March 6, 2024

You’re always carrying a cannon

This post is a rough recreation of a post from someone else that I saw years ago and now can’t find. If this rings a bell and you know the original, email phildini at phildini dot net.

As a manager talking to your reports, you are always carrying a cannon and promising it won’t go off.

That’s the one thing I want you to take away from this article, and I encourage you to go read it in its entirety one more time. No matter how friendly you are with your team, no matter your relationships outside work, no matter if you were one of the team yesterday and just got promoted, the cannon is always there and your reports can’t know with absolute certainty it won’t go off because they can’t see inside your brain.

The cannon is the inherent power you have as their manager to tank, wreck, or bludgeon beyond recovery their career prospects on your team, at your company, and possibly beyond. The ultimate expression of the cannon is: you fire them. But short of firing them, there are dozens of big and small ways you could make their lives, inside and outside work, extremely difficult.

Whether or not you think about the cannon, the cannon is there. Good managers are aware of the cannon. Great managers are aware of the cannon and aware that their reports are aware of the cannon. Your reports, consciously or subconsciously, go into every meeting with you with some part of them knowing that this could be the meeting where you fire them, take away their projects, or in general make their lives miserable. They may not be able to voice this knowledge, you may have built trust such that they think the chances measure in the microscopic, but that doesn’t change the fact that the cannon is there and that how you behave as a manager influences the trust they have in the cannon not going off.

This is part of the reason why trust building is so important: you need your team to believe that they will get lots and lots of warning before the cannon goes off. How you talk about projects, how you talk about performance, how you respond to suggestions, how you take feedback — all of these change the unconscious mental calculus in your reports’ heads about whether the cannon is going to go off for them.

I’ve spent some time trying to think of a positive spin on this fact of management, but this is, for me, closer to a hard truth than a cloud with a silver lining. With great power comes great responsibility. If a silver lining exists, it’s that you have this power and can choose to wield it to make your team and your reports great, to use some of the cannon’s power to clear a path ahead of your team for the work they want to do, work that they will hopefully find fulfilling.

But the cannon is there, whether or not you acknowledge it, and great managers know it, see it, and interact with their team to build trust around this fact.

Thanks to Jacob Kaplan-Moss and Michael Graham for reviewing this post


Previous post
Key insights from "The Art of the Start" I first read Guy Kawasaki’s “The Art of the Start” when I was in college, and didn’t really know if startups were going to be my whole career, or if