Monday, June 25, 2007

Richard Conniff: Bending the Knee

Sometime this week, a jury in Chicago will begin to deliberate on charges that the domineering and flamboyant Canadian businessman Conrad Black looted $60 million from shareholders of Hollinger International, the newspaper company he once led.

Mr. Black’s lawyers wisely kept him off the stand. But his longtime partner F. David Radler testified as a prosecution witness and, for me, the high point of the trial came when he tried to parse the delicate question of whether he’d been Mr. Black’s right-hand man or . . . “I don’t think I’m anyone’s flunky,” Mr. Radler declared, “but that doesn’t mean that someone wouldn’t call me that.” Spectators in the courtroom laughed.

So were they laughing at him, or with him?

We generally don’t like to admit to our lackey past, especially not when our former gods lie in disgrace. But the truth about working life is that most of us, at one time or another, have skirted along the ignoble edges of flunkydom. In a previous column, I suggested that we don’t like to talk about hierarchy. But we really, really don’t like to talk about what it means to be a lieutenant, a consigliere, or even just a plain, dutiful subordinate.

And yet it’s a role we need to understand better, if only to avoid the sort of mess Mr. Radler and Mr. Black now face. The challenge is how to serve power without being servile. Henry Kissinger (who was a director at Hollinger) once called power the great aphrodisiac. The British newspaper columnist Barbara Amiel (also a former director at Hollinger, and sometimes known as Mrs. Black) put it with considerably more gusto: “Power is sexy, not simply in its own right, but because it inspires self-confidence in its owner and a shiver of subservience on the part of those who approach it.”

Ah, the shiver of subservience. It’s what you see, for instance, when an obsequious chimpanzee pays homage to his alpha by pant-grunting, a sort of rapid, Kissingeresque, oh-oh-oh murmur of obeisance, while at the same time repeatedly bowing and scraping. “The dominant chimpanzee reacts to this ‘greeting’ by stretching himself up to a greater height and making his hair stand on end,” the primatologist Frans de Waal writes. “The one almost grovels in the dust, the other regally receives the ‘greeting.’”

You might expect humans to be above that sort of thing. But we’re just subtler about our displays of obeisance. People entering the presence of a powerful individual often stoop slightly and lower their heads. They may not bob, but they find frequent opportunity to nod. They smile more, to indicate cooperation and agreement. And if they feel anger, they often literally bite their lips to avoid displaying it. They are quick, on the other hand, to show embarrassment or shame. (And I think that just about covers how the board of directors at Hollinger handled their oversight duties, with the possible exception of that bit about shame.)

With a difficult boss, deference can be a form of survival behavior. In one intriguing experiment in the early 1980s, researchers from the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine isolated dominant male vervet monkeys so they could see their subordinates through a one-way mirror and make their customary threats and other displays.

But the subordinates couldn’t see back and thus were unable to respond with the obligatory signs of deference. This presumably infuriated the alphas, and over the 16 days of the experiment, their serotonin levels dropped by 40 percent. And this sort of thing evidently matters: Keeping up the serotonin levels of dominant individuals helps boost their confidence and discourage destructive aggression.

So kowtowing is a way of keeping the peace.

The trouble with this dynamic is that human subordinates don’t just boost the boss’s confidence. They also need to steer it and modulate it. Powerful bosses often disregard contradictory evidence; they tend to set goals and run roughshod over anything or anyone that gets in the way. So subordinates, who usually see the dangers more clearly, sometimes have the delicate task of restraining the boss from acting too rashly.

Smart bosses recognize this and cultivate people who will be frank with them. Or if nobody has the nerve, they make the downside an explicit part of any conversation: “O.K., let’s talk about what could go wrong here.” Thus a David Radler might have his moment to say, “Gee, Conrad, the money sounds good to me, too. But what if a prosecutor got this crazy idea that we were stealing from our shareholders?”

Unfortunately, a lot of bosses aren’t that smart. When they run companies, they stuff their boards with pals and patsies who will let them have their way. They bully critics into submission. (”Mr. Black begins many conversations by threatening everybody,” an adversary once remarked.) They arm themselves with all the intimidating ornaments of rank and power. At the trial, his lawyers spoke of “Conrad,” as if he were just a country boy who never renounced his Canadian citizenship to become the nouveau aristocrat, Baron Black of Crossharbour. But you have to wonder: Was Mr. Radler obliged to address his old partner as “My Lord”?

Other bosses also routinely rely on the aura of power to induce the shiver of subservience. In the 2004 election, President George W. Bush boasted happily that critics liked to rehearse their grievances outside his door, but once inside the Oval Office, “they are so overwhelmed they can say only, ‘You’re looking good, Mr. President.’” Hence Mr. Bush has ended up with subordinates who say things like “slam dunk” when they really mean “not a shred of evidence.”

There are plenty of ways to institutionalize open, honest discussion. But in the end, it always seems to come down to the willingness of a subordinate to shake off the illusory attractions of power and speak plainly.

Not long ago, an executive assistant went to work for the C.E.O. at a California company. A few weeks into the job, the C.E.O. burst out of his office and started to scream at her. After a stunned moment, she followed him back into his office and closed the door. Then, sweetly and with a note of disappointment, she said, ‘You must never, never, never talk to me like that again, because it’s just not possible for us to work together like that.’”

The C.E.O. was shocked because no one had dared to confront him before. But he has not talked to her that way since.

Not many subordinates can muster that blend of deference and backbone. They worry too much being cut loose from a good job or a glamorous boss. But to David Radler, whose plea bargain will soon have him practicing his displays of submission in prison, that might not seem like such a terrible thing.

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