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.
Some people do respond to Bad Trouble constructively, more or less. Next time we'll survey some more constructive responses. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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:
- Animosity Patterns
- Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes
people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's
a short catalog of some of its uses.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
- Grace Under Fire: II
- When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the
other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able
to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
- Power Affect
- Expressing one's organizational power to others is essential to maintaining it. Expressing power one
does not yet have is just as useful in attaining it.
See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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