Many questions we ask each other in meetings or email are asked not to elicit information, but to "ding" each other. Here's part two of a little catalog of nasty questions. See "Nasty Questions: I," Point Lookout for November 8, 2006, for more.
- Pressure tactics
- Questioners sometimes want to pressure the respondent. For example, just as the respondent begins an answer to a difficult question, the questioner can interrupt with "What's the short answer?" or "We've got a long agenda here…"
- The questioner's purpose is to make it easier to attack the respondent's answer. Responding to pressure tactics can be tricky, but since everyone knows what's going on, a powerful response to the how-long-will-this-take question might be "It depends on what quality of answer you want."
- Cheap shots
- When someone proposes an alternative solution to a difficult problem, it's a cheap shot to ask, "How much will that cost?" or "How long will that take?" The questioner (and almost anyone) can guess that cheap shots will have embarrassing answers or no answers at all. That's what makes cheap shots cheap.
- Cheap shots are supposed to demonstrate weaknesses indirectly. It's usually best to respond honestly. For instance, "We don't know that yet, of course. Would you like an estimate by Friday?"
- Hoping for a shortcut
- Here the questioner hopes the response will be acceptable, and more direct tactics will be unnecessary. For instance, after discussing acceptable resource levels (in effect, supplying the "right answer"), asking what resources are needed might just elicit an acceptable response.
- Truth is your best ally. When asked for estimates on the spot, it's best to supply them with appropriate confidence levels: "Just as a guess, I'd say 100 person weeks plus or minus 50%. I can get you a better estimate by Friday."
- Trap construction
- Anybody can guess
that cheap-shot questions
will have embarrassing
answers. That's what makes
cheap shots cheap.
- In a sequence of seemingly unrelated questions, with perhaps some truly irrelevant questions thrown in, the questioner lays a trap that constrains the respondent's answers to the "trap question."
- This technique relies on the desire of most of us to be consistent, and our wish to avoid backtracking or correcting previous responses. Trap construction questions that contain presuppositions [Brenner 2004] that conflict with the hypotheses of the trap question are especially effective. If you get trapped, look for presuppositions, and be willing to backtrack or be inconsistent.
- Usually asked publicly, zingers are vehicles for reminding bystanders of past infractions, or weaknesses of or accusations against the target. Example: "Weren't you the project manager for that Disaster last year?"
- Most people know what's really going on. Such questions (and likely, the questioner) are toxic to the organization. Choose whether or not to respond — a silent smile might be enough.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True
- Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose
options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a
little too much.
- Projection Errors at Work
- Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations
not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- Workplace Politics and Integrity
- Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or
one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
- Meets Expectations
- Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds
expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And 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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- 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.