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Corporate Culture: Live it or Leave it

I-Love-(Heart)-My-Awesome-Company-T-ShirtsCompany culture.

It's one of those fascinating terms that conjures different meanings for different people. We all filter it through the cultures in which we've worked. For some people, it's a wonderful term equated with teamwork and comradery and accomplishment. For others, it may mean drudgery and distrust. 

I've always been fascinated by culture, especially being a consultant. I've been exposed to numerous cultures inside and outside my home town. I've watched cultures shift over the years... some for the better, others for the worse. My current client has an amazing culture, and much of the credit is due to the fact they make their employees aware of the culture and their individual impact on it.

I think awareness is a key aspect of any organizational culture. I recently sent copies of my books to a friend. He's been reading my book, GUST, about office politics. Before he started, he offhandedly remarked that his organization was free of politics. Now that's he's halfway through the book, he's aware of the some of the signs of office politics he never noticed before. Sometimes, you need to be able to look at your own culture through an outsider's eyes.

I've also written before about toxic cultures, where people are blindsided by sneak attacks. If you're not paying attention, you miss a lot. The signs of your culture are there for you to read and interpret.

What is your corporate culture telling you? If you were to look at your coworkers, your furniture layout, your dress code, your meetings, your policies and procedures, and your general vibe through fresh eyes, what would you see?

Just some thoughts to start out your work week.

 

It's a Shame

ShameI was catching up on news the other day online and ran across the story of Adam Smith, the former CFO who was fired after his vitriolic Chick-Fil-A video went viral. He went from making $200K a year with a million more in stock options to being on food stamps. He had managed to get a job elsewhere, but when his new employer found out about the video, they also fired him.

About the same time as seeing the news story, as I was cleaning my shed (have to love post-move spring cleaning)I ran across Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide. It reminded me of the plagiarism and fabrication scandal involving this book and his newer one, Imagine.

It's interesting how things of such short proximity collide in my brain. A couple of months back, I read a thought-provoking piece by Jon Ronson in the New York Times entitled, "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life." In this piece, he dissects numerous incidents of public shaming. In this day and age of social media, it's pretty easy to pick a metaphorical skeleton clean in a matter of seconds and retweets. A couple of paragraphs struck me, though:

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So for the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized. (NYT 2/15/15, Ronson)

I know I've felt the self-righteous twinge of vengeance when I've perceived a wrong, whether against me or somebody else. In the early days of social media, Ronson nailed it: there was a leveling of social justice. But now it all seems so swift, so severe. And in this day of social media and mobile phones with video cameras, anybody and everybody seems to be fair game.

My bottom line is this: yes, there are people on this planet who do stupid, careless, thoughtless, and rude things. Their reasons are as vast as the stupidity of their actions. (Guess what? We all fall into that category; most of us are just fortunate enough that our actions weren't captured on camera or on social media.) Perhaps it's this Easter season and the thought of forgiveness is forefront on my brain, but maybe - just maybe - afford people a little leniency (or at least a meaningful dialogue) before passing judgment.

Fifty Shades of GRRR

50ShadesofGreyCoverArtLet's be clear: I've never read the book, Fifty Shades of Grey. I don't plan on seeing the movie by the same name. But the title does make excellent pun-fodder for me to post a list (in no particular order) of some of my top project management pet peeves:

  1. Indecisive decision-makers
  2. Passive-aggressive business analysts
  3. Developers who don’t follow requirements and specifications
  4. Project stakeholders who throw people under the bus
  5. The buses that keep hitting project stakeholders, thus requiring risks be written if this event happens.
  6. Status reports that read like stereo instructions
  7. Methodologies (outside of common sense and experience)
  8. Methodologists who act like Cubicle Pharisees
  9. People who drive slow in the passing lane (I’m sure there’s a project tie-in somewhere)
  10. Quality assurance analysts who refuse to log defects
  11. “Well, it’s technically done…”
  12. Micromanaging executives
  13. People who accuse without adequate fact-checking
  14. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I leave you off that distribution list on that message affecting your project?”
  15. Blatant incompetence
  16. Posers who are more interested in climbing than doing
  17. No clear scope statement… and no desire to research it either
  18. No compelling rationale for the project
  19. Passionless projects
  20. Forgetting a stakeholder
  21. Making assumptions with no valid basis
  22. Not documenting the assumptions made
  23. Those who wish to make estimating an exact science
  24. Executives who hold teams exactly to their estimates
  25. No time to plan properly
  26. Not providing the correct resources to develop the plan
  27. Not providing the correct resources to execute the plan
  28. Turning a lessons learned session into a witch hunt
  29. Inability to prioritize (especially where the triple constraint is involved)
  30. Holding a meeting only because it’s Tuesday at 9:00 AM
  31. Scheduling a meeting for Friday at 4:00 PM
  32. Leaders who can’t facilitate a meeting
  33. Blatant, unchecked dysfunctionality
  34. People who talk too much in meetings
  35. Forgetting to say “thank you”
  36. Lacking a sense of humor
  37. Fill-in-the-blank templates… where half the blanks are required but irrelevant
  38. Executive temper tantrums
  39. The genetic cross of the Peter Principle and Weebles: they’ve hit their point of incompetence but keep bouncing back
  40. “Not my job”
  41. “We can’t do that”
  42. “We’ve always done it that way”
  43. Those who equate project management with filling in blanks on a project plan
  44. Those who don’t consider project initiation and planning to be “real work”
  45. “That person” in meetings
  46. Conference callers who don’t know the difference between “on hold” and “mute”
  47. Those who have more stupid answers than intelligent questions
  48. Overabundance of ego
  49. Dog haters… I don’t mind if you love cats, but if you hate dogs, take your Gantt chart and move along
  50. Those who don’t understand project management skills are universal; you can put a seasoned project manager into any well-adjusted team in any industry/environment/organization and they will thrive

What forms of torture would you add to the list?

Following To the Gates of Help

Othello-iagoIn the grander scheme of office politics, it's fairly simple to note the overt office politicians. Recently, my wife dragged me to encouraged me to escort her to a live production of Shakespeare's Othello. From an audience member's perspective, especially one who knows the plot and characters at least on the surface, the villain Iago's actions and motives were pretty transparent. The guy was slick, and he almost pulled it off.

However, sometimes it is much harder to identify and diagnose underhanded political behavior. A while back in my career, I was recruited to a project by a couple of employees who said I'd be perfect for their organization. They didn't want (or need) the "standard" way of managing a project, as it had yielded failure in the past. The project sounded interesting, and their timing was perfect, so I relented to synchronicity and came on board. A few months into the contract, one of the two took an online project management course. Those who know me and have seen me in action know the paradox: as a college professor, I am generally the polar opposite from "text book" (in pretty much anything in life). I liken project management to music or cooking: to do it well, you learn the rules and ingrain them into your being. To go beyond, you separate science from art and figure out how to break the rules.

Hence, we set up the conflict. Within a couple of weeks of starting this course, this individual noticed I wasn't following all the rules that the online instructor was teaching all "good" project managers do. And this employee started a one-person mission to discredit me. But, in an organization that hadn't delivered anything significant on time or well, I was getting results and I was delivering them on-time. In working with the decision-makers, we had agreed to sacrifice some features and functions up front, and we determined the short-term organizational pain was worth a long-term organizational win. In other words, credibility was on my side, and this person started looking more foolish with every tattling complaint.

Here's the kicker, though: Whenever called on the carpet for this behavior, this individual would muster a look of perplexed hurt and innocently state "I was just concerned" or "I was only trying to help." And therein lies the rub of some covert snake politicians. If they can effectively mask their their true motives with a concerned "Ha! I like not that" (Iago's line which starts Othello down his path of destructive jealousy), then they can get away with a lot.

How do you combat a person like this? Here are a few tips from my experience:

  1. Perform well and accomplish. My project's results and performance discredited this person more than anything I could have said or done in my defense. I've often stated that the best revenge is success. On-time milestone delivery and honest communication of the issues undermined all complaints about process and methodology.
  2. Watch your back. This person rarely came to me, but rather targeted the project executives for complaining innuendo. I had others watching out for me and informing me what was happening. Having a spy or two acting on your behalf is far more valuable. Also, know who really has your back and who is using your back for target practice. Office politics often bring in allies to both sides of a conflict. In this case, my thorn-in-the-side had their own team. Othello fell because the one person he trusted to watch his back was Iago.
  3. Face to Face. Tandem with watching your back is watching the other person's behavior when they're in your presence. Until this person's motives and actions were brought into clear light, the M.O. was syrupy sweet interchanges to my face. I had been clued in early, as my first day on the job, they were all too willing to "take me into their confidence" and provide the gossip on others in the organization.
  4. Give them rope. This is a balancing act for you. If they are doing damage to the project with their actions, you may need to help hasten their demise for the good of the team. But if their self-destruction is imminent, just step back and givem them enough rope to hang themselves. (You might also assess whether the behavior is coachable. I attempted to talk with the person on a couple of occasions, but the die was already cast.)
  5. Document. I never needed to use it, but I had started documenting the behaviors and events as they were coming to my attention. I saved forwarded emails and tracked dates and those involved.

In the end, my project's Iago was defeated and left the organization. I completed the contract successfully and moved on to other endeavors. I've come to learn they used the same behaviors in prior jobs, and they still employ those same behaviors currently. (Some job markets are just too small, and people talk.) I'm guessing at some point early in their career, they were successful with the "I was just concerned" and/or "I was just trying to help" approaches. It's sad they couldn't learn from past mistakes and try something new and constructive.

FREE VISION (Frames and Lenses Not Included)

Eyeglass FramesWith the Independence Day Holiday fast approaching, I decided to try a social experiment this morning on my Facebook page. I needed a news story from a respectable source which would cause a bit of partisan wrestling. The WSJ ran a story stating individual insurance rates for the healthy would most likely double or triple, while those in poor health would get a hike break. BINGO! Perfect.

Now you have to realize that my friends run the gamut of annoyingly liberal to frighteningly conservative. While a majority are comfortably in the middle, I know some who "fan girl" over Obama like a 12-year-old at a One Direction concert. I also know others who have their torches and pitchforks at the ready at the mention of anything Democrat. It makes my life interesting. But for this experiment, I was going to stay out of the way, except for the initial thought grenade I lobbed in their midst with minimal commentary on my part.

Over 50 comments later, they didn't disappoint. There was the usual political rancor and rhetoric. A few tried rational argument and cited sources. Some others shared personal stories. Others resorted to name-calling and generalizations. One insinuated I was elitist for having a print copy of the WSJ. Another called me out for stirring the pot first thing on a Monday (if he only knew).

Why did I do this? Fair question. It was all a question of vision, frames, and lenses. Being a glasses-wearer for the better part of my adult life, I'm used to having my optometrist prescribe the right lens strength for my eyes and then finding a pair of frames to fit my face and prevent my daughters from rolling their eyes in embarrassment. It makes a good metaphor for how we see the world. Our frames (beliefs, values, experiences) support our lenses (how we see the world now). My frame-lens combo wouldn't work for you, any more than yours would work for me. Yet we seem to do want to shove our glasses onto everybody else to make them see the way we do.

