Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 5;   January 30, 2002: Become a Tugboat Captain

Become a Tugboat Captain

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.

If you're responsible for monitoring compliance with organizational policy or government regulation, you sometimes tell people who have organizational power that they must stop doing what they're doing, or that they must do something differently. This can be risky or even downright dangerous. How can you manage it safely?

A tugboat at workEven if your organization is serious about dealing with noncompliance, those not in compliance can see you as the problem. Instead of taking corrective action, they might try to curtail your authority, restrict your resources, attack you personally, or even terminate you.

To be most effective, become a tugboat captain.

Tugboats are small, powerful vessels that maneuver ships much larger than they are.

Large ships can apply tremendous forces fore-and-aft. But most large ships have relatively little ability to exert transverse forces — the very forces they need if they want to change direction.

If you monitor compliance
with policy or regulation,
become a tugboat captain
Tugboats aren't powerful enough to start or stop a large ship quickly, but they can control the large ship's direction. They rely on three strategies. They work with the harbor pilot on the bridge, they work in teams, and they focus on direction, not speed.

If you monitor compliance with policy or regulation, what does it mean to be a tugboat captain?

Know your vessel
Know that you're on a tugboat, not a large ship. You can't float the weight they do, and you can't survive the high seas like they do. You do have tremendous power for your size, and you're very maneuverable. Knowing your strengths and limitations is a key to survival.
Know the harbor
Know every shoal, channel, and wharf in the harbor — and every mistake other tugboat captains have made. Know just as much about the ships you maneuver. This means that you know the regulations or policies that you're responsible for monitoring, and you know the strengths and limitations of the managers who must comply.
Work with other tugs
Tugs usually work in teams. They rely on each other and use each other as resources. Work closely with others who monitor compliance. Share techniques and learn from each other. Coordinate action.
Get cooperation from the bridge
During tight maneuvers, a harbor pilot commands the ship, coordinating with tugs. Secure the cooperation of management at all levels near the level of the manager you're monitoring. Especially important: a solid and trusting relationship with your own manager.
Focus on direction, not speed
Tugboats aren't so good at starting or stopping large ships — instead, they try to steer them, while the ship provides fore-and-aft power. Let the manager you're monitoring provide the impetus and power for change, while you focus on the direction of the change.

Consider buying a toy tugboat for your desk. Only you and I will know what it means. Go to top Top  Next issue: Are You Taking on the Full Load?  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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