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.
You might be wondering how to keep people from asking nasty questions. Try posting these articles. But the most effective tactic is to avoid asking them yourself. First in this series Top Next Issue
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:
- How to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager
- By now, we've all heard of micromanagers, and some have experienced micromanagement firsthand. Some
of us have even micromanaged others. But there's a breed of micromanagers whose behavior is so outlandish
that they need a category of their own.
- Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
- Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources.
Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
- Social Entry Strategies: I
- Much more than work happens in the workplace. We also engage in social behaviors, including one sometimes
called social entry. We use social entry strategies to make places for ourselves in social groups at work.
- Holding Back: II
- Members of high-performing teams rarely hold back effort. But truly high performance is rare in teams.
Here is Part II of our exploration of mechanisms that account for team members' holding back effort
they could contribute.
- Grace Under Fire: III
- When someone at work seems intent on making your work life a painful agony, you might experience fear,
anxiety, or stress that can lead to a loss of emotional control. Retaining composure is in that case
the key to survival.
See also Workplace Politics, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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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.
- Wikipedia has a nice article with a list of additional resources
- Some public libraries offer collections. Here's an example from Saskatoon.
- Check my own links collection
- LinkedIn's Office Politics discussion group