Part of the problem is we (collectively) seem to confuse fact and opinion. Like it or not, from a governmental standpoint, most issues are opinion. (They may be moral absolutes for us individually or for our religious community, but I'm not addressing those right now.) Our country was based on freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom of thought. Freedom of activity. But if we assume the only freedom is our own opinion, we undermine the very intent of those founding fathers. For example, the number of uninsured people in our country is fact; whether health insurance is a right or a consumer good is opinion. How much a procedure costs is fact; whether it is another's responsibility to pay for said procedure is opinion.

Here's where the other part of the problem arises. Because we don't differentiate between fact and opinion (note I said "don't" rather than "can't"), we assume our self-anointed facts are reality and others' opinions are... well... WRONG. We no longer even bother to assess their lenses or frames; we just assume their eye doctor should be jailed for malpractice. It's easier that way. One of the most powerful experiences in my professional career was reading the "Seek first to understand, then be understood" chapter in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

So my challenge to you this week is this: when you're celebrating the freedom of our nation, remember there are people whose frames and lenses are different from yours. Persuasion is an accomplisment. Celebrate THEIR freedom as well. Start your argument by assuming they are right and you're not. Learn about their frames and lenses. Then they'll probably be more open to learning yours. Doing so may help prevent unnecessary fireworks.

(And to my friends whom I mercilessly exploited today, thanks for playing. Don't think too harshly of me. My personal lens/frame combo means I like to play social anthropologist from time to time.)

Happy Independence Day!

Life's A Fitch: A Lesson in the Birds and the Bees

Today, it is man against nature.

Nest_openerThis week, robins followed the number one rule of real estate (Location! Location! Location!) and believed the top of my garage door opener would be the optimal spot to go condo. The problem with their logic is I like my garage door opener in working order, and I do not want bird poop on my cars IN the garage. Hence, I shut the garage door when they were gone, checked to ensure no eggs had been laid, and promptly dismantled their home renovation project. And they came back. And I dismantled. And they came back. And I dismantled. They don't seem to be getting the fact I don't want them.

Concurrently, bees have been making a home near my daughters' swingset in the back yard. Now I'm well aware of the bee crisis, but with a swingset out of commission, my kids might do the unthinkable: stay indoors and bury their heads in electronic devices. Against my ecological best judgment, I went to Home Depot to purchase spray to evict the bees. The clerk seemed aghast I would consider doing such a thing. She suggested I contact a bee keeper to find the hive and eradicate the bees naturally.

"Do you have the name of a local bee keeper?" I asked.

"Well, no," was her response.

"If I give you my address, will you do the phone research and call around and find one and get them there tomorrow?" I countered.

"I can't do that, sir."

"I'll take the spray."

She shrugged as I grabbed two cans and skulked off toward the cash register.

To top off my week, I've been appalled by Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO Michael Jeffies' comments about marketing to skinny people only. As the father of two growing young women, I go out of my way to impress upon them that their identity is not about body image, and that beauty is more on the inside than the outside.

But then I started connecting the dots. Michael and I are both guilty of excluding a group who want to be part of our "club." The difference is, the birds and the bees operate under instinct; humans operate with feelings and emotions. And the birds and the bees don't have money to spend on rent; people have money to spend on clothing.

There will always be "target markets" in business. Conversely, there will always be "undesirable customers." We'll never be rid of the difficult client whose calls go unanswered and whose emails sit dormant because we just don't have the energy to deal with them. (Don't gasp; you know you do it, too.) The taboo "birds and bees" of business marketing is you NEVER specifically call out those you are excluding. In project management, we list our stakeholders, but we never say, "Oh, yeah, we're NOT doing this project for those bean counters and pencil pushers in Accounting." Your accomplishments will always get further in the positive. If your business is going to "reproduce," ignoring the birds and the bees will be a huge mistake. Acknowledge them. Deal with them. Give them alternatives. But (and I say this with experience of one who has now been chased by both birds and bees in one week) don't piss them off. I'm grateful Mother Nature doesn't have a Twitter account.

One solution would have been to pump that hideously toxic Abercrombie & Fitch "fragrance" all over the garage and the swingset, thereby killing the entire environment for a 50-mile radius.

Alas...

The robins have now found an alternative spot on my property for their nest. They can stay there. And I'll probably call around for bee keepers next week, even though I don't have time. After all, I'd like to think I'm at least one step ahead of Michael Jeffries.

Hack School Project Management

Take 11 minutes and watch this video...

 

It's refreshing to see a kid like Logan communicate so eloquently. Having taught graduate school for 12 years and consulted for over 20 years, I can honestly say most of the adults I meet can't articulate what they want to be when they grow up.

I've pretty much figured out that being a contented accomplisher is my calling in life. Sometimes this takes the form of speaker; other times it's being an author. But at my core, I'm always a project manager. And as a project manager, I've figured intuitively how to be "hack school" over the years. Logan's description of hack school is spot on:

Hackers are innovators, hackers are people who challenge and change the systems to make them work differently, to make them work better, it’s just how they think, it’s a mindset...

I take advantage of opportunities in my community, and through a network of my friends and family. I take advantage of opportunities to experience what I’m learning, and I’m not afraid to look for shortcuts or hacks to get a better faster result. It’s like a remix or a mash-up of learning. It’s flexible, opportunistic, and it never loses sight of making happy, healthy and creativity a priority.

Picasso QuoteOnce, I was brought onto a client because a person wanted to learn from me as I managed a major project for her organization. A couple of months into my contract, this individual took a seven-week online project management class. Voila... the class turned her into an instant "expert" in project management. She started taking glee in pointing out all the things I didn't do according to her instructor and text book. The problem with her approach was that I was actually getting results by doing things my way. I knew how to do things "by the book" but the difference between knowledge and wisdom is knowing when drop the book. (Purely unrelated, I'm thinking of switching physicians... do you know anybody who completed medical school in seven weeks online?)

A few years ago, Dr. Delaney Kirk sent me an article about the main reason fire fighters die when working on wild fires: When surrounded by flames, they focus too much on saving their tools and equipment and not enough on just running to save their own lives. That really sums up my project management "hack school" mindset. I love tools, by the way. A great project plan can save months and dollars to an organization. A well-written status report can bring critical issues to light. Issues logs cut through office politics. I love tools, but I don't rely on them. What I rely on is the ability to accomplish a successful end result.

So what about you? Are you more "by the book" or "hack school"? How can you start dropping your tools? Who knows? By doing so, you might just grow up to be happy and healthy.

Linkin' Lincoln

Lincoln-Movie-PosterOver the holiday break, my wife and I ventured to the theater to catch a showing of Lincoln. First, I have to say it's great to FINALLY have children who are old enough to allow my wife and me to start enjoying movies again (at least ones that don't involve an animated princess of some sort). Second, my wife knows me well enough to sell me on these kinds of films before we go, and she didn't disappoint. She convinced me this movie would provide some great parallels to office politics. Finally, the movie was well made, and I predict many oscar nominations across the board.

But back to the office politics connection. Many of my clients are put in positions of selling ideas - BIG ideas - to their organizations. Sometimes there is popularity and support across the board. Other times, it's a mixed bag. Often, they are faced with a mountain of opposition.

The office politics lessons and affirmations abounded, and this movie reaffirmed why Lincoln's legacy as a leader continues to live on:

  1. Timing is everything - while many thought it best to hold off on such a vote, Lincoln looked at the big picture and saw potential failure in waiting until the war was over. Many often confuse assumed urgency with real urgency. Ask yourself what's driving the need for your accomplishment before rearranging others' priorities.
  2. Watch the message - Representative Thaddeus Stevens understood this when publicly cornered over his views on slavery and racial equality. Sometimes we can say what we really mean and other times we have to temper it in order for our accomplishments to succeed. Walking that fine line between truth and success is tricky.
  3. Divide and conquer - Approaching all the lame duck Democrats at once would have resulted in failure, so William Seward orchestrated persuasive tactics one at a time. In order to sell others on our accomplishments, it can be useful to approach opponents when nobody else is around to derail the efforts... and in such a way that there is something in it for them.
  4. Watch the home front - both Lincoln's wife and son provided plenty of distraction for him throughout the film. Often when dealing with political issues, we become so entrenched that we let other things slide. Remain mindful of EVERYTHING going on around you, even if you can't take action on it at that moment.
  5. Keep calm and carry on - only once or twice did the character of Lincoln have to raise his voice in this movie, and those times were generally with his allies. All others saw the humble lawyer from Illinois. People generally respect a voice of reason over a Chicken Little-esque squawk. Be careful on your delivery in highly emotional situations.

All in all, it was a couple of hours well spent in the theater. And it was easy to see why Abraham Lincoln still holds our attention 150 years later.

Curtains!

"Hush, my dear," he said. "Don't speak so loud, or you will be overheard--and I should be ruined. I'm supposed to be a Great Wizard."

"And aren't you?" she asked.

"Not a bit of it, my dear; I'm just a common man."

"You're more than that," said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; "you're a humbug."

"Exactly so!" declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. "I am a humbug."

-Excerpt from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

DorothypullingcurtainThose of us familiar with the movie are familiar with the "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain line. We've all known people who pose to be one thing but are exposed later to be something else. As a project manager and as a consultant, I've seen my fair share of "humbugs" posing to be wizards. 

Often, we get blindsided by the fact that there was a curtain in the first place. In the role of office politicians, our job is to identify when and where curtains exist between the "image" and the "reality." It's generally not that hard to expose if one knows what to look for:

  1. How does the person in question treat others who are not present? More than one co-worker has exposed their curtain by "taking me into their confidence" by bad-mouthing others on day one. That's a huge warning sign that the snake will rear his/her ugly head against me some day.
  2. How does this person's behavior change in the presence of those whose organizational power and influence is higher or lower than theirs? People without curtains tend to treat people consistently regardless of organizational position.
  3. What exterior signals does this person give to draw attention to themselves? Note that there's a difference between a strong personal brand (e.g., wearing a bow tie every day) and drawing attention to a $2,000 suit.
  4. How does this person behave in meetings? Are they interested and engaged in what other people have to say? Are they late? Leave early?
  5. Do they verbally draw attention to their own press? I knew a law enforcement officer who rose high in the ranks who talked about his own ethics all the time. His behavior soon negated his own press releases.
  6. Do they change their behavior during or after a conflict? Once corrected or reprimanded, are they grateful or resentful of the feedback?

These are just a few of the "curtains" to look for to determine whether the "wizard" in your life is really hiding a humbug behind the curtain. The ability to identify this is key in both human relations and branding. What are you doing to identify and pull back the curtain before it's too late?

They're Coming To Get You...

It's Halloween night and I'm home writing a blog post. No costume. No party. No November 1st regrets.

I've been thinking a lot about zombies recently. No, that's not a reflection on my current client or current group of students... probably just the "spirit of the holidays," as it were.

