The Joys of Infighting
Ah. Office politics. That great driver of productivity.
Let’s have a show of hands from everyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of intraoffice sniping. Okay. Good. You can all put your hands down now.
After nuclear meltdowns and genocide, infighting is probably the most damaging activity imaginable. It undermines projects and divides teams. But know this: it is also the thing that will most likely occur. As a by-product of human nature, every one of us has encountered it – either in ourselves or in our colleagues. We are hardwired to want to do better than others and, failing that, to see others do worse than us.
Talk of bullying is all the rage (pun intended) these days, but not all infighting can be classified as bullying. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to stick to what is arguably the non-bullying variety. Essentially, we’re talking about scrapping brought on by good old-fashioned jealousy. This is something, I dare say, we can all relate to.
Dossiers and Gossip
Dossier is a word that’s big in the news these days. I once had a colleague who claimed to have a dossier on me “this thick” (holding fingers two inches apart). Needless to say, I felt a surge of pride that anyone would find my deeds – good or bad – worthy of that much attention. Alas, I never got a chance to see this rumored document and all the juicy tidbits of information about my life. Fiction, in this case, would have been stranger (and a darn sight more interesting!) than fact. This story, though, serves to highlight one of the most insidious forms of infighting… gossip.
Why does gossip even exist? Where I come from, we call someone who spreads gossip, simply enough, a “Gossip”. When a Gossip is talking about you, he or she is doing their best to undermine your good works and accomplishments. Do not fear. The good news is that steps can be taken. The bad news is that they don’t take effect overnight. The most obvious course of action is to continue your hard work with a good attitude and equanimity. Like sunlight, your deportment will go along way toward dispelling myths that are being spread about you. Your work will speak for itself. Eventually the Gossip will be exposed, and won’t have any more ammunition (at least about you).
The Gossip has a mean little brother. This is the Sniper. The Sniper is a verbal attacker, making (often quietly) sly or underhanded comments about coworkers. Sometimes this is a case of “cuteness gone bad”. Often, the Sniper is just an older version of the class clown. The thing to remember, for both the Sniper and his target, is that this behavior can become annoying if unchecked. Cuteness leads to sarcasm, which eventually leads to misinterpretation. It is important to let the Sniper know when his comments have become detrimental. Reverse sniping will not accomplish this. Only calm, non-confrontational conversation has any chance of disarming the Sniper.
Many people have experienced a freeze-out – also known as the Silent Treatment – from colleagues. This retreat from communication helps no one, and contributes to a deterioration of office morale and a corrosive team environment. All attempts should be made to nip this in the bud, including talking to your silent colleague or, failing that, arranging to have someone (supervisor, trusted coworker, e.g.) act as a mediator so that both parties can air their grievance. You will be surprised at what can be accomplished in a non-judgmental setting.
It’s rare for coworkers to engage in physical confrontations, although it does happen on occasion. Before calling the police (if it comes to that), try clearing the area of people and property that might be hurt through collateral damage. Situations like these need to be treated very seriously when they arise – the days of getting two combatants to shake hands and make up over a beer are gone. Dangerous behaviors, weapons and litigation are the new norm, and employees (especially those responsible for the success of projects… this means YOU, Project Managers) need to be extra vigilant. Pre-awareness goes a long way toward prevention in cases like this.
Let There Be Peace
Harmony in the workplace begins with you. You know the old saying. It really does take two to tangle. Ignoring jabs, snarky comments, and personal criticism directed your way will go further than anything else toward defusing a potential infighting situation.
And not gossiping, sniping, and freezing people out always helps, too.
Tao and the Project Manager
There is a reoccurring theme in the Tao De Ching regarding the nature of good rulers. A good ruler (or leader, or manager) is portrayed as humble – so humble that you hardly know she is there. Verse 17 most explicitly makes this description, and is worth re-creating in full:
The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst is the leader who is despised.
If you don’t trust people, they will become untrustworthy.
