By assigning a task to two or more impossibly incompatible people, the political operator creates a three-legged race. Perhaps you remember the races from picnics long ago — participants pair up, and standing side-by-side, the right-hand partners tie their left legs to the right legs of the left-hand partners. The pairs then run a race, and comical spills are inevitable.
Three-legged races might be funny at picnics, but in business they're extremely dangerous, because the political operator who selects the race partners has likely arranged for failure. By exploiting a past history of conflict, leadership ambiguity, organizational tensions, or contention for the same promotion, the operator ensures project sabotage, or damage to one or both careers.
Three-legged races are especially challenging when the partners hold joint responsibility for mission success. But even if one is designated lead, there can still be significant trouble if one partner is required to accept the other and is ordered to "make it work."
might be funny
at picnics, but
they're dangerousEven if you aren't now engaged in a three-legged race, look around. If others are lashed together, or have been in the past, check for patterns. Is it cultural? Does one specific player repeatedly create three-legged races? If so, your turn will come.
If you find yourself in a three-legged race, what can you do?
- Show your partner this essay
- Giving a name to this dynamic helps you both talk about it together. When you both see that someone else has arranged for your troubles, you can see your common interest more clearly.
- Come to consensus about your situation
- Whoever tied you together might be unaware of how destructive the arrangement can be, but more often, the tactic is a cynical attempt to undermine the project or to damage careers. Try to come to consensus about what's really going on.
- Ask for help
- If you can't work things out between you, ask for outside assistance. A professional mediator or facilitator can help both of you see things a bit differently. Avoid asking for help from the operator who lashed you together. By now, you know where that leads.
- If you can't work it out, prepare contingencies
- Things may be so far gone that consensus is impossible, even with the help of a professional. If you're unable to agree, head for the exit. Even if you have enough power in the situation to prevail, your partner usually has enough strength to sabotage the effort. Getting out might be your best option.
Perhaps, as a manager, you arrange three-legged races to give warring parties a chance to "work together" to resolve their problems. Even though you mean well, find another way to help them — this method puts them and the organization at risk. Get help. Dealing with interpersonal difficulties directly actually does work. Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.