Before I do a talk at a big conference, I like to give it locally, try it out - as an experiment. For that matter, before I was giving talks at big conferences, I was giving presentations at local user's groups.
Which brings me to an interesting problem: Before I had a "name", I had to convince the local program chairs to give me a slot. This usually isn't too hard; the program chairs have a year of events to fill and are usually pretty happy to get someone to present something for free.
Notice I said usually.
There are some people who are political in nature. They see politics and power in every conversation, or at least a whole lot more often than me. So when I come in bumbling and smiling and ask to give a talk on, say, "Classic Mistakes in Software Testing", they may feel threatened, asking themselves "is he going to claim that the way we currently do things is a classic mistake?" -- Or they may want to use my talk against someone else. Or maybe my presence as a friend of Joe's suddenly creates the possibility that Joe might run for a board seat on the board of directors for the group -- and who's side is Joe on, anyway?
Hopefully some of that thinking is foreign to you. It certainly doesn't make a ton of sense to me, but I've seen and heard it enough times to know that some people really think that way.
But the point I find most interesting here is about the nature of the relationship.
You see, I thought the program chairs had all the power. Why, they held the mere wanna-be presenters in their hand; they held the power to bless or curse.
Then I became a program chair.
Suddenly, I had this problem -- I needed to line up nine speakers for the next year. So I called a few people, send out some emails -- and things went exactly the opposite. The potential speakers made all kinds of assumptions. They showed up late or missed meetings. We'd hammer out an agreement on a talk, or be close to it, and they'd start saying things like "maybe" they could get back to me with an abstract "next week" if they "weren't too busy."
Suddenly the speakers had all the power. What's going on here?
I call this the power of the ask, but I might be better off calling it the power of the don't ask. It's very simply:
The person asking for the favor has less power - regardless of what they are asking for. So when I was asking to speak I had less power; when I was asking other people to speak, I had less power.
By general extension, in any relationship (or business deal), the person who cares less about the relationship has more power. At the extreme end, you have the person who can not walk away from the deal, and the other person who doesn't really care if you walk away. That's not a relationship; it's a hostage situation. That is also why employee evaluations are structured the way the way: The company has all the power. 3% raise, 2%, 1% or zero, the assumption is that you will take the raise or "leave it", meaning leaving the company.
The whole thing is set up to rob the lower employee of power.
That doesn't mean the people in HR are mean or evil or anything
Back to the ask: If you've ever offered your advice (asking someone to make a change) without having them ask your opinion first, you've probably felt a little bit powerless. Well, you probably should have. You're asking.
Now at this point I could offer you all kinds of manipulations to get the other person to ask for advice, but I won't. The reason I know these manipulations is because they've been pulled on me, and I don't like them. They don't strike me as living authentically. I will, however, give you some information to help recognize them: Beware an 'opportunity' that sounds wonderful, appealing, and is laced with honey, that suddenly snaps into a trap where you have to apply, appeal, or ask. (That's not always bad; help wanted ads often work something like that. You'll notice who those ads put in power, but I tend to think that those people handing out the pay checks get to have the power. That's the way the pay check game works, you know?)
How to respond authentically
Say you are in a meeting and want to get something to change. No one has asked you your opinion. You want to throw out your opinion, because, after all, you have the answer. (I mean this sincerely). If you throw it out, you'll likely be seen as challenging someone else.
What's the right thing to do?
Well, one thing you could do is to invite someone else to the conversation. "John, you've been quiet, what do you think?" Perhaps John agrees with you -- perhaps he doesn't -- but you know John is a person of integrity. Perhaps you have a talk with him later on about influence, and you start to bring each other in to projects.
Next time, when the big question is being asked, be the one who raises his hand and says "we really need John here in this -- he's the expert." Or, vice versa, you can have John bring you in. In either situation, you'll be asked for your opinion, so it will have more weight.
The other side of this is to conscious of what you are doing. When I was a program chair for a local user's group and I asked for speakers, that is exactly what I was doing -- asking. So of course I was ceding power. I'm okay with that, but I'm suggesting we do it consciously, then not complain about it afterwords.
There's nothing wrong with asking for help. There are some people who can respect that vulnerable position, and won't take advantage of it. Others will. My advice is to figure out how people behave, and only let your guard down among those you trust -- but try to do that without becoming a manipulative mongrel.
More about that next time.