The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When she has accomplished her task, the people say,
“Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”
(Lao Tsu, ch. 17)
As the year gets underway, and I find myself pondering the type of project manager I want to be, this ancient verse keeps coming to mind. It seems paradoxical. Be effective by disappearing? First, this runs counter to what I selfishly want. I want to be recognized and loved. Accolades mean I’m doing well, right? Second, this contradicts everything I’ve been formally taught to this point. The conventional wisdom sounds something like: A good leader takes charge, makes decisions, issues orders, and holds others accountable. So what am I supposed to do with these twenty-five hundred year old fortune cookie sayings?
The only thing I can do is categorize my former supervisors and evaluate the extent to which this reasoning holds true. I have had plenty of leaders I despised, and one or two that I feared. None of them were effective. I can also think of three “good” leaders I have had.
One of these leaders fell into the “loved and praised” category. This person was competent, active, assertive, and took on a bunch of responsibility. It would be impossible not to love or praise this leader. In looking back, however, I do not believe this person’s personal effectiveness made its way down to their subordinates. This leader probably accepted too much responsibility, taking on tasks that would have been better delegated to others. Furthermore, this person seemed to only insert themselves into my business when things were going wrong. My hunch is that by taking on so many tasks themselves, this leader had an overly internal focus. Thus, though well liked and personally competent, their presence often added stress or confusion.
The best two actually did fall into the “barely know they exist” category. One of them spent a significant period of time as my supervisor. This person slowly gave me additional responsibilities over the course of our working relationship, making sure that I understood the purpose behind each task. Eventually, this manager trusted me to perform almost any managerial task required of our team, including meet with client representatives alone. It got to the point that this person could essentially leave me alone, unless I came to them with a question. This is exactly what I wanted. Our team was effective. I personally felt effective and empowered. And, for a while I really did believe “we did it all by ourselves.”
Another “barely know they exist” type was my best Marine Corps supervisor. This person never raised their voice and was emotionally neutral. They issued clear directions, asked one or two insightful questions, and then disappeared. There would be the occasional follow up, but subordinates were largely trusted to successfully carry out and complete tasks. And yet, this leader had tremendous influence. They exuded calmness and focus. In their presence, I felt focused and alert. This focus continued after I left to carry out my portion of the mission. This manager barely existed, but was unbelievably effective.
I suppose the takeaway here is that I have had a couple of ninja-bosses. And, if my goal is to be the most effective project manager, then I aspire to be a ninja as well. When I try to rationalize what makes a manager “good” or “bad,” I like to think in terms of “effective” or “ineffective.” The despised leader is ineffective. Nobody works hard for a manager they despise, and often try to undermine her. The feared leader can be effective – when she is around. Otherwise, everyone works just hard enough to stay off the radar. The loved leader can be effective – for as long as she is loved. The danger is that she will eventually have to make an unpopular decision, and this may affect that sentiment. The ninja leader is effective, because at this point everyone is working for themselves.
But that doesn’t mean the ninja isn’t doing anything. Just making yourself non-existent will obviously not make you a good project manager. We must still take responsibility for proper planning, supervising, and attention to detail. I interpret the verse as saying “do the right things, but in the least obtrusive way possible.” And furthermore, elevate your subordinates while letting yourself recede into the background. Not easy to do, is it?
Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by J. H. McDonald. Online. 1996.
This month we say goodbye to Richard Allen, who announced he was retiring from his position as Director of Internal eBusiness and Technologies – SharePoint and Mail Systems. Richard is a longtime resident of Houston after growing up in northern Indiana. He has worked at Superior Oil and Chase Bank here.
Richard has worked tirelessly with PMI Houston since 2008, starting with the Finance Committee and moving to eBusiness four years ago. As part of the eBusiness group, he has increased visibility of and access to the chapter Sharepoint site. Under his stewardship, PMI Houston has seen improved adherence to standards for interdepartmental communications and Sharepoint usage as they’ve been introduced.
Richard has high hopes for Carmen Segovia, his replacement in charge of Sharepoint and Outlook 365. Carmen will continue to address challenges our chapter faces with these technologies – security, usage, and organization.
Richard is looking forward to traveling and working with fund-raising activities in his retirement. We wish him well with these, and want him to know his friends at PMI Houston will miss him and his contributions!