A History Lesson in Physical Surroundings

Being able to identify the tactics used by strategically difficult people is key to being able to overcome them. Consider this lesson about Admiral Hyman Rickover. He employed the Physical Surroundings tactic—when the other side controls a venue to gain an advantage, such as controlling your comfort level, location, resources, and so on—to make others feel off-balance (literally). It was effective because people didn’t identify what he was doing and make changes to alleviate the problem.

The following is an excerpt from the book “Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People” by Ron Shapiro, Mark Jankowski, and Jim Dale.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, child of a Jewish immigrant family, entered the Naval Academy in 1918, almost immediately in conflict with its traditional W.A.S.P. aristocracy. According to much of the history written about him, Rickover was unpopular with other midshipmen and was resented as a loner. He graduated from the academy and went on to an early career that was largely undistinguished. He volunteered for submarine duty and served, but he was not selected for command. Shortly after, he was selected, almost randomly, for a limited assignment to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where nuclear research was being performed. He quickly determined that the military use of nuclear power represented a future opportunity for the navy and for Hyman Rickover. From then on, it became his obsession and eventual path to a historic role in U.S. naval history.

However, despite his increasing renown and respect in the field, rising to the rank of admiral, gaining international eminence, Rickover never seemed to lose the insecurity that came with being an outsider in his early years. The father of the “nuclear navy” and developer of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the admiral became infamous for his subtle but highly effective interpersonal tactics. The classic Rickover maneuver was to position visitors—be they important government officials or departmental subordinates—in purposely unbalanced chairs. He literally kept those he dealt with off-balance when they were in his office. The admiral was employing Tactic 11—Physical Surroundings—to gain or maintain a sense of superiority and, consequently, an upper hand in dealing with others. Most of the people who sat in his office probably could not identify the physical manipulation—the rocky, uneven chair legs, their own literal instability versus Rickover’s solid, steady position—but they would say that they simply felt uncomfortable or at a disadvantage in his presence.

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