. How cool is this! Thanks Liz, a whole post eloquently and succinctly describing one of my absolute favourite topics!

    I used to use the phrase “how will doing / not doing this work affect your bonuses?” as a way of distilling this sentiment and focusing the minds of my colleagues when reviewing the merits of individual features (and when their attention was not all it could be…)

    I’m bringing my own evil hat out of the bottom drawer, and giving it pride of place on my desk from now on!

  5. Aaron says:

    You’re right! It’s especially important to think of how measurements and incentives could cause people to “game the system.” It’s an important trait when security testing to think of the person who wants something and cares nothing about the system.

    I think it’s a useful insight that CEOs (and managers on down) tend to be motivated by sociopathy (even if not sociopathic themselves) because they are beholden to the shareholders, and the shareholders do not have a compassionate tie or other loyalty. They are working in values of dollars and cents, and they demand results in such terms, so by nature are non-social.

    Which is a good thing, as you also illustrated. It still requires a bit of a leap of faith, but evidence also shows that ethical and compassionate behavior (over time) are the most profitable.

    It’s a similar problem with politicians, though (theoretically at least) there is an ethical or moral stand tied to your vote, perhaps because the monetary reward is less direct. For lobbiests, however, the path is much clearer, and hence you see more sociopathic behavior.

  6. Excellent, Liz. I thought I was the only one who did this. I’m perhaps a bit more schizophrenic, as rather than putting on a hat I preface such thoughts with “now, if we were to use our powers for Evil…” and then promptly show how well-intended management behavior can change organizational culture into a smorgasbord for the sociopaths.

    Unrelated comment: I hadn’t heard of de Bono’s 6 hats, and after reading the wikipedia entry linked from your post, showed it to my wife. “Oh, we use Blue all the time,” she said, “that’s why we never seem to understand how people get so caught up in one way of thinking.”

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