A dish best served cold? 1 of 2

February 3, 2021

Screenshot 2021 02 04 at 19 19One of the first classic novels I came across, and through the medium of a radio play, was the Count of Monte Christo.  My mother objected to televisions on principle and so we grew up with radio which in many ways was a blessing.  Radio feeds the imagination in a way that television does not.  OK, I had to sneak round to friends’ houses to see Doctor Who but that was a small price to pay and  I’m still proud of the fact that I have never missed a single episode of that series.  Dumas’s novel for those not familiar with it is a novel of revenge.  Our hero Dantès is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned in the Château d’If just off the coast of Marseille.  He escapes, discovers great riches, and embarks on revenge against the three men responsible.  A well-told and at times brutal tale but interwoven with odd acts of mercy and the novel concludes with the phrase “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope’”

I often joke from the conference platform that you should never insult the Celts as we make the Sicilian concept of vendetta or the Albanian idea of gjakmarrja with its fortified towers for men to hide from the consequence of blood feuds, seem mild in comparison.  Going around one of those towers on my Albanian trek to the Forsaken Mountains a few years back was one of the highlights.  Blood until the seventh generation and all that, but while it is true that we hold a grudge we are also a hospitable people understanding the obligations of hospitality, but betray that trust, and then it gets difficult.

As it happens the idea of revenge, or rather summoning the moral courage not to take it, was on my mind earlier today and I ended up playing with a couple of two by two matrices, one on types of revenge and the other on the matching level of betrayal or sin that would trigger it.  I decided there was no harm in blogging on the subject on the basis that I can trust my audience to read this with a sense of humour.  Of course, if you betray that trust things will get difficult!   So today I thought I would go for the sin and in the follow-up post look at models of revenge.  This is all a sort of indulgence before I get back to some more serious stuff over the weekend when a series of posts have to be written on crisis management.

So the first matrix is shown and on the horizontal access, I have taken a leaf from my book on Dogma and identified sins of commission and omission.  For those not familiar with the concept sins of commission involve deliberate acts of evil, while those of omission involve failing to act to prevent evil.  In terms of dogma both are equally sinful, but in my experience of the excuses of sinners then tend to see omission as a lesser form and indeed proffer it as an excuse.  You know the sort of thing, claims that it wasn’t me but rather others who were responsible; suggestions that they simply were not aware this mattered to you and so on.  On the vertical axis, I ended up going from fully intentional behaviour to things that just happened, a sort of falling into sin.

I should also confess that I had exemplars of all four states in my mind as I produced this, experience is a great teacher so I am going to tell a few stories, but no I won’t name names although someone did say this morning they might open a book on it.  I am also more than aware that do not come to this discussion with clean hands, but I don’t think I have ever been on the left of the matrix but I can think of a few roadkill examples that I am not proud of.

So what are the four conditions?

  1. Commission/Intentional
    This is the really evil stuff.  I’ve called it Machiavelli without morality, a phrase which has a twist.  Machiavelli, the founder of political science, who created the foundation for modern republicanism, was manipulative in the interests of the state, not his private purse.  In IBM days I faced down, with the help of top cover, meticulously planned attempts to have me fired as my work was threatening established interests.  It’s bad enough to say that your research colleagues are wrong, but when DARPA agrees with you then you are in trouble.  The second attempt resulted from the Joel situation I reported in an earlier post. That individual was remorseless and was the proximate source of my taking early retirement and setting up Cognitive Edge.  In the US there seems to be a breed of business person who is the alter ego of Albert Haddock, seeking the use of the law not for justice, but for business advantage, in effect a type of bully boy tactic.  Having been threatened with action to try and make me personally bankrupt I have felt the pain of this one and while I could go on at length it’s bad for my blood pressure.
  2. Commission/Accidental
    The road to hell as the proverb says is paved with good intentions. Once upon a time, I had an email from someone once to inform me that against all expectations they had decided to betray a long-term working relationship.  The basic line was they had no alternative and they were acting with integrity, a claim that unraveled somewhat on closer examination and disclosure.  I’ve seen people driven to theft by poverty or forced into some form of fraud through pressure from people who have power over them.  Doing the wrong thing because the vice-president told you to is a lot more common than you might think.  Both betrayer and betrayed tend to fall into this space by accident or neglect.  Taking people for granted can result in resentment and vulnerability to temptation.  This one is complex and early detection of a shift and early response is key.  one thing I have learned and had to relearn, is not to accept third party assurances that all is well, but to investigate for yourself.
  3. Omission/Intentional
    I will never forget Mark, a friend and ally in IBM looking at me in surprise one day and saying Why are you upset you were just roadkill.  The reference was to a recent change in IBM which has a major impact on what I was trying to do and I was frankly upset.  The lesson of Mark’s phrase was exactly that, I was not the target.  However, the IBM General Manager concerned had set off down the road at high speed knowing that people would be killed in the process.  I remember one VP, let’s call him Andrew who literally caused someone to shit themselves before a review.  It wasn’t personal but it was intentional.  This type of target induced narcissism is all too common in organisations.  Quota bands imposed by HR are another example of people being told they have been graded down from actual performance because the profile of the unit doesn’t permit it.  Statistics will be the death of HR one of these days and personally, I think the masses should revolt and will be the first at the foot of the guillotine with my knitting.
  4. Omission/Accidental
    This is simply the most pathetic and it’s cowardly; hence the reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  You get a lot of this in that people simply hope that issues will go away, or that you won’t be offended.  I remember being asked to take up an honorary position and accepted the offer I proceeded to promote and recruited others to the same role.  I then saw the list of people appointed and I was not on it – a little embarrassing as in a conference call I had just told people of the role.  I subsequently discovered that there had been objections and the individual who had made the offer had simply not done anything leaving me to find out by accident.  Worst still I had to ask.  I’ve seen managers actually make a decision not to promote someone but then hide behind the It’s not me, its policy or similar.  Aristotle famously said that you had to train young men (this is Aristotle I am not endorsing the sexism) to be virtuous as you could not rely on roads.  It is a question of integrity really and I can think of occasions where I haven’t been able to fulfill a promise, but I have either resigned (in two cases) or simply fought until something was done.  You’ve got to forgive people in this category, simply because you feel sorry for them.

Having completed this I decided that this isn’t just a joke, it also has some utility in that developing a concept of ethics within an organisation or a society often starts with an awareness of what we should not do.  This was borne home to me in a discussion earlier this week when I was veering to the side of mercy and quoting the parable of the prodigal son when it was forcibly pointed out to me by colleagues that in that parable the prodigal starts with a confession and act of contrition; the fatted calf follows it does not lead. so this is a light-hearted start to what will probably be a more serious subject.  So the following post will attempt to make the punishment fit the crime and match the one-two by two with another, a typology of revenge!

The key to all of this, by the way, is to realise that bad things will happen in your career, try not to be naive but above all don’t be bitter.  That doesn’t mean you should be stoical; Rage, rage against the dying of the light to quote Thomas.  But don’t let it eat you up, shake the dust from your feet, and move on (Luke 9:5 for those interested in the original of the phrase).  But all of that said, forgiveness probably does require contrition in practice, if not articulation.


The banner picture is cropped from an original of the Château D’if by Jacqueline Macou from Pixabay

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