1968 Night of the Living DeadOf course, the benchmark for zombie flicks is "Night of the Living Dead." The great thing about horror movies is, if it's good enough, they'll do a remake. George Romero's 1968 flick was the ground-breaker, but the 1990 remake has its merits, too. Both start out with brother and sister visiting a cemetery, only to be accosted by zombies. Johnny, the obnoxious brother, is the first to reanimate to the walking dead, after taunting his sister Barbra (spelled Barbara for the 1990 version) with "They're coming to get you." Ah, the irony. (OK, now I'm getting hungry for Zombie Burger.)

1990 Night of the Living DeadHere's the interesting divergence in the two movies (SPOILER ALERT). In both Barb(a)ra hides with a group in a farm house until the bitter end. In the 1968 version, though, Barbra is a catatonic victim, drifting through the film up to the point of becoming the final undead buffet. The 1990 Barbara won't stand for that. She takes charge and takes names, and is the only farmhouse survivor.

For those of us who have to dwell among the "Working Dead," we get to see zombies in their most real form. A few years ago, I went to work as a contractor for a company where I had been employed for many years. After being out among the living for so long, I realized how zombified the organization really was. Most who were there were like the 1968 Barbra, fatefully awaiting their acclimation to the other zombies. I, on the other hand, after seeing their grotesque dysfunctionality, likened myself to the 1990 Barbara and engineered my exit (letting them think it was their idea - zombies are pretty easy to trick).

How do you approach the zombies around you? Do you just shrug and accept your fate of becoming one of them, or do you fight for your own personal survival, "leaving the farmhouse" if necessary to seek safer ground away from the undead?

If you're faced with a workplace of the undead and you've not yet joined them, what are you doing to plan your escape? Better think fast. We'll hope you survive till "morning."

Flipping the Birds

Tippi and bird playgroundThe other night, I was at my older daughter's honor choir concert. While they were singing the folk song, "Risseldy Rosseldy," I felt myself getting uneasy, like I needed to look over my shoulder. Being an office politics consultant, I allow myself a healthy degree of paranoia, but this overwhelming urge at a music concert was odd. Then it hit me: this was the song the children were singing in the background during the iconic playground scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

If you've never seen the movie, shame on you. Hitchcock builds suspense like few can, and this movie is no exception. In the scene in question, Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie Daniels, is sitting outside the schoolhouse waiting to talk to the teacher and check on the well-being of the children after numerous bird attacks in the area. The children are inside singing a very repetitive song, the chorus being sung sweetly and innocently over and over again. Behind Melanie, birds are gathering on the playground equipment while she, impatient and oblivious, sits with her back to the impending danger. You, the spectator, want to scream, "WOULD YOU JUST TURN AROUND!?!?!?!"

In my career, I've seen a similar scenario played out often. I see individuals or departments who are sitting on the bench getting agitated, while doom flocks behind them just out of sight. Of course, they have the power to turn around and see the danger for what it is, but they're too absorbed in their own little "here and now." So they sit. And they wait. And they ignore.

What are some of the flocks gathering behind them?

  • Processes - Out-of-control processes seem to compound themselves. If a new input, like a novice employee or a software conversion, is introduced, it brings the flawed processes to light. However, most people tend to blame the new input for the problems rather than placing blame where it lies.
  • Toxic Employees - Amazing what one or two really toxic people can do to a workplace and how quickly their cancer can spread to others if left unchecked. Management may relegate it to a "coaching opportunity" or an "HR issue" but it doesn't make the morale improve for those who have to endure.
  • Policies and Procedures - I admire companies who have very small, finite sets of policies and procedures. They're able to hire bright, self-governing individuals who don't need a lot of direction. However, other companies weigh their otherwise high-performing employees down with ridiculous rules written to govern a select few who should just be fired.
  • Behavior - It's hard to look in the mirror sometimes and see how your own behaviors, decisions, and performance may be flocking together to undo all the good you think you've done in your career. Looking at the three above is relatively easy by comparison. It's somebody else's fault. This is one where a good self-reflection can prevent you from getting pecked to death when you least expect it.

Some people assume they are safe exactly where they are. They never feel the need to turn around. So... before it's too late, are you willing and able to turn around?

Underlying Assumptions

Brain_lockRecently, a former student posted on Facebook, asking that her friends share our pet peeves. As a moderate Republican, I commented that my pet peeve was "when people assume that ALL Republicans are anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed." I was surprised when another of her friends responded by saying that his pet peeve was "When Republicans lie and say they aren't anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed."

I have to admit, I was fairly incensed. After all, this individual didn't know me as a person, didn't bother to learn anything about me. He had it in his mind that ALL Republicans were just one way. Evidently, it's still politically correct to stereotype and bash Republicans. I was even more irritated this was an employee at the university where I teach... and he probably didn't realize he'd just defamed a faculty member online. My final point of irritation was he was a person of color who had, I'm guessing, probably been the victim of stereotyping himself at some point in his life; evidently embracing diversity only went one way in his mind.

But, like all who stereotype and label, he was operating on a foundation of very strong underlying assumptions. First, every Republican he's encountered in his life must have fallen into his preconceived framework. Second, anyone who did not fall into those underlying assumptions must be lying.

Underlying assumptions are tricky things. They really do affect our behaviors in so many of our daily transactions. If you assume somebody on your team is lazy or incompetent, you may be inclined to go behind their back, second-guess their work, or start micromanaging them. If you assume somebody is out to get you, you may start to build walls. If you assume somebody has supported you on issues in the past, they will support you on upcoming issues.

How do you over come a severe case of underlying assumptions?

  1. For starters, call them out. When somebody makes a strong statement like "Bob couldn't handle that assignment," simply note that seems like a very strong statement to have made about Bob.
  2. Next, get at the assumptions themselves. What do you believe to be true about Bob that makes you think he can't handle the assignment? (Note, this is best done in a one-on-one format rather than in a meeting forum.)
  3. How did you arrive at those assumptions? What behaviors did Bob display? (Focus on tangible behaviors or statements, not hearsay or innuendo.) Did the offending party read the behaviors correctly? Was there a pattern of behavior or simply a one-time activity? Did you provide Bob with feedback regarding the behaviors when you saw them?
  4. Can you refute the assumptions if they are not valid? Can you give the assignment to Bob, make him aware of the assumptions, and then set him up for success?

Another element in this discussion is trust. If trust is absent in the relationship, assumptions can run rampant much more easily. Since I have no personal or business relationship with this Republican-bashing friend-of-a-friend, I'll probably just let him wallow in his ignorance.

So... what assumptions are you carrying about others? What underlying assumptions have others made about you?

Another great resource on this topic is the book, Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute. This quick read does a great job of demonstrating how and why we put boxes around other people (and ourselves) and arrive at the assumptions we do.

Guess Who's Thumbing the Winner?

Bad_Authority_Figure Sigh.

I like to maintain a baseline level of confidence in society.

I like to think that people - at their core - have qualities that benefit others.

I like to believe that all bosses are inherently good... kind of like Luke Skywalker believed there was still good in Darth Vader.

The problem is that Luke Skywalker was right.

This story comes from Eastern Iowa. William Ernst, owner of the QC Mart chain, decided to make a game of firing employees. A judge ruled against him on his little game, stating that he created a hostile work environment, for releasing this memo last spring:

New Contest – Guess The Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired!!!

To win our game, write on a piece of paper the name of the next cashier you believe will be fired. Write their name [the person who will be fired], today's date, today's time, and your name. Seal it in an envelope and give it to the manager to put in my envelope.

"Here's how the game will work: We are doubling our secret-shopper efforts, and your store will be visited during the day and at night several times a week. Secret shoppers will be looking for cashiers wearing a hat, talking on a cell phone, not wearing a QC Mart shirt, having someone hanging around/behind the counter, and/or a personal car parked by the pumps after 7 p.m., among other things.

"If the name in your envelope has the right answer, you will win $10 CASH. Only one winner per firing unless there are multiple right answers with the exact same name, date, and time. Once we fire the person, we will open all the envelopes, award the prize, and start the contest again.

"And no fair picking Mike Miller from (the Rockingham Road store). He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a hat and talking on his cell phone. Good luck!!!!!!!!!!"

(Poor Mike Miller of the Rockingham Road Store.)

One of the questions I generally field as an office politics advisor is: "What happens when it's the boss/leader/owner/authority figure who is exhibiting the bad behavior?"

My answer is generally the same: YOU are still in control of your reaction. YOU can choose to leave. YOU can choose to talk back. YOU can choose not to engage. Or, in their case, YOU can choose to hire a lawyer and fight. Yes, there are consequences to YOUR actions, but the empowering thing is... they're YOUR actions.

We had a situation at a soccer game a couple of weeks back. A child was obviously injured on the field (and this is not my first rodeo, folks... I know the difference between a "shake it off" injury and a "everybody grab a knee" injury). The parents were trying to call the ref's attention to the injured child, and instead of stopping the game to check on her welfare, he opted for yelling at the parents, screaming at him that he knew the rules, and antagonizing instead of managing the situation. Worse yet was the league's decision to side with him without doing adequate investigation into the matter. The parents did what they could; they backed down to his irrational behavior at the game and then reported the referee to the league afterwards. Will this ref ever have a bearing on their lives long-term? No. He was just a man who cared more about his injured ego than an injured child. But the bottom line is this: the parents took the actions that were within their power.

I've dealt with many a bad boss in the course of my career. Nowadays such a person is just fodder for future writing. Nevertheless, it's taken time to learn how to finesse the situation when in the heat of battle. I congratulate those convenience store employees for taking decisive action against their boss. It took courage, no doubt. We'll hope he can learn from the situation.

Remember: when dealing with an ill-minded and/or ill-behaving authority figure, YOU are still in control of YOUR reactions. Never, EVER forget that.

Nailing The Dismount

Gymnast Even in a bad job market, people evidently still have their dignity.

After all, one can only put up with a bad job, bad coworkers, and/or bad boss so long before one gets really fed up and says "Screw it!!!"  I'm always bewildered by those who write into Office-Politics.com and have put up with a bad work situation for (drum roll) YEARS and wonder how they can make it better.  (It's called a "recurring pattern of behavior," Bucky... sloooowly step away from the employer.)

I've been amused by two stories that have made the news in the past couple of days.  The first is Steven Slater of Jet Blue who got fed up with a passenger's disobedience, delivered a rant via the PA, grabbed some beer, and high-tailed it down the inflatable slide.  The second is Jenny, who got fed up with her bad boss, and resigned via photos to her coworkers (in the process exposing her boss's Farmville addiction)... although I'm not sure how credible the latter story is, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

"Take this job and shove it!" never sounded so good... well, except for poor Steven who is now behind bars for his antics.  Everyone has had a bad work situation from time to time.  As I talked about yesterday, office bullies sometimes run rampant and unchecked.  Some executives are utterly clueless.  Silly rules of bureaucracy befuddle otherwise intelligent and rational individuals.

Still, your stint at a particular employer (or client, in my case) is a system.  And your departure is the final piece of output.  Losing it on the dismount is never a good thing... unless you are attempting a triple-quadruple-3/4-rotating-back-front-rotating-vertical-gravity-defying-death-cheating-Holy-Mary-mother-of-God-did-we-really-just-see-that flip.  Then a less than perfect landing might be expected.  I've had clients where I've left less than gracefully (but I've done it with my head held high for what I attempted to do while I was there), and I've dismounted some projects with a style and grace that would leave Shawn Johnson with her mouth gaping.  How you depart is up to you.  But be prepared to deal with the perceptions of others... that feedback loop can be like landing on concrete without padding if you're not careful.

