Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 14;   April 3, 2019:

Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I


When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap.
The Striped Anglerfish, Antennarius striatus

The Striped Anglerfish, Antennarius striatus, found in the Gulf of Mexico. Most adult female anglerfish use a modified dorsal fin as a "fishing rod" to lure prey to the area directly in front of their mouths, to facilitate trapping them in their jaws.

Some organizational psychopaths use an analogous strategy, where the lure is the opportunity that is actually a trap. Photo from the Collection of Brandi Noble, of NOAA, NMFS, and SEFSC, courtesy of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

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 trouble
risky 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 Go to top Top  Next issue: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: II  Next Issue

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[Babiak 2007]
Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: when psychopaths go to work. New York: Collins Business, 2007. Order from Amazon. Back

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