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 noncooperator, 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

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