HR Is Neither Human, Nor Are They a Resource

Cb OK, I'm going to have every single SHRM member down my throat if I don't explain my title pretty quickly.

I'm quickly becoming a fan of workplacebullying.org - an outstanding resource for those who are dealing with the extreme of office politics known as workplace bullying.  I take a vested interest in this topic because I was a target of bullying my first job out of college.  Both of the bullies eventually "met their waterloo" and I've been able to observe their roller-coaster careers with interest.  Both have zero credibility with those who now work with them, and those who formerly worked with and for them have extremely unfavorable things to say about them.

Regardless of my own past, I've found this site to be thought-provoking and articulate, especially with a recent post on HR's role in dealing with office politics.  In my afore-mentioned experience, I reached out to HR, who was not only unwilling to help me, but reported my issues to the superiors who were bullying me, just adding fuel to the fire.

A lot has changed in 20 years of evolving organizations... or has it?  Is Human Resources part of the solution or the problem?  After reading two sides of the argument and the corresponding comments, what do you think?  What positions have you observed from HR?  Do they assist with bullying or alleviate it?

Gazing Into McChrystal Ball

(Alternatively titled: "A Rolling Stone gathers no boss" OR "Flat Stanley travels to Washington") General-stanley-mcchrystal  

General Stanley McChrystal learned a hard lesson about workplace behavior.  No matter how incompetent you think your boss is, you don't vent your ill will to a public source.  Recently, there was an article in the Des Moines Register about some locals who had lost their job because of Facebook.  I've had situations before where clients thought I was writing about them in my blog.  I assured them that while they may see themselves in the pages, I have a policy about not writing anything critical about an active client (besides, I have MANY past clients who provide me with ample fodder).

Sometimes, people think they are justified in bad-mouthing the boss.  In this soft-economy era, there are more and more stories about employers who have abused the relationship with their employees.  I know of one recently dismissed individual who could easily and justifiably go to the media to blow the whistle on his boss' inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, but he refuses... bad-mouthing the boss just comes back to haunt you.

Granted, I've broken this rule myself throughout my career.  And I've paid for it.  And I've learned from it.  I'm fortunate now that I can be selective in my project choices, and I've learned to tell good client managers from bad client managers through the interview process.

So if you think YOUR boss is a complete schmoe, just remember what poor ol' Stanley is going through this week.  Then watch yourself before you let your inside voice play outside.

Yacht-A Yacht-A Yacht-A

Yacht_hayward  So Tony Hayward wants his "life back."

So the pressures of cleaning up BP's disastrous oil spill is too much for him to handle.

So he goes to a prestigious yacht race to cheer on ol' Bob (the name of his yacht).

Big deal... who cares?

Um... well... it would appear... A LOT OF PEOPLE.

On office politics, appearances mean everything.  Arms crossed.  Disengaging in a meeting.  Going to lunch with somebody.  Leaving early.  Arriving late.  Laughing at a joke.  People are paying attention to what you do.  For some of you, you may not care what other people think.  (For the most part, I'm right there with you.)  But, like it or not, we do have to be concerned about perceptions.  If they go unchecked, perceptions can become fact.  And facts can ruin careers.

You don't have to be obsessing about others' opinions every minute of every day.  All I'm saying is to watch out for the ammo you give their perception arsenal.

How To Steal Your Boss's Job

Burglar Recently, I was approached by Fox News to be interviewed on an office politics segment, which they entitled "How to Steal your Boss's Job."  For logistical reasons, the interview fell through, but I've been thinking a lot about this topic since being approached.  Yes, the title is rather sensationalistic, but we've all come to expect that from various news outlets.

Regardless, in this economy, there are more than a few people who are scanning upward, hoping to unseat a barricading boss.  Hence, in the spirit of keeping office politics on the up-and-up, I'll share with you what I would have shared with the segment producer had the story gone through:

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up?  Is the boss's position really the direction you want to go with your career?  Are you in the right field for your skills and passions?  I think it was Zig Ziglar who always used to admonish those who climbed the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.
  2. Be careful what you wish for.  Remember the movie, Bruce Almighty?  Talk about stealing the boss's job!  Bruce got to be God.  And he found out it was a heck of a lot harder to be the boss than he imagined (or criticized).  Sometimes being the boss isn't all it's cracked up to be.
  3. There's an upside to Thievery.  Every company should be concerned about succession planning.  If you are skilled and qualified for your boss's job, you should make that known to your boss in a non-threatening way.  If something should happen to him or her, being groomed to fill in seamlessly is a plus in today's economy.
  4. You are your boss's ad agency.  The best way to "steal" your boss's job is to get him or her promoted.  Be their marketer.  Make them look so darn good to their superiors that upward mobility is a foregone conclusion.  They should be so appreciative of your efforts, you will be a shoe-in as their replacement.  And remember:  a rising tide raises all ships.
  5. You're all on the same team.  Each of my daughters plays soccer.  My older daughter's team plays well together, stealing the ball from the other team, while helping and defending each other.  My younger daughter's team is supposed to be 3-on-3.  It's actually 5-on-1, as whoever has the ball is attacked... sometimes by their own teammates... and it's chaos.  Who's team would you rather play on?
  6. Don't lose it on the dismount.  Should you succeed your boss in his or her position, just remember what (and who) it took to get there.  And there's always another upstart who wants to play "king of the hill" - so watch how you behave when you get there.
  7. And... should you have an incompetent boss who needs to be deposed... and you've tried every effort to coach them to be successful... quit enabling and protecting bad behaviors; their own incompetence will do them in.  Just don't help with the cover-up any longer unless it would endanger your company's livelihood (or other stakeholders such as customers).  If that is the case, document responsibilities so it will be clear where accountability truly lies.

Yeah, I know, not nearly as juicy-sounding as the way Fox wanted to spin it... but it does show you can play office politics AND keep your soul.  Go figure.

The Downhill

Vonn_mancuso It's been interesting to watch thegrowing tension between Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.  It came to a head today when Vonn's crash interrupted Mancuso's first run.  But you could tell from the very first medal ceremony that the relationship between the two ran as cold as the wind on top of Whistler Mountain.  And now Mancuso claims the "popularity contest" is affecting performance.

Hmmm.

Really?

REALLY?

I know athletes are a quirky bunch and - while amazingly focused - can be thrown off kilter by even the smallest of things.

But here are two grown women who are creating an Olympic-sized controversy.

Nice fodder for the cameras... the news media... and, well, bloggers like me.

But I'd like to go a different route with this.  This blog is about accomplishment, and here I'd like to focus on the lack of accomplishment.  Have you ever noticed among people who chronically have trouble achieving their goals (not that a few gold and silver medals constitute a lack of accomplishment) tend to blame external forces for their failures?

Vonn seemed surprised by the accusation.  No shock there.  When people are accused of undermining the accomplishments of others, the first reaction generally is "Huh?"

Things can go in a few directions, but often it's all downhill from there.  And not just any downhill - the Combined-Super-G-Giant-Slalom of gravitational pull.  Why?  Because the other side gives credence to the accusation instead of blowing it off or ignoring it.

It will be interesting to see where this one goes.  Office politics on the slopes?  Maybe.  Kiss and make up.  Doubtful.

The next time somebody tries to pull you into their lack of accomplishment, take a step back, a deep breath, and give yourself time to consider the source and analyze the situation.  Because if you don't... trust me, that first turn-and-drop is a nasty one.

Marsha! Marsha! Marsha! Hits the Mark

Legends It's been an interesting week watching a news story evolve over a customer service gaffe turned ugly here in Des Moines.  You can read the long version if you wish, but here is the shortened version:

A group of teachers are on lunch-break during an inservice day last Monday.  They decided to go to a local establishment downtown, where one of the teachers found a hair in her salad.  She pointed it out to her server, who responded sardonically, "Don't blame me. I didn't put it there." The manager was too busy to talk to her.  On the way out, she and the owner had a confrontation, which ended with the owner gesturing and screaming at her and her colleagues that he never wanted to see another teacher in his restaurant.  She sent an email that night to a few of her friends and colleagues detailing her ordeal.  Within 24 hours, the story had spread across Des Moines faster than a corndog virus at the State Fair.  The owner apologized, and the Operations Manager released a written statement providing reasons (excuses) why the owner behaved the way he did.

It's been a week since this happened.  The Facebook page boycotting Legends continues to grow.  People have taken sides.  Being married to a teacher, I heard in no uncertain terms about the solidarity of the profession.  To offend one teacher is to offend them all.  I've also heard the other side, which basically implies the teacher was being whiny and demanding.

However, a few important observations have been lacking in this battle.  Both sides have accomplished a lot.  Mark Rogers has alienated many in this town against him, but he's also galvanized a few of his supporters.  Marsha has galvanized even more supporters, but has also drawn some fire.

But here's what's missing:

  1. What about the server? If you're going to hire a restaurant server, it seems that customer service 101 should be: "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Let me get you a new salad right away." I would hope that server (who has conveniently remained nameless) is now jobless and looking for a position which does not require interaction with other living humans. The "middle man" who fired the first shot was allowed to slink into the shadows while two major forces arose in battle.  And in office politics conflicts, we see the instigator escape to wreak havoc another day. 
  2. It boils down to communication. Mark Rogers claimed he tried to make Marsha Richards happy, but she wouldn't hear of it. She claimed in her email that she tried to keep him focused on the server's behavior but he just grew more belligerent. To quote Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." When learning the basics of male/female communication (anyone who's been through couples sessions knows this one), you learn that SOMETIMES women do not want problems solved as much as they want to be heard, validated, and affirmed first and foremost. My guess (based on the sides of both parties) is that Mark tried to short-circuit this part of the communication loop and just wanted to solve the problem to make her go away WITHOUT LISTENING to her. And he learned it didn't work very well, got frustrated, and blew a gasket

In our quest to accomplish great things for ourselves and our organizations, sometimes the little details get lost.  We forget what the real issue is.  And we then go to battle.  And both sides are ill-prepared to win, because it becomes more about ego than engagement.  And no Facebook boycott page or press release from an operations manager will solve the root cause of what's really wrong.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Legends to begin with, so I doubt the teacher boycott will affect my dining decisions one way or another.  But as far as entertainment goes here in Des Moines, it's been a great week.

Vindication of High School Geometry Teachers Everywhere

OP_boat1 You remember when your high school geometry teacher kept telling you to learn all of those theorems because some day you would actually use it?  And your thought was "Yeah, right.  Not in a million years."  Well, I've got news for you:  she was [gasp] right.

In my last post, we talked about a lack of focus.  I pondered why the elderly can only discuss illness.  I have not received any death threats, seen any angry mobs with pitchforks, nor been the target of pellet guns loaded with Geritol.  But the practical applicataion still stands:  why can't people stay focused on what's really important?

Simply put, they're not in the same BOAT.

