Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 15;   April 13, 2005: Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"

Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"

by

If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
The Cone Nebula

The Cone Nebula as imaged by the ACS camera of the Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute.

There's no excuse for going-dark behavior, of course, but in our frustration, trying to turn the lights back on, we often select tactics that are ineffective and can even be counterproductive. Avoid these:

The Tweaking CC
Something that rarely works: sending a query in email demanding information, accusing the recipient of failing to report, and including a CC to the recipient's boss, to the CEO and to the Master of the Universe. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001.
Public embarrassment
Pillorying the offender in a general email to the team, or at a meeting — especially in his or her absence — is likely to arouse anger and resistance.
Spreading poison
Describing the problem to anyone who will listen will likely be seen as character assassination.
Abuse
Harassment and intimidation, in person or in other media, are always unethical and unacceptable. And they just plain don't work. See "When You're the Target of a Bully," Point Lookout for March 17, 2004.
Suspending privileges or reassignment as punishment
Indirect, threatening, or abusive
tactics are unlikely
to address the problem
The deterrence theory of punishment is questionable in any case, but in the team environment it's downright toxic.
The nuclear option
Waiting until the annual review period to then clobber the victim with a truly horrible report doesn't resolve the immediate problem.

Try the following steps instead. They're arranged in roughly increasing order of escalation.

Email, voicemail, interdepartmental mail, fax, stopping by, and notes on the chair
You probably already tried all of these. They haven't worked.
Email with a return-receipt and high priority
This probably won't work either, but you have to try.
Call at odd hours
Calling in the early morning, during lunch, late evenings, or weekends might work, if the subject is avoiding answering calls during business hours.
Mask your caller ID
If the subject is screening your calls using caller ID, mask your ID or call from an unusual number, such as a conference room, a friend's mobile, or a colleague's phone. Next level: call from the credit union, HR, or Security.
Make a personal visit
If you're remote, this isn't an easy option, but it might work.
Ask for help
Consult your boss for ideas, influence, and moral support. This is a last resort, but it usually works when all else has failed.

When you finally make contact, remember to remain calm. If the incident is a first-time offense, explain your concerns seriously and respectfully and demand respect in return. If the incident is part of a pattern, you've got a larger problem, and you need more information to figure out what that problem might be.

For instance, the "offender" might not be an offender at all — he or she might have been directed to go dark by someone up the management chain (I've seen this happen). Tread carefully.

In any case, work to repair and preserve the relationship first, and to resolve the problem second. Progress, when it comes, will require a sound and stable relationship. Go to top Top  Next issue: Knowing Where You're Going  Next Issue

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Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

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When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?
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Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded — or failed.
Prof. Tom PettigrewThe Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.

See also Project Management, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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