The Velvet Glove

Posted by amc on 10/03/2017 11:36 am  /   Professional Interest

The Velvet Glove

Thomas Goebel

I’m not a desk-pounder.  You know the type of person I mean.  The desk-pounder is the guy in the meeting who is adamant about what he wants to accomplish in his project, and he wants you to know that he is adamant.  He drives home his message by adamantly (figuratively or literally) pounding the table in meetings.

I’m adamantly opposed to this.

My style is more give-and-take.  I say something.  They say something.  Of course, if the other person is a desk-pounder, they interrupt before I’m finished.  Being a somewhat slow talker exacerbates the situation (an old boss thought I should come with a “progress bar”!).  But this is the nature of civil discourse.  Developing means for coping with the desk-pounding colleague sis truly the way the best progress gets made.

What’s bad about one-sided conversations?

When considering this question, the most obvious answer is that only a portion of potentially good ideas get aired.  Eventually, the project team winds up with monolithic and dictatorial solutions.  There is another side effect: the people whose ideas are being ignored also see their (cost-cutting, scope-limiting) dissent dismissed.  Lack of alternative viewpoints can be devastating to a project.

Take risk management.  This is a field that is rife with preconceptions and biases.  Rushing headlong into a project phase after considering only one risk scenario can lead to project destruction.  The desk-pounder typically presses for rapid agreement to his proposed solution.  Evaluation and management of risk benefits greatly from the input and experience of all project participants.  (The caveat here, of course, is that this process cannot go on indefinitely; the good project manager processes the input and arrives at a decision in short order.)

Urgency is the enemy of sound decision-making.  Unscrupulous salesmen often use urgency as a tool to keep you from having enough time to arrive at a decision that might not benefit them, especially if the product they’re selling is questionable.  In the same way, the desk-pounder will at times employ urgency to push through his solution.  Rare is the instance when dedicating a little-time to consideration of a decision turns out to be a bad thing.  Furthermore, better decisions make for fewer problems – and fewer opportunities for assigning blame – later in the project.

The fist pounding the desk can often belong to the customer, and it’s hard to ignore a loud voice when it’s providing the funding.  Probably the most common problem associated with this is scope creep.  It’s in every human’s DNA to want to get a little extra.  While a well-place/well-timed concession may be helpful for the provider-client relationship, it is clear that the project manager must be careful to reign in requests before they get out of control.  The charter and the contract are two of the most important tools at the project manager’s disposal, and provide a great defense against demanding desk-pounding.

“I’m over here!”

So how do we get managers and colleagues to engage in dialogue where everbody gets heard?

It’s critical for the project manager to get a handle on controls and stakeholders at the start.  Setting reasonable ground rules about meetings and other interactions goes a long way toward establishing and maintaining control.

It’s also important to remove as many “fire-starters” – or opportunities for conflict and tension to arise – as possible.  For instance, pre-assignment (without too much detail) of duties for team members often eliminates much territorial squabbling, and can help limit desk-pounding.  Developing techniques for respectfully shutting down desk-pounders helps the project manager give voice to all contributors while maintaining control.  Comedians do this all the time.  Great comedians do it without inflaming the situation.

Many people working internationally don’t take the time to learn about the culture they’re interacting with.  Consequently, they can sometimes end up being like a bull in a china shop, destroying relationships and good ideas before they see the light of day.  Worse, they come across as a desk-pounder.  It’s important to know one’s audience.

Saving the desk

The project manager who wants to be an effective leader needs to cultivate ways to deal with the desk-pounder in his meetings, and that takes time.  But the sooner the project manager starts initiating steps to deal with people who want to drive the ship, the sooner he or she can confidently take the help.  The good project manager will find with experience that pounding the desk is rarely necessary.

Still, you might want to keep an iron fist inside that velvet glove.