OP_boat2 Yes, BOAT is in all caps for a reason.  It stands for Balanced Organizational Alignment Triangle.  Here's how it works.  You're a hard-working professional trying to do your job.  Every day, you go into the office and do hardworking job things (insert your own Doh-Dee-Doh sound here).  However, preventing you from success is some knuckle-dragging neanderthal.  Guess what?  They probably perceive you as the roadblock to their success.

This "hindrance factor" is caused by the distance between your goals and the other person's goals.  Now before you get all finger-pointy on me, ask yourself this:  How far are both of you from the ORGANIZATION'S goals and mission?  (Or maybe those of the project, department, or team?)  If you are both light years away from where everyone else is going, you're naturally going to be distanced from each other.  Now, since all of my readers are good little corporate soldiers, we'll pretend that you're in alignment with the mission of the organization... but the knuckle-dragger is still off on his own.  Guess what, that still doesn't help the hindrance factor.  You're both going to have conflict with each other.

OP_boat3 So, how do we vindicate your high school geometry teacher AND bring peace to your organization?  (Thought you'd never ask.)  Maybe the two of you should start a dialogue about what's important to your team.  Start talking about how much you understand the shared direction of the department.  Figure out if anybody has shared a strategy statement with you.  Or better yet, you can purchase GUST, and use the handy-dandy surveys in the back (one each for employee level, management level, and executive level).  I bet that would get some really good talks going.  Only by aligning yourselves to a common goal can you align yourselves more closely to each other and reduce the conflict that is hindering your company.

Now call your geometry teacher and apologize.

Dead In Their Tracks

Ekg I've been hanging around a lot of older, more seasoned individuals recently, and I've noticed something:  they talk about illness a lot.  I'm not talking just passing comments here and there; it's one-up-man-ship of the highest caliber.  This is a continuous competition.  And the playing field is wide open.  They don't just talk about their own illness.  Anybody who's ever been on the periphery of their radar screen who has had so much as a sniffle is fair game.

I'm curious if they receive an "illness bingo card" with their AARP membership, and once they bring up so many ailments so they earn an illness bingo, they can turn it in for a prize.  Or they're just conversationally working themselves up for the inevitable.  I'm just speculating, mind you, but this pattern has revealed itself in numerous settings over the past few months.  I just can't ignore it.

Since I'm still entrenched in my forties and have plenty of more pleasant conversation topics left in me, I'm scratching my head trying to figure it out.  Of course, I still can't understand why American Idol tops more conversations than the economy, or politics, or things we can control and make better.

With office politics, I see this misplaced focus a lot as well.  People get really hyper over cubicle space.  They get worked up over who had lunch with whom.  They fret over who got a bigger raise or who spent more time in the office with the boss.  It seems we all have things we like to focus on, and many times, our focus is diverting us from more important and critical issues which we really can impact.

Hang around for the next post.  I have some thoughts about this phenomenon.

(Disclaimer:  My mother has asked that I state that - while she has plenty of reason to be one of the aforementioned individuals - she does NOT fall in this category.)

Miss Congeniality... or Miss Take?

Carrie_prejean2 So "the Donald" pardoned Carrie Prejean and let her keep her crown as Miss California.  The photos "weren't that bad."  The comments about same-sex marriage were "honorable."  No harm, no foul.  Everyone back to your corners.

But I want to see Round 2.  Rosie O'Donnell hasn't weighed in yet.  Expect a press release comment soon.

Given their past relationship, I really wonder if Donald Trump did what he did just to tweak Rosie.

In office politics, there are some people who take actions - not because they really believe they're right - but just to spite another human being... or department... or team... or company.

What can you do if you are on the receiving end of this bad office karma?

  1. Nothing - if the action is not harming business as usual, then I've found a "do nothing" approach can annoy the annoyer more than anything.

  2. Alliance Building - Get other people to go to bat for you.  This shows the decision-maker that the action was inherently bad.

  3. Up the Food Chain - If you have the relationships in place, go above the decision-makers as a "concerned team player"

  4. "What the hell...?" - Confront the person if the opportunity arises.  Hold a crucial conversation to get at the heart of the conflict and move past the surface struggle.  I've had situations where a thorn in the side has become a great ally after one of these talks.

  5. Mitigate - if their actions or decisions are irreversible, at least try to lessen the blow to yourself and those around you.

  6. Kill 'em with Kindness - I've found that retaliating with a kind and considerate gesture can do wonders for turning something negative into something really cool.

We'll see if Rosie reads my blog.  If I were her advisor, I'd tell her to go with 1) or 6).

Reasonable Force

3071_fdv17271bbotaxz1 One of the side benefits of volunteering for the SWAT team as a photographer is being able to learn some great lessons about how they do their jobs.  It seems each training session has a main theme, and there are some amazing field training officers on the force who really drive home the points with crystal clarity.  During some training a couple of weeks ago, the main emphasis was "reasonable force."  In other words, just because you have the weaponry and ability to thoroughly kick somebody's tail (or as one officer puts it, "give 'em a slug to the CPU"), doesn't mean it's always appropriate or warranted.  They listed case after case of instances where the police department was found at fault for using unreasonable force in resolving a stand-off.

Two of the criteria for reasonable force that were discussed included a history of a violent act (i.e., has the perpetrator already committed a violent crime) or whether there was imminent danger (e.g., the perpetrator is brandishing a weapon in a threatening manner).  In those cases, it is justifiable to use appropriate force to subdue the perpetrator either by bringing them into custody (preferred) or ... um ... less desirable means.

Office politicians can learn a lot from the principles of reasonable force.  I just blogged about situations where we need to let things slide and not get so hyper about various offenses; however, in some instances that is just not feasible.  So what is considered "reasonable force" in reacting to somebody else?  Well, like the SWAT team, a mix of reactive (history of violence) and proactive (imminent danger) need to be considered.  When you have to take action, does the offending party have a history of stupidity making bad choices, or does it appear as though they are about to do something boneheaded less than beneficial?  In either case, having written documentation through emails or talking to witnesses of the behavior is helpful.

Applying too much force to a situation can backfire and get everybody mad.  This includes calling an all-team meeting to address an infraction made by only one person.  Everybody already knows who is doing the offense being discussed and they are wondering why they're being dragged into it.  The person doing the offense rationalizes that others must be doing it, too, so they can keep doing it.  Not taking enough force is also bad since it causes low morale and makes employees think the boss doesn't care about bad behavior.  The other issue to address is whether the punishment fits the crime.  Sometimes it's simply a case of an adult discussion to say, "Hey, maybe you didn't realize you were doing this, but it's really becoming an issue with how we do business. How can I help you change your behavior?"  Other times, it may be more severe such as an official HR repirmand, docking pay, or dismissal.  The newspapers and blogs are littered with pending cases of individuals who were the victims of over-reaction.

So the next time you HAVE TO react to somebody else, think about how you can apply the principles of "reasonable force" to the situation to get the best outcome.  In the meantime, enjoy these employee handbook jokes demonstrating unreasonable force.

No Offense, But...

Blasphemy I've always been curious about what offends people.  It seems the past year has had a lot of posturing from people in both parties who are "mortally offended" by an innocent comment made by another person.  Take last night's State of the Union Address... the talking heads from both sides are dissecting and reacting and whining.  And don't even get me started about the cast of The View.  Those "ladies" can get offended by a speck of dust.

I've found in office politics, many people CHOOSE to get offended by something.  And thus begins the lobs of accusations, innuendo, and counter-insults.  I'm curious how many office politics conflicts would be avoided if we just let some things slide.  You heard me.  Don't tattle to the boss.  Don't file a report with HR.  Don't send of a scathing email CC-ing and BCC-ing 50 million others.  Just ignore it and let it slide.  Even better, just laugh it off.  Yes, if somebody is doing something that is truly WRONG (i.e., directly targeted at an individual or violation of company policy or HR regulations or illegal), then they should be called on it.  However, if someone "overhears" a comment or sees something they just don't like, can it be ... well... just dropped?

Maybe there's just too much drama in the world already and what we really need is to develop a sense of humor and laugh more.  Then we might actually get more accomplished in the long run.

Your thoughts?

Save Your Money, Bob

Vanderplaats A journalist friend of mine emailed me yesterday with Bob Vander Plaats' press release to run for Governor of the State of Iowa in two years.  Maybe I'm just a little battle worn after two years of presidential campaigning, but I can't help but think he's wasting his time and money (as well as those of other people).  Again, those who have read this blog know I fall on the side of the political conservative; however, I like being able to step back and look at the big picture of politics.

The reality is that it will be hard to unseat Governor Culver.  Anyone who thinks they'll be able to run on the basis of the economy is fooling himself - it stinks for everyone, so no one politician will be able to change it.  In the two years he's been in office, Governor Culver has shown fairly solid leadership through some large disasters, and he hasn't done anything irretrievably stupid.  Even his suggestion about leasing out the lottery could be spun as "Hey! At least I'm weighing all the options and trying to be creative."  Vander Plaats big platform issue tends to ride on moral conservatism, which is going to be a hard sell to a moderate state.  Unless one of the Republican candidates can create a real case that the status quo needs to be upheaved, it's going to be a tough campaign.  Of course, maybe Vander Plaats is just jumping in too early.  Like I said, we're all a little tired with the Presidential Inauguration just last week.

Now I don't dislike Bob; I actually voted for him when he ran a few years ago and lost out in the primary.  It's just the political and social environments are going to make it an uphill battle for any challenger.

How often do we see that in office politics?  Before you jump into a highly political situation, you may want to ask yourself some good questions:

  • What are my motives for getting involved?
  • What do I hope to accomplish by injecting myself into the office politics conflict?
  • Do I have the resources needed to go the distance?
  • What value do I bring to the conflict to help it come to resolution?
  • Am I getting involved at the right time?  Should I hold off and wait and see how the situation plays out?  Conversely, have I missed the opportune moment to get involved?
  • How will other stakeholders react to my getting involved?

Will Bob Vander Plaats win the governor's race in 21 months?  Well, history will play that one out.  From this angle, he's one pony I wouldn't be betting on.

The Gloves Must Come Off

Cuffs_gloves Since we are talking about my latest experience with the SWAT team, a funny thing happened later in the evening.  After it was too dark to do any more non-flash photography, I volunteered to be a role player (bad guy) in some of their scenarios.  During the few couple of runs through the exercise, I was compliant and followed orders.  Then the field training officer suggested I could be a little contrarian with the cops (he knows me too well).  Hence, I got roughed around a little, and was cuffed a few times.  Our last time through the exercise, the cuffs refused to unlock.  Try after try to uncuff me was met with equal failure.  They were having a great time joking that I would have fun explaining to my wife why I was showing up at home in handcuffs.  Finally, 15 minutes, 7 cops, and 3 sets of keys later, I started to pull off my gloves and found the problem:  the cuff of my glove was caught in the cuff.  So while I pulled on my cuff, one officer turned the key while the other manipulated the cuff which finally freed me.

We have the same problem in office politics.  Sometimes there is something seemingly unnoticeable that is "caught" in the conflict.  We may not notice it at first and keep trying the same old techniques to resolve the conflict as before, only to make matters worse because we haven't stopped to understand all angles of the office politics issue.  Only when we "take off the gloves" do we see what is really happening underneath and be able to solve it.

