On most days knowledge work consists of meetings, pick-up conversations, reading either from a screen or from paper, writing and transmitting information for others to read, participating in video calls, finding stuff out again that you once knew, helping colleagues figure out other stuff, getting help yourself, debating, drinking stimulant-laden fluids, and on and on. And every now and then there's a brushfire to put out. Sometimes, though, there's trouble for which the term brushfire doesn't seem adequate. Call it Bad Trouble.
Bad trouble is the kind of tangle that leaps across team boundaries and functional boundaries. It can last days, weeks, or longer. Truly Bad Trouble occupies top slots in the agendas of many meetings. If it's bad enough Bad Trouble, some of the conversations about it get classified Org Chart Level One Confidential. Level One is the most highly sensitive category, and that would be for really bad Bad Trouble, but even Level Three can produce significant anxiety for everyone.
How some people respond to Bad Trouble
When Bad Trouble appears, a few people see it as an opportunity to demonstrate their talents or abilities. But most people try to find ways to get through to the other side with their careers intact or slightly improved in some way. Below is part of a little catalog of coping styles I've seen in use when Bad Trouble appears. These styles emphasize misdirecting others to deflect corrective actions in the direction of someone else.
- Concealing the existence of the trouble
- Some choose to prevent those who don't yet know about the trouble from ever learning about it. They might form a Conspiracy of Silence. Certainly they avoid reporting the trouble, or discussing it in any medium that has a memory. They might deny knowing about it — not flatly, but in ways that limit their involvement with the trouble.
- If you're When Bad Trouble appears, a few
people see it as an opportunity
to demonstrate their
talents or abilitiesresponsible, even in part, for developing responses to Bad Trouble, evaluate the veracity of reports that affect your decisions. And ensure that after-action reviews assess the quality of status reports generated either during the incident, or in the pre-acute time period.
- Some forms of trouble can adopt disguises, if they have a little help. People try to make the trouble look like not-trouble. Some of the less deceitful methods for doing this are sometimes known as "spin." But at the deceitful end of the spectrum are the techniques of making false reports, or submitting false financial data.
- Among the least ethical and most damaging disguise-oriented tactics is retroactive altering of data and reports about the incident. Ensure that these materials are appropriately protected and that attempts to modify them trigger alarms.
- If the organization is searching for root causes of the trouble, the search can readily transform into a hunt for someone to blame, unless the organization understands and manages this risk. [Brenner 2005] But even if the organization takes pains to avoid blaming, those who feel vulnerable might sense an urge to protect themselves from blame by transferring attention from their own roles to the roles of others.
- Efforts to transfer the focus of investigation can be general or specific. The general approach provides justification for a stance of "Not Me." The specific approach transfers attention to "Them." The means of transferring can be devious or straightforward — ethical or not. The cleverest tactics leave no audit trail, making it difficult to identify the person responsible for shifting the focus of investigation.
- A tactic that requires an element of ruthlessness is converting the Bad Trouble into a weapon to be used against political rivals. Blaming the rival for the trouble is among the less sophisticated forms of this approach. Another form involves manufacturing narratives that support resource reallocation away from the rival's control to some other use, typically to benefit the person doing the weaponizing.
- For those least encumbered by ethical constraints, tactics are limited only by the bounds of creativity. Truth is an early victim. For example, if the Bad Trouble is a scandal of some sort, the political actor might suggest, without evidence, that the rival is implicated in a similar or related scandal.
Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- 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?
- How to Deal with Holding Back
- When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened
and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine
which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's
ability to collaborate.
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication
patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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