Some "career opportunities" are once-in-a-career gifts from the career gods. And some are dangerous traps to be avoided without further investigation. Some traps are custom-designed for just one person — carefully configured to appeal by matching in every detail the template the target is looking for. They're so carefully crafted that when we first encounter them, we're vulnerable to being trapped.
To see how these things work, consider the vignette below. I've given you more of a hint about it being a trap than you'd have in a real situation, but read it and see how many indicators of trouble you can find.
Terry is a rising star project manager in a hot company. Although he's had some successes in mid-sized projects that were a bit challenging, those projects weren't at the center of the company's strategic vision. Early one Monday morning, he finds an unexpected meeting invitation in his calendar from Paul P., the sponsor of a project known as Marigold — a large project that Terry knows very little about, except that it has been consuming huge numbers of engineers, and there are rumors that it hasn't been going well.
Terry accepts the meeting, which is scheduled for an hour from now. Not much time to prepare, and the people Terry would have liked to consult beforehand are either too many time zones ahead, too many time zones behind, or tied up in meetings. Terry decides that he'll just have to meet with Paul P. cold.
He grabs his cup of coffee and heads upstairs two levels to Paul's office, where he finds Paul standing, silently staring out the window at the sunrise. Nice view. Terry knocks on the doorjamb. Paul seems a little startled, turns around, flashes a nice smile, and motions Terry to one of the chairs at the conference table.
Cheerily, Paul says, "Glad you could drop by, Terry, on such short notice. Please have a seat." Paul closes the office door. They both sit, and Paul lays out this story.
He has just had to let go Marigold's third project manager. Marigold is late and over budget, and some projections are that it will get later and even more over budget before they know whether their latest attempts to fix things actually prove viable. Paul wanted to meet with Terry because he's heard great things about Terry's "special talents," which Terry demonstrated so clearly in his last two projects. Paul has heard so many good things about Terry from so many people that he felt he had to have a chat to see if Terry might be interested in "honchoing Marigold" (Paul's phrase) and finally "bring it home."
At this point, Paul explains that he'd like a cup of coffee, and offers Terry one, too. Terry says, "No thanks, I brought mine," raising his mug. Paul says, "Oh, right." He buzzes his assistant, asks for a coffee, and continues.
Paul adds that if Terry agrees to "take up the challenge" Paul would arrange a skip-rank promotion immediately, because Marigold's size would require it. Terry says that he's intrigued, of course, and then asks, "What's actually going on" with the project.
Paul's coffee arrives, with two of those little plastic cream containers and some sugar packets. Terry was expecting Paul's assistant Pat to bring the coffee, and he doesn't recognize this guy. Paul asks Terry, "Have you met Jordan? Jordan, this is Terry. Terry, Jordan. Oh and thanks, Jordan. Just so you know, I drink it black." Jordan nods, steps out, and closes the door behind him.
Paul explains that the core of Marigold involves a technology that hasn't been used in the company before, and there have been several false starts. The team still isn't sure they have a viable approach, but Paul has heard that Terry has had some similar experience with Project Daffodil, which had been a smashing success. He says that he wants to give Terry a chance to execute a repeat performance.
Terry had no idea that Paul could be so charming. Paul is widely known as a "bear," and some have called him ruthless, but the reviews overall are mixed.
Wrapping up, Paul suggests that Terry set up a meeting with Eunice, the tech lead on the Marigold core, and then circle back to Paul with questions about the offer or how to work out a transition from his current position.
They shake hands and the meeting is over.
It's a dream situation for some people. Substitute "project manager" for whatever position you hold, and imagine what you might do with such an offer.
In general though, do not fall for this.
It's very likely a trap, set by a psychopathic project sponsor. The term psychopathic isn't slang, and it isn't a joke; organizational psychopathy is a real thing [Babiak 2007].
In this Part I and next in Part II, I'll list nine indicators that an "opportunity" might actually be a trap. In what follows, I'll use the term probable psychopath or the name Paul to indicate the potentially psychopathic project sponsor, and the term target or the name Terry to indicate Paul's target for entrapment. These first three indicators are somewhat obvious, but they can serve as suggestions for the kind of thing to look for.
- The project is in big trouble
- Even if Paul isn't an organizational psychopath, it can be It can be risky to accept an
offer of a position of leadership
of a project or other entity that
everyone knows is in troublerisky to accept his offer of a position of leadership for a project or other entity that everyone acknowledges is in trouble. That alone should give one pause, but it's a stronger indicator of risk when the probability of Paul's organizational psychopathy is elevated.
- For example, an organizational psychopath might have an interest in placing the new project manager in a position in which the looming failure affords him, the psychopath, leverage over the project manager. That leverage can be exploited for favors, including misrepresenting the true status of the effort. If Terry succumbs to these pressures, the result can be serious damage to his career, in ways that enable Paul to shift responsibility from himself to Terry, when Paul "discovers" that Terry has been concealing the true status of the effort.
- The offered position has had several previous occupants
- A pattern of repeatedly replacing the occupant of any given position is always a risk indicator. But if there are indicators that the position's supervisor might be an organizational psychopath, the risk is elevated.
- Blaming the previous occupants of the position for problems in the effort in question is almost always questionable. Success or failure of any collaborative effort in a modern organization rarely rests on the contributions of only one person. To blame one person, even a leader of the effort, one must ignore or minimize the effects of two important factors. The first is the collection of resource allocations and other policies determined elsewhere in the organization. And second, few leaders are free to shape their situations independently. Most leaders work within constraints imposed by their collaborators. Thus, one-person blame is often misplaced. When Paul claims that he had to "let go" Marigold's third project manager, he's suggesting what is unlikely to be true — that the previous project managers are responsible for the trouble. If Terry accepts the position, he risks being the next person to be blamed.
- The "pitch" is flattering
- When the offer is couched in flattering terms, be alert. Flattery can be disarming. It can cause us to set aside all defenses, even the defenses that protect us from the effects of flattery. It works because most people want to think well of themselves, and they want that thought to be confirmed by others.
- Flattery is therefore an indicator of risk, but it is an even stronger indicator when someone not known for grace or consideration delivers it. Organizational psychopaths use flattery when they believe that their targets are susceptible to it.
In Part II of this exploration, we'll list some less obvious indicators of entrapment. Between now and next week, see how many more you can find in the story of Paul and Terry. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Patterns of Everyday Conversation
- Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself
to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
- Unwelcome Workplace Hugs
- Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are
simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
- The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
- The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots
of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential
conflicts of interest.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- Exploiting Functional Fixedness: I
- Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that creates difficulty in seeing novel uses of things that
have familiar uses. Some devious moves in workplace politics exploit functional fixedness.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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
- 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.