This glove-cuff-catch may come in the form of our personal beliefs about a person (ever try negotiating project resources with a workaholic sponsor who thinks everyone should put in 100-hour work weeks?) or it may be company policies (what procedures are making everybody's jobs more difficult instead of easier?).  Our job as office politicians ia to figure out how to pull off the gloves to figure out these catches... BEFORE they occur.

Ask yourself the following before you engage somebody on a conflict or a politically sensitive point:

  • What are their beliefs and perceptual filters about me?
  • What are their beliefs and perceptual filters about the issue between us?
  • How can I mitigate these to get a favorable result for both of us?
  • What are my beliefs and perceptual filters about them?  (be honest about it)
  • What are my beliefs and perceptual filters about the issue between us?
  • How can I use these or move past them to get a favorable result?
  • Are there elements of the organizational culture which is impacting our relationship?
  • Are there policies and procedures which are getting in the way?
  • Do any sacred cows need to be grilled up to help us move forward?

 

Each of these may be catching in the cuffs which are preventing you from moving forward.  Will I still play bad guy for the cops when they need it?  Sure.  I'll just make sure it's in a warmer climate so the gloves can come off.

The Sneak Attack

USSArizona_PearlHarbor_2 "Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected blow on our Pacific possessions... Radio makes surprise impossible." -Josephus Daniels, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, October 16, 1922

We never saw it coming... or did we?  Sixty-seven years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is interesting to read the reports and watch the documentaries.  The Japanese fleet was picked up on radar that morning.  So, could the attack have been averted?  Well, it's a moot point, only to be argued by "what if" arm chair historians.  The fact is that it did happen.

Having visited Pearl Harbor, I stood in awe of the monument.  it's a sobering reminder of the damage which can be caused by war and hatred.  It's a beautifully haunting memorial.  A lot of lives were lost that day because of the surprise attack.

We have surprise attacks all the time.  In the office, we have adopted the unflattering term of "being thrown under the bus."  And the victims always declare, "I didn't see it coming."  But this is a situation which needn't be argued in the past tense.  I contend there are ways to see if you're about to be thrown under the proverbial bus:

  • Pay attention - first and foremost, allow yourself to let your inner Jane Goodall come out.  Observe the office animals around you.  Their body language and word choice will give off clues on how they feel about you and each other.

  • Same page - getting the whole team focused on a common goal early will prevent some of the politics which occur as a project progresses.  Have team members sign off on deliverables to show (visibly) everyone's support of the project and the approach.

  • Build relationships rather than alliances - from the beginning, look for ways to forge long-term relationships with those you work with.  Test the waters for snakes, but look for means to build trust.  Your project is NOT a reality TV show, so don't look for the short-term win just to get a deliverable out the door.

  • Heightened Accountability - if people are shirking responsibility and making excuses, then it's likely they'll attack you when your back is turned.  If you are having to play the accountabilty cop, then be alert to possible back-lashes from your slackers who are now more visible in their boss's eyes than they care to be.

  • Hide, Achilles - if you have a weakness which can be exploited, be careful how public you make it.  The snakes will use it against you at the first sign that it can benefit them.

  • Peaks and Valleys - be on your guard during deliverable reviews and peer reviews, which are the most vulnerable moments for sneak attacks.  Spend quality time with your stakeholders to shore up any weak links or loose cannons.

  • Tell me first - create a culture where honest feedback may be given and constructive criticism received directly.  People are more likely to throw somebody else under the bus if they've been shot down by giving honest feedback previously.

I just finished a semester when one class of students had to do peer reviews.  There were a couple of students who were thrown under the bus by their teammates.  I'm curious if those individuals even knew they were perceived as poor performers by their peers.  My guess is they will perceive their grade as a complete sneak attack.

Nice Voice... May I Please Have It Back?

I couldn't resist a little humor at the beginning of a workweek.  After all, who wouldn't like a little Coldplay a la Muppets?

I'm in the process of answering a really tough letter for Office-Politics.com, and one of the people in their letter is "pulling a Beaker" - he's stealing somebody else's thoughts and passing them off as his own.

It seems there's a lot of credit stealing going on in the office.  I created a document over 10 years ago for a client laying out how to tell if a project status is red, yellow, or green.  It's since been plagiarized all over the city of Des Moines.  Oh well, at least I know who the original author was.

So, how do you protect yourself from credit stealers?  Here are a few simple tips:

  • Archive... often!  I start out all of my documents with an 8-digit date (e.g., 20081201 Blog Post.doc) and then as I go back and work on it, I change the date appropriately.  This way, I have a paper trail to protect the creative thought process and prove I worked on it longer than anyone else.  I may have 20 iterations of the same file when I'm done, but it's also compelling evidence, if needed.

  • Share and share alike.  It may seem counter-intuitive to share your work with others if you're trying to protect from a credit-stealer; however, if you've archived (above) then getting your work for others to see shows them who the author is.  Should a credit-stealer arise, you have witnesses.

  • Um... excuse me...  If you catch a credit stealer trying to pass off your stuff (or someone else's material) as their own, call them on it (in a nice way).  "Bob, that was a great presentation.  I'm sure it was just an oversight that you used a few of Andi's ideas from her project and forgot to give her credit.  You did a masterful job of building on what she created, though."

  • Once a thief... If you know somebody has a history of stealing others' work, steer clear of them.  They most likely will try it again.  More importantly, warn new people coming in (a favorite target of the credit stealer).

Most importantly is to show some backbone and hold people accountable.  Letting a credit-stealer get away with their work is as bad as... well... as bad as letting the Muppets sing Coldplay hits.

The Show Me (How To Drive) State

Gerald_wreckAnother week of blogospheric silence... what gives?

Well, to be honest, I've been a little preoccupied.  You see, I had a boo-boo.  More appropriately my car, Gerald, had a boo-boo.  Specifically, the Ford Escape was not engineered to smooch a utility pole.  So the car is now totaled... gone to that great parking lot in the sky.

How did it happen?  Well, funny you should ask.  There was another driver... an evil Missouri driver... also heading south on the same rain-soaked street last week.  He decided he would rather be in my lane than his, so he made a rather rapid switch immediately.  Then he also decided that he was going too fast in his efforts to get around me, so after he made his lane change, he proceeded to slam on his brakes before eventually speeding back up, leaving me to take evasive measures to avoid rear-ending him.  My evasive maneuvers led me right into the nearest parking lot where the Kansas City public works department decided a utility pole should be strategically placed.  Meanwhile, he was merrily on his way, unaware he had caused anything.  Enough said.

Amazingly, even Missourians criticize themselves when it comes to driving.  The people at my client site have made worse comments about their fellow drivers than my inside voice could ever conjure up.

Office politics sometimes work like that other driver.  People changing lanes, slamming on brakes, performing tactics on wet pavement... not very happy for the rest of us.  So how do we practice DEFENSIVE DRIVING in an office setting?

  • Lane Changers - look for people who change their decisions and positions quickly and often.  Get things in writing from them and hold them publicly accountable.
  • Jerks and Stops - beware of those who pull the "hurry up and wait" game on you.  Validate urgencies and deadlines before work begins.  Make everyone aware of the consequences of starting and stopping tasks frequently.
  • Wet Conditions - what is your business environment right now?  With the current economic crisis, "slippery when wet" probably doesn't even begin to cut it.  Be extra careful when playing politics if there are bigger business issues to address.
  • Immovable Objects - if you find yourself having to take evasive action when dealing with office politics, make sure the avoidance won't cause even more trouble (i.e., utility poles) than actively engaging the other poor drivers.

These are just a few of the lessons I learned last week.  All in all, I have much to be thankful for.  Outside of a banged up knee, I wasn't injured.  The car was insured.  Nobody else was hurt.  The pole was replaceable.  And it's a great time to be car shopping.  And I've re-learned the importance of defensive driving... on and off the road.

Executives Don't Shoot Messengers

Gun_aim_copyOK, I'll try to make this my parting shot on the presidential campaign.  For all of you caught up in the emotional sweep of Obama-ism, you're not going to like this.  An ABC reporter catches Joe Biden off-guard, makes him look like a fool (not too hard to do to Mr. "Gird your Loins"), and the Obama camp "punishes" ABC?  OK, let's step back here a second.  I'd say the same thing if the McCain camp pulled a stunt like this.  The candidate gives a bad answer, and it's the media's fault?  The same media darlings who have been treating Obama like the messiah he thinks he is and have been biasing the campaign against McCain is now being punished because Foot-In-Mouth Biden makes a gaffe?  Can you imagine an Obama Whitehouse Press Conference?  There won't only be gag rules, there will be bound-and-gagged-and-tied-up-and-body-dumped-where-nobody-will-find-them rules.

But because I try to keep this in the arena of organizational behavior, let's bring this back to cubicle-land for a minute.  How many of our executives and managers do the same thing?  Somebody gives a bad answer, and they are pigeon-holed as incompetent.  An employee asks a question at a public forum, and all of a sudden they are shunned as a trouble maker.  We cringe at these behaviors, the same ones that got AIG and Enron and other giants in trouble, the same behaviors that Obama is criticizing as corporate greed and malfeasance.  And yet we'd be willing to tolerate a shoot-the-messenger mentality from the most powerful man in the world?  Obama has touted himself as the anti-Bush, which is moderately wise branding given how unpopular "W" is right now.  But then he turns around and exhibits the same brand of bullying which got the Bush Administration to where they are now.

Maybe I'm missing something.  Maybe Obama isn't really a naked emperor.  Maybe it's all a big misunderstanding.  After all, the only true Messiah was misunderstood as well.

But then again... maybe Joe Biden is right.  Gird your loins, folks.

Poll Dancing

Dancing_palin_obamaIt seems that "real" politics these days give us a great reflection of their office counterpart.

I've been fascinated by story after story in the papers and on the web that - less than two weeks before the election - the polls may not really reflect a true Obama lead.  One AP Poll had them as close as one point as of Wednesday.  Some polls still predict an Obama landslide, while others are severely pulling back their predictions, a few saying the election is too close to call.

What happened to the commanding lead Obama held a couple of weeks ago?  Is the "liberal elite media" learning their lesson from the 2004 Election Day?  Are the polls really reflecting what's going on?  In this mixed up election year drama, I'd say anything is possible.  It just seems odd that the story is changing so quickly when it appeared a slam dunk.  Were the earlier leads just spin?  Is McCain really going to pull off an upset?  Is the "race card" a factor?  Are the recent gap closures meant to scare people into voting for Obama?  Did Joe Biden scare people with his doomsday scenario that will "test Obama"?  Are Sarah Palin and Tina Fey really separated at birth?  So many questions!

In office politics, we have to watch out for changing stories all the time as well.  Somebody will commit something one day and pretend they never met you the next.  People will say they'll have it done by Friday, only to look surprised when they exclaim, "Oh, you meant THIS Friday?!"  Executives will want something "as soon as possible" only to be shocked when it is shoved to the bottom of the priority pile because it wasn't yet as soon as possible in the underling's schedule.

