Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 37;   September 12, 2018:

Columbo Tactics: I

by

When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo. Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
A cat sleeping on grass

A cat sleeping on grass. This is what serenity and calm look like. Columbo behaves as if he aims for this level of calm in his suspects.

As I suggested last time, the fictional homicide detective Lt. Columbo has a uniquely disarming and effective style that helps him crack the most difficult cases. By making suspects feel safe from his seemingly inept investigation, and pretending to seek enlightenment and assistance from the suspects, he tricks them into revealing critical details about how they committed the crimes. Columbo's strategy is based on three principles:

  • Keep the suspect calm and confident
  • Pretend to be seeking education for yourself
  • Seek explanations more than once from different perspectives

In the workplace, a situation in which the Columbo strategy is helpful occurs when a project manager (Patricia), whose project is struggling, must deal with a committee of senior managers who are formed into an Emergency Reaction Force (ERF), to help Patricia sort out her troubled project.

Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics based on Columbo's tactics, but which are also applicable to Patricia's situation.

Choose deference, not confrontation
Patricia always, Keep them calm and confident,
pretend to be seeking education,
and seek explanations
more than once from
different perspectives
always defers to the members of the ERF, often with sheepish self-deprecation. In the minds of the members of the ERF, their role is to help Patricia by educating her as to how she should have been doing her job. The fact that they are nearly clueless as to how to do Patricia's job can never be part of the message Patricia delivers to them. Patricia consistently presents a stance of gratitude for whatever pearls of wisdom the ERFs might toss her way. She even solicits their advice to help them feel comfortable in the role of her coach or advisor.
For example, when the ERF directs her to take some action that she has already taken, and which didn't have the desired effect, Patricia wouldn't say, "We already tried that, and it didn't work, because of X, Y, and Z." Instead, she might say, "Hmm. Intriguing. But I'm a little confused. If X, or Y, or Z were to happen, wouldn't that create a problem?" I call this kind of question a "Hmm-Intriguing" question.
Some member of the ERF might then respond, "Don't worry about that. Just do as we say." That sounds like the worst case, but it's actually wonderful, because failure is likely. When failure occurs, Patricia can report, "I tried that idea, and it didn't work." If the ERF asks why, she can say "Because of X." She needn't say, "I warned you about this," because they know she did warn them. A few repetitions of this pattern might cause them to pay a little more attention when Patricia asks one of her "Hmm-Intriguing" questions.
"Hmm-Intriguing" questions are inherently deferential. In these questions, Patricia is asking for enlightenment, and most ERFs are only too glad to fall into the trap. They either give the do-as-we-say response, or conjure up some plausibility argument to justify their idea, which Patricia knows cannot work. Either way, the outcome is a potential opportunity to educate the ERF.
This dance can be frustrating at times for the Patricias of the world. But if we look upon it as an investment, the return on that investment is a reduction of the incidence of misinformed misdirection on the part of the ERFs.
Express affection, admiration, or respect
One technique Columbo uses with some of his suspects is the straightforward expression of affection, admiration, or respect. This tactic, which is often genuine, helps him achieve his strategic goal of keeping the suspect calm.
Patricia can emulate this tactic of Columbo's, though expressions of affection are a delicate matter in the workplace and best avoided. Expressing admiration and respect are certainly acceptable, though one must take care to be sincere — or at least to appear so. Done effectively, expressing admiration and respect helps to keep the members of the ERF receptive to Patricia's questions. And the ERFs want to help her, because the most important part of the whole exercise for them is validation of their superior skills and knowledge.
Get them talking and keep them talking
When the members of the ERF are talking, either to Patricia or among themselves, they're at risk of revealing the limits of their knowledge — or the depths of their ignorance. That's one reason why asking questions is Patricia's most effective method for generating teachable moments.
Columbo uses a variety of conversation starters to get his suspects talking. Examples: "One point I'd like your help in clearing up;" "There's something that keeps bothering me about that;" "You know, I'm a little confused about something;" "I can't figure out why X didn't happen;"
In some "starters," such as, "One little point I'd like your help in clearing up," he minimizes the import of what he's asking about. This has the effect of relaxing his suspect, so as to implement the strategic goal of keeping the suspect calm. In other starters, such as "You know, I'm a little confused about something," he minimizes his own skills of detection, so as to pretend to be asking for education for himself.
When the suspect answers Columbo's starter question, or any question, Columbo has a variety of techniques for keeping the suspect talking. Praise is a favorite: "Oh, right, yeah, you're right;" "Yeah, I forgot, but it's obvious now that you mention it." These comments allow him to segue smoothly into another starter question. After just two cycles of this exchange, the suspect is feeling very relaxed and might even continue talking without further prompting.
These tactics work well for Patricia, just as they are — no adaptation needed.

We'll continue next time with three more of Columbo's investigative tactics. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Columbo Tactics: II  Next Issue

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Here are some resources that have more information about adapting Columbo's tactics to the workplace:

  • Columbo: The complete series, box set of DVDs, starring Peter Falk.
  • Steven Gaffney. "How to confront liars using the 'Columbo Method'," The Small Business Advocate blog, 2011.
  • Debra Cassens Weiss. "The Best Way to Interrogate: Think Columbo," The ABA Journal, May 12, 2009.
  • Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D. "The Psychology Of Columbo: A brief look at the TV detective's lessons for us all," Psychology Today blog, February 20, 2018.

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