Opinionista Mark Barnes 24 October 2019

Nothing sucks like sucking up

Sucking up is a nasty affliction. It is an infectious disease that spreads throughout the organisms that tolerate its existence until it prevails, and eventually destroys the very substance and purpose of the environment that gave it life, that thought it was okay, that made it the rule. Fortunately, many people are immune to it or simply won’t abide it, because they can’t, because their DNA repels it, because it causes a stomach ache.

An essential element for intelligent discourse is honesty. Selective, filtered, biased talking and listening eliminates honesty, which destroys the possibility of a sound foundation for logical argument development.

People on both sides of the suck-up equation know what’s happening. Whether you’re sucking up yourself or allowing others to suck up to you, you know. Everybody knows. In a meeting, the first sign of undue deference should be reigned in. If it isn’t, the rest of the time will be absorbed by kowtowing, nodding, smiling, and being seen to do so, regardless of the sense of the points being made, or even your view on them.

The subject matter becomes barely relevant (if it was taken seriously in the first place) to those who came to prevail, not participate. The value of the meeting descends to the lowest point of the highest order of suck-up receptor present. Misguided decisions emerge or no decision at all (if the success of the suck-up cannot be determined finally). There is no place for expertise in the room, only hierarchy.

It all starts with disparate processes to determine authority. The pathways to the centre of power are neither aligned nor mutually respected (if in fact they’re known at all), let alone founded on common purpose. Self interest and common interest cannot co-exist.

In these infected ecosystems, there isn’t even agreement on how rank and influence should be determined, or how it should change over time, or with new information, or even who should speak when.

The symptoms are obvious. Whenever anyone other than the ordained overseer is speaking they do so not with conviction of purpose but with hesitation, in search of incremental approval, looking up continuously for that affirming nod before proceeding, or backtracking when a frown appears.

Hierarchy is pre-defined, not judged by the expertise or gravity of the discussion or the cleverness of the idea. New ideas are quickly drawn back into the pre-established comfort zone of the rehearsed agenda. How can this vicious circle of misguided decision making ever deliver an optimal outcome? Well, it doesn’t. It delivers instead a prevailing consensus, not capable of interrogation, let alone challenge.

Empirical evidence has no place in a suck-up system – unless it fortuitously supports the agenda of the highest-ranking person present. Rank is everything. Individuality must step aside and give way to rank.

It’s obvious that if only the top of the pyramid is present, it doesn’t exist.Of course, there is sometimes a place for rank. There is a place for titles. There is a proper place for respecting the position, and with it the authority vested in the current incumbent.

But progress can only come when those charged with this authority of position are sufficiently strong, informed, confident and open to reason to inform their judgement calls, to change course when the evidence overwhelmingly supports doing so.

I sat in the boardroom once, some years ago, of what proved to be one of the most successfully expansive businesses in Africa. Everyone’s business cards (and we were among the top executives of the group) described what they did, not how senior they were. Their seniority was soon obvious from the knowledge and experience in their contributions. Influence doesn’t require a title, and titles don’t infer lasting influence.

Leadership is about making more of people, not less. It’s about inviting opinion, empowering judgement, giving ideas space, listening, celebrating differences. It’s not about being important.

The more important you need to be, the less important you’ll become. If you don’t allow the truth to be spoken to your face, you’ll drive it underground. It’ll eventually emerge to undermine you, to unseat you, to send you scurrying off into that dark place of previously sucked-up to, now ignored, failures – left to survive off the crumbs of disaffected tyrants whose survival, in turn, depends only on you sucking up to them.

Force is the only language of this underground.

If people are sucking up to you they’re probably also insecure or incompetent themselves. Maybe you made them feel that way? Maybe they’re just scared of you. I can’t imagine a worse source of power than fear, or a more toxic mixture than power and incompetence. BM

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