How can you prevent a blindside when stories change a the last minute?  Here are a few techniques I've used:

  • Be clear - don't ask for it by Wednesday.  "I need it by noon CDT on Wednesday, October 29, 2008."  This will leave a lot less ambiguity.  This heightens the visibility and accountability of the task.
  • Create checkpoints - rather than waiting until the end just to find out it didn't get done, ask for updates (along with documentation and tangible evidence) a week in advance, 48 hours in advance, 24 hours in advance, and the morning of the due date.  Annoying?  Only if the person is shunning accountability.
  • Identify "done" - let them know up front what the criteria to complete the task looks like.  This will prevent the "oh, it's technically done... we just have a little tweaking to do."  A check mark is earned, not given.
  • Provide rewards and consequences - if it's a major milestone, I start with positive rewards which should motivate the team.  If I perceive there may be political slackers, I try to make sure there are clear consequences.
  • Mitigate - have a Plan B.  "If we miss this milestone, we will have to..."  This prevents a mere communication blindside from becoming a major disaster.

So how do you handle the potential "poll dancing" of public opinion on your projects?

I Need More Minions! BUWAHAHAHA!

Little_peopleAn article in the Des Moines Register yesterday led me to Marc Ward's blog, Attack of the Narcisse Clones.  For those of you outside the Des Moines area, here's the scoop:  Marc Ward lost his seat on the Des Moines school board the same year that Jon Narcisse won his.  Narcisse has been undisputably controversial in both his message and his approach since being elected.  He's done some things that make even the most naive politicians wince.  His supporters call him a straight shooter.  His detractors, well, something less flattering.  Now Marc Ward has started a blog with the sole purpose of pointing out all of Narcisse's faults, one of which is that he's gathering clones and minions to get elected onto the school board to help him achieve his nefarious plans and gain world domination (insert evil Plankton laugh from SpongeBob Squarepants here).

I'm not sure what solution could resolve the conflict between these two men, but maybe that wise sage of the ages, June Cleaver, said it best:  "Ward, I think something is wrong with the boys.  Maybe you should talk to them."

Marc Ward's accusations bring up an excellent issue with office politics, though.  How can you tell when somebody is gathering minions vs. building healthy alliances?  Because the snake politician is one can work either overtly or covertly to accomplish his goals, it can be hard to tell when a secret army of evil is being amassed.

Here are some easy tips to figure out when somebody is building alliances vs. seeking minions:

  • Motive - does the person have an obvious agenda on a specific issue?  If so, there may be minions.  If not, it's probably just alliance-building.
  • Independence - are the relationships able to act independently of the person building them or does everything have to funnel through one person (or a select group) in thought and in deed?
  • Novelty - is this something new and sudden and urgent (a sign of minion building) or does it happen gradually over time and allowed to occur naturally through mutual interests?
  • Invitation - can anybody be allowed to forge a relationship or do you need to be extended an invitation to be in the group?
  • Openness - how secretive is the group that they are building relationships?  Are lunches held behind closed doors?  Do people take bathroom breaks together?  This one test is a good indicator on the alliance-vs-minion test
  • Noise - is this group wreaking havoc or are they providing a calm and rational voice for their views, listening to all sides without throwing stones or sabotaging dissenting views?

As far as certain behaviors going on in Des Moines, I believe there should be a time out for big people until they realize that kids' education is more important than agendas and egos.

Tick... Tick... Tick... Tick...

WatchIt seemed like a simple issue.  I had shared some information with a colleague, that's all.  We'd both been asked to review and respond to a document and give our approval to it.  I knew I couldn't put my approval on it (in good conscience), and I conveyed my decision to her.  I told her it was her decision whether or not she signed off on the document, but I let her know why I couldn't.  An hour later, she was talking with a person from the team who had created the document, sharing with them that neither of us would be signing off.  Well, you can guess what happened next.  A big blow-up.

There are occasions when the timing of the office politics are as critical as the issue itself.  Sometimes, you need to take action immediately on an office politics issue.  For others, "sleeping on it" is the best way to take action.  You may change your mind, or circumstances surrounding the office politics may be different in a day or two.  The moment you voice your stance on an issue, you've just communicated a lot of ammunition to the other office politics players.  This may actually be one of the few issues where I advocate procrastination.  It is OK to have an unspoken thought.

Some questions to ask yourself when deciding when to communicate your office politics intentions:

  1. Do you want to give the other party enough time to react?  Sometimes you may want to let them change course; other times, you may want them backed into a corner so they can't take further action.
  2. How impatient is the other party?  Are they OK if you think about it overnight, or do they want you to provide an answer right away?
  3. How does your answer impact the power balance between you?  As I said, once you've communicated your intentions, you've just provided them with new ammunition.  Prolonging your answer also gives you some breathing time to develop strategies to possible reactions down the road.
  4. How will they react to your message?  Will they blow up?  Will they take it in stride?  Will they understand your point of view or will they make (possibly incorrect) assumptions?
  5. Is it just bad timing to communicate here and now?  As they say, timing is everything.  There may be considerations outside your office politics challenge which may taint the views.  If someone is just having a bad day, ANYTHING you say could be taken the wrong way.

Again, before you hit SEND on that email or pick up the phone for that pithy retort, stop, pause, think, breathe... and consider whether it has to be communicated right now.

The Dog-Eat-Dog World of Misinformation

Dog_cat_petPssst.  McCain is winning in a poll.  But don't tell anyone, OK?

Which poll is it?  Well, evidently, McCain is beating Obama in a poll among pet-owners.  Yup, that's right, 42% to 37% (paws down).

What's that you say?  Who cares?  Are you kidding?!  The fate of democracy as we know it is riding with those who care for our furry little friends.  What a CAT-astrophe.  The world really is going to the dogs.

But what are these numbers REALLY telling us?  Hmmm, well, it takes responsibility to own a pet.  Does that mean that only irresponsible people like Obama?  Does that mean Obama himself is irresponsible?  After all, look at all those "Present" votes in the Senate.  Barack must be afraid to take a stand on anything.  No wonder pet-owners hate him.  (Not even I can say that one with a straight face.)

We play this game a lot with office politics, too, don't we?  We can make any piece of information sound relevant, just in the way we spin it to others.  ("By the way, did you know that HALF of the entire population is below average?")  After all, if you take a piece of information that's really true ("Susan is a really dedicated wife and mother") and turn it into a useful piece of innuendo ("If you want a really dedicated project manager, you won't be able to count on Susan"), then you've accomplished effective spin doctoring.

Dog_obamaHow do you combat this?  It's simple, just ask questions.  "Have you ever seen Susan miss a critical project milestone because of a family event?"  That generally stops the office politician dead in his tracks.  Often, she or he relies on this kind of "stretch of logic" to get their job done.  If you choose not to play along, you can accomplish your job... finding the truth.

Putting Yourself Out There

Tim_paintball_1I know a lot of ostriches.  It seems there are just too many people who go out of their way to avoid office politics at any cost because they don't want to get hurt.  Getting hurt is universally bad, so anything that could cause hurt can't be good.  Therefore, they want to avoid office politics.

This month, I'm volunteering some of my time for the local police departments as a role player for their RAID (Rapid And Immediate Deployment) training.  The police are practicing how they would handle an "active shooter" situation, and I get to play the "bad guy."  We're all using "simunition" (simulated ammunition) weapons, which is a cross between bullets and paintball.  Yes, I get to shoot at cops and it's legal.

Last night was my first session with this type of police training.  I've been receiving lessons in shooting and gun safety from one of the officers (believe it or not, as research for my next book), but it didn't prepare me for this experience.  I ended up with many more marks on me than I'm sure I inflicted on them (and I have the welts and bruises to prove it today).

Tim_paintball_2But why would I do a thing like that?  Some kind of testosterone-laden perversely-masochistic fun?  (OK, well, sort of.)  But as I told one of the commanders, if I'm able to help an officer achieve a straighter shot or clearer thinking if the real event occurs, then putting myself out there to be bruised up a little bit for a few evenings is a worthwhile investment to me as a citizen.

Too often, we are so afraid of "being injured in the line of duty" as a cubicle dweller that we don't see the value that healthy conflict (or sometimes even unhealthy conflict) can bring to the organization to help it grow.  Avoiding office politics at any cost doesn't help to propel the team forward; it generally just suppresses the inevitable explosion.

How can you change your mindset and your actions to help yourself and your team get more comfortable with conflict?  Are you willing to take a couple of shots in order to make everyone stronger?  How can you move from "ostrich" to "bear" in your office politics situations?

Office Politics and the Project Manager

Originally Published at Iowabiz.com in January, 2008

You are a project manager.

You have a project you want done.

You've made assignments and set the vision.

So why isn't anything happening?  It might be that your organization is a victim of office politics, a case of passive-aggression in your company.  I've written numerous articles on my blog about office politics, and many people have used GUST in their career planning strategies.  Want to read more on the subject?  Check out www.office-politics.com.

The one constant problem with office politics is that 1) most people start the conflict themselves without realizing it and 2) most people don't realize that they are involved in a game until it is too late.  Celine over at the Pimp Your Work blog shared a great post about what to do when your team loses.  Office politics can cost your company thousands of dollars, and when it rears its ugly head on your projects, Celine shares some things to do to help your team cope:

  • Keep your spirits up
  • Find out what you could've done better
  • Show appreciation for everyone's efforts
  • Focus on how well the team worked
  • Look forward to the next challenge

As the business owner, if you have control over the circumstances that caused the loss, there are some additional things I'd like to suggest for you to do to mitigate the issue:

  • Determine the motives of the perpetrators - it may be that the office politics prevented you from doing something really stupid.
  • Figure out what can be salvaged - did office politics completely undermine your project?  Can anything be saved?
  • Establish safeguards for the future - determine how to leverage accountability to ensure that accomplishment can still occur.  Remove those who prevented your success earlier.

Carpe Factum!

The Birth Order of Territoriality

Mall_playgroundThe other night, during a family outing to the mall, my wife took my older daughter to look for some clothes, leaving my younger daughter and me to fend for ourselves at the mall playground.  Always the people-watcher, I observed the other dads who had been banished to play-land and started noticing a really interesting trend.  It started with one other dad who was obviously a first time father.  I say this for two reasons:  1) he still was wearing designer clothes, and 2) he was hovering over his little girl, never letting his hand more than two inches away from her at any point.  On the other end of the spectrum were the dads who obviously had more than one child there; they were vaguely aware that they had offspring in the area.  As long as there was no bloodshed or loss of consciousness, they were content to sit on the sidelines.  Me?  I like playing with Abby, but I'm cool with giving her space to explore on her own a little bit, so I guess I fit somewhere in the middle.

In office politics, there seems to be the most trouble at the same two extremes as parenting.  You either deal with the overprotective professional, who is territorial about everything under his or her realm.  If you dare to give the slightest hint of invasion, it's as good as a declaration of war.  When "overprotective dad" made eye contact with me at one point, he actually scowled at me as if to say "Back off, bub."  I can't blame him; with my firstborn, I could have earned a spot as a Presidential bodyguard.  Territorial people are difficult to handle because they're doing the right things... just to an uncomfortable extreme.  In business, we want people to care, to take ownership, to seize the accomplishment.  However, when that psychological ownership comes at the expense of others, it's time to intervene.

