Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 20;   May 20, 2009: Pumpers

Pumpers

by

In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
Linda Tripp, a central figure in the impeachment of President Clinton

Linda Tripp, a central figure in the impeachment of President Clinton. Perhaps the most famous "pumper" in recent memory, Ms. Tripp became the confidant of Monica Lewinsky, recording numerous conversations in which Ms. Lewinsky related details of her relationship with President Clinton. Ms. Tripp then conveyed the recordings to the Special Prosecutor investigating the President in unrelated matters. For a thorough yet concise outline of Ms. Tripp's activities see Douglas Lindner's account, "The Impeachment Trial of President William Clinton." Photo courtesy Prof. Douglas O. Linder and the University of Missouri Kansas City Law School.

Have you ever encountered a pumper at work? Someone who seems overly inquisitive about matters political, but never seems to offer any information of value in return? Your answers never satisfy, and questions come one after the other: "What did you think of how they let Grant go? Who's next? Heard anything about the reorg?" It never ends.

Most of us consider pumpers to be pests. Some of them are just that, and nothing more. But sometimes, the matter is more serious. Pumpers can be politically dangerous.

Some pumpers are engaged in the dark side of workplace politics, either enthusiastically, or with naiveté or ignorance, or out of fear or extortion. When one of these pumpers targets you, the problem isn't finding the best response — it's finding the least bad response.

If you sense that you're being pumped, you might consider asking about it directly, if you feel safe enough to ask. Usually, though, a pumper's intentions are clear, and openness isn't really an option. What then?

Sophisticated pumpers first prime the pump. They offer information, usually unbidden, to gain trust. The less sophisticated offer no prepayment. They're easier to identify, but still potentially dangerous.

Stonewalling isn't an option. Stonewalling a pumper who's acting on behalf of someone with organizational power over you marks you as a non-cooperator, or even part of the opposition. Offering something is better than offering nothing.

Cooperating enthusiastically is also unwise. If you provide useful information, you might be one of the only sources for it. If the pumper is concealing his or her client, which could indicate lack of trust, trusting the pumper is risky. If you're in, you want to be all the way in, and if you aren't trusted, you aren't in. That's why providing rare information could be risky, especially if the pumper's client considers what you provided to be harmful.

Most of us consider pumpers to
be little more than pests, but
pumpers can be politically dangerous
A middle course is probably less risky. In utmost confidence, of course, offer information that many people have. That way it can't be traced to you as the sole or likely source. Ideally, you convey information that the pumper already has confirmed. Although it's of no value to the pumper, it establishes you as a reliable if naïve cooperator who believes that the information is valuable. True pumpers won't tell you that what you've told them is worthless, because they don't want to reveal that they already know it. They'll express gratitude, assuring you that your confidence will be respected. After a few incidents like this, the pumper will probably stop pumping you, because you will have demonstrated that you're fairly harmless, and not valuable as a resource.

Those who seek political information as part of a free and fair exchange are usually behaving ethically. But beware those who exploit power or ignorance to achieve that same end. Go to top Top  Next issue: Teamwork Myths: Formation  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenUqUmmxnxewqjfnsHner@ChacpAJyfovtxEKNJvtzoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Seafood stewWhen You Think Your Boss Is Incompetent
After the boss commits even a few enormous blunders, some of us conclude that he or she is just incompetent. We begin to worry whether our careers are safe, whether the company is safe, or whether to start looking for another job. Beyond worrying, what else can we do?
George Washington Crossing the DelawareThe Advantages of Political Attack: II
In workplace politics, attackers are often surprisingly successful with even the flimsiest assertions. Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident"False Consensus
Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees."Preventing Spontaneous Collapse of Agreements
Agreements between people at work are often the basis of resolving conflict or political differences. Sometimes agreements collapse spontaneously. When they do, the consequences can be costly. An understanding of the mechanisms of spontaneous collapse of agreements can help us craft more stable agreements.
Promotional poster for the 1957 film Twelve Angry MenThe Opposite of Influence
The question of why some people are so influential has a partner question: why are others largely ignored, or opposed, even when their contributions are valuable?

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZElIdmwdswUQcVplner@ChacpFiWCPsgylbRZjAzoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.