In December, 1972, about 117 hours into the Apollo 17 lunar mission, as Astronaut Eugene Cernan was loading the Lunar Rover for the mission's first excursion across the surface of the moon, he accidentally caught the right rear fender of the rover with a hammer. He damaged it, and made a quick repair that really didn't hold. Overnight, Houston worked out a more durable repair that the astronauts installed in the morning, and it held up well during two subsequent excursions.
It's a good thing, too. On Lunar Rovers, fenders are important. They protect the vehicle and the astronauts from the dust and rocks kicked up by the wheels. Fenders do something similar for cars, bicycles, and motorcycles.
And sometimes, people serve an analogous role for their supervisors. At work, a fender is anyone who serves to prevent political mud from splashing on the fender's boss. Here are some indicators that you might be a fender.
- Other people are fenders
- If one or more of your peers or predecessors (or their predecessors) were or are fenders, you might be one yourself. Sometimes it's easier to see in others than in yourself.
- You can't exercise your authority
- Even though you have formal authority for something, you can't really exercise it without your boss's approval. For instance, if you want to initiate a replacement process or a performance improvement plan for a problem subordinate, and your boss insists on detailed involvement in the procedure, you might be a fender. In extreme cases, you might be told to wait for a "more convenient" time, or that a replacement requisition won't be available.
- If the task is risky, it's yours
- A fender is someone
whose role is to protect
the boss from being splashed
with political mud
- Most managers handle some tasks through delegation, and some personally. But if your boss tends to delegate tasks to you if and only if they are high-risk politically, you might be a fender.
The consequences for the individual fender are unpleasant enough, but the existence of fenders also harms the organization.
- Tolerating unethical behavior
- While it might be OK to use an inanimate object as protection from the consequences of your actions, using human beings that way is unethical. Tolerating one form of ethical breach could be a signal of breaches elsewhere.
- Disguising the real problem
- To enable the organization to take corrective action, bad management must be revealed. Using a subordinate as a fender enables managers to trick the organization into believing that the problem was in the subordinate. This can lead to mistaken corrective action.
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
For more about the Lunar Rover, see A Brief History of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 3 April 2002.
And for more about the Apollo 17 mission, see Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,edited by Eric M. Jones, NASA Headquarters, November, 2005.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- The "What-a-Great-Idea!" Trap
- You just made a great suggestion at a meeting, and ended up with responsibility for implementing it.
Not at all what you had in mind, but it's a trap you've fallen into before. How can you share your ideas
without risk of getting even more work to do?
- When Power Attends the Meeting
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inevitably results, and it's usually invisible to the visitor. Here are some of the risks of sitting
in on the meetings of your subordinates.
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Conflicts of Interest in Reporting
- Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts.
Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading
and unreliable reports.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I
- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking,
and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging
elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.