Dealing with the overprotective and territorial professional is even more challenging because of the emotion involved.  Too often, management ignores the problem because the territorial person is getting stuff done and bringing in the results.  Or they "fix" the problem by reassigning the person to a new territory/department/division without ever explaining why this is occurring.  Then over time, the person becomes territorial again.  Fixing the problem may require having a difficult discussion with the professional, or it may require adding on more responsibilities to dillute their focus (like adding more children cures first-time fathers of overprotectiveness).  Whatever the reason, it does require some event to fix it.

How have you dealt with these kinds of people in the past?

What about the "under-protective" laissez-faire managers who don't do enough?

How To Destroy Your Manager

Suit(WARNING TO HARRY POTTER FANS:  BOOK 7 SPOILER INCLUDED IN FINAL PARAGRAPH.)

I love to see how people find my blog through Google and Yahoo searches.  They find me through searches on serial killers and chihuahua behaviors.  They find me when they are looking for the Sound of Music and stool softener.  They hunt me down on weird topics like the Weather Channel and bunny costumes.  Most of the time, I just sort of chuckle about how my complete lack of focus (some would call it blogospheric attention deficit disorder) pulls in readers from numerous topics.  There was a search this week that really caught my attention, though:  "How to destroy your supervisor."  They had paired this phrase with "office politics," which is more likely the reason I arrived on their radar screen, but still it intrigued me that somebody was looking for a "how to" on destroying their supervisor.  Mind you, I've had managers and supervisors where I had hoped a house carrying a little girl from Kansas would fall on them.  OK, maybe not hoped, but it wouldn't have surprised me.

If you currently have a less-than-pleasant superior, should destroying him or her really be a goal?  I had to chuckle at a recent letter I answered on Office-Politics.com that wondered when "office karma" kicked in to do the trick.  I shared with the letter writer an early experience out of college with a supervisor and a manager... two of the most wicked and vile human beings on the planet.  Surprisingly, these two taught me the most valuable lesson about bad managers and how to destroy them:  do absolutely nothing to them.  Yup, that's right.  Do what you can to protect yourself, your reputation, and your integrity; they will eventually destroy themselves.  The time frame is out of your hands, but it will happen.

I've yet to see a bad manager who didn't eventually self-destruct.  I thought J.K. Rowling's conclusion of the Harry Potter series was nothing short of brilliant.  Harry didn't kill Lord Voldemort.  Lord Voldemort did himself in.  The same concept applies in business.  Ego.  Power.  Pride.  Selfishness.  Greed.  Backstabbing.  Disloyalty.  All of the same traits which make them so unpleasant will eventually be their undoing.  Before they "get theirs" you may have to decide to move on, or you may be presented with the opportunity to facilitate their downfall (but don't count on it).  Either way, you can get back on your own career path, and they are out of the way.  Then you can refocus on seizing your accomplishments.

I'll Do It Myself

Back_offLiving with a toddler means that you'll hear the phrase, "I'll do it myself" a lot between the ages of two and four.  The kids are trying to assert their independence and it's up to us parents to figure out when to intervene and take over and when to back off and let our kids make a few mistakes.  It's all part of the learning process.

When you have an overbearing parent, the child never learns how to do things for himself.  Even simple tasks become long drawn-out chores over time because the child hasn't learned how to manage them.  In my master's leadership class a couple of weekends ago, I heard some of my students bemoaning the fact that they were working for micromanagers.  One shared that her manager couldn't even insert a picture in PowerPoint by herself, but she would stand over the employee's back and instruct her how to do it.  I've worked for managers who wanted to have a hand in every single email or deliverable that went out the door.  Michael Sheeley shared some great ideas for new managers to prevent them from becoming micromanagers.  But what if you are the subordinate who is dealing with the micromanager?  Since the balance of power is not in your favor, do you have a game plan for handling that scenario?

In short, the answer is yes, you can upwardly handle a micromanager, but it does take some finesse.  Micromanaging is a form of bullying, and there are some control and perception issues at stake.  Here are a few ideas and tips I've used in that arena:

  • Stroke the ego - I've used phrases like "Certainly someone of your importance doesn't have time to look over my shoulder on such a trivial task."  This becomes a catch-22 for the micromanager, because if they admit they have the time, then they also have to admit that they're not as important as they thought.
  • Help them practice time management skills - I will suggest to the micromanager that it is in their best interest to let me take the task or the project to a certain level, and then schedule check-points with them before proceeding.  This gives me some wiggle room to do things my own way and then to share the results and output with them.  Try setting up end-of-day recap meetings for 15-30 minutes.
  • Multiple choice - when you come to an impasse, go to the micromanager with multiple solutions (that you've researched as much as you can), share your ideas with them and let them know that their final say is important.  At least you've provided them with a series of choices that are of your design, but you've still left the final decision with them.
  • Their Idea - one of my favorite scenes in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is when the Mom and the Aunt work over the Dad to make him come to the conclusion they want about the daughter's choice of employment.  "The man may be the head of the house," admonishes the mom, "but the woman controls the neck."  Don't be afraid to try to basic manipulation techniques on the micromanager, but only if you can successfully let him think it was his idea all along.
  • Better to ask forgiveness - if the micromanager is more of the hit-and-run type, sometimes I will go ahead and make progress.  If I get in trouble, I'll pull the "sorry, didn't know I wasn't allowed to make that decision" comment.  I've made more progress on projects that way.  If you just don't wait for the micromanager, you can get a lot done.  (WARNING:  This one can backfire and cause even more micromanagement if you screw up.)

So, what are your thoughts on dealing with a micromanager?

The Trojan Candidate

Trojanhorse"I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

OK, I think I've figured out why I don't like Barack Obama.  If you recall, before the Iowa Caucuses, I mentioned that he looked and sounded really presidential, but there was just something about him that my gut said, "No way!"

Well, if his "you're likeable enough" comment to Hillary during the New Hampshire debate didn't turn my stomach, last night's South Carolina "whine with cheese" certainly did.  Mind you, I'm not arguing against the validity of the comment.  The Clinton machine is at top speed.  Both Hillary and Bill are creating a full-court press after being blindsided by Obama three weeks ago.  And, as is unfortunately normal in politics, facts and records are being distorted to make Barack look bad.

But come on... Obama is complaining about a "home court advantage" that he knew existed between the Clintons before he got into this race.  Hillary is the closest thing to an incumbent in this election, so for him to level that kind of comment seems petty at best.

But this post isn't really about national politics.  I'm using it to demonstrate a phenomenon of office politics... something I like to call the "Trojan Horse/Sacrificial Lamb" approach.  It's the office politics approach to using a hit man, and it is especially common with bullies in the work place.  Why dirty your own hands when you can get somebody else to do it?  I used to work for a consulting firm that was notorious for hiding the accountability of attacks among it's owners/management staff.  If you think you might be the victim of this approach, here are some things to look out for:

  • Relationship with "attacker" - does this person have a valid reason to attack you?  Have they ever?
  • "Attacker's" relationships - does this person have relationships with people whom you consider opponents?  How close are the relationships?
  • Logic - Does the attack make sense?  Did you do something (inadvertently or on purpose) to warrant the attack?
  • Outcome - What do you stand to lose and what does your attacker stand to gain?

If you think the attacker may be working on somebody else's behalf, don't fall into the shoot the messenger mode.  That is probably the outcome the mastermind is after.  You two go on the attack of each other while the master-mind rises above the fray.  This kind of relationship requires you to do a little more investigating.  Keep calm about the attack.  If you cannot stay calm while the attack is going on, try to gain some time before you engage the attacker.  Ask a lot of questions to gain understanding.  Ask the right kinds of questions, and the "Trojan Horse" generally tips his hand.  Talk to other people who may be involved in the conflict to gain a more objective view.

Remember:  your goal initially may not be to survive the attack as much as it is to figure out who or what is really behind the attack.  This should be the case regardless of whether your attacker is acting alone or on behalf of another.  After all, one of the key steps of office politics is to understand the players, their motives, and the environment.

I do have to give Obama credit for one thing last night:  he called their strategy for what it was (even if his wording and approach could have used some finesse).

Is Your Rule-Breaker Like Herbie or Christine?

Car_herbieEveryone knows the rules.  Cars are inanimate objects.  They are not alive.  They cannot think for themselves.  They cannot act for themselves.  They must be driven.  Those are the rules.

Uh... don't tell Herbie or Christine those rules.  Herbie will ignore you.  Christine will kill you.  But that's the way it is with "that type" of person.  We call them rule breakers, loose cannons, renegades, free thinkers.  They react.  Then we try to squish them.  The problem is that we don't take the time to figure out why they are the way they are.

Take Herbie for instance.  He's a loveable VW Bug.  He helps people.  He has feelings.  He wins races.  He spurs romance.  Heck, he even made Lindsay Lohan look presentable for two hours of her short yet disastrous career.  The car breaks the rules for the greater good.

Car_christine_2Then there's Christine, the evil-possessed Plymouth Fury of Stephen King's imagination.  Her rule breaking is based on malice and jealousy.  It is based on sabotage and injury and destruction.  People who cross Christine wind up dead.

So, which one is your office renegade?  Are they breaking the rules because they found a better way to kill the sacred cow?  Or are they breaking the rules because they found a way to kill the secretary's career?  Is their motivation to make it better or make it badder (yeah, yeah, I know, not grammatically correct... just work with me here, OK)?

I found a great post by what appears to be a now-defunct blog (too bad) on the Dwonder Blog.  I suppose even dead blogs have something to say on occasion.  Anyway, the author of the blog was talking about avoiding office politics and shared the following snippet:

If you choose not to play, be sure you don't criticize those who do, or the game itself. You'll be labeled a loose cannon or a troublemaker. You'll also be a target for skilled political players who may decide to use you to further their own agendas. It's easy to identify the person who doesn't want to join in as the malcontent who's responsible for badmouthing unpopular decisions. Well, says you, I'm not being negative, I'm just saying that things should be based on merit - the quality of your work, not who you kiss up to. I agree - in principal. It sounds great, but I've never seen a company where there wasn't some element of politics at work.

Car_geraldAnd so we need to figure out WHY we're labeling somebody as a loose cannon, and if their rule-breaking tendencies actually can add value to the organization and to their coworkers.  That should be part of your diagnosis before taking action.

And as for that rule about cars not being alive, I'd really appreciate it if you didn't say anything like that around Gerald.  He's really hyper-sensitive about those things.

Office Politics Overload

PressureWow!  Either there are a lot of people who are dealing with office politics (and wondering how to handle office politics), or Franke James just likes me.  (For those who don't know, she is the editor and owner of Office-Politics.com, a website to which I contribute regularly.)  I've been on a letter-answering binge recently.  You can check out all my letters here.

There have been some doozies:  a "backfired" employee raffle, a horny commanding army officer, an upwardly-sucking coworker, and an unempowered trainee have all been crossing my desk recently.

Yesterday, I had the honor of addressing the local chapter of IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) and the even greater honor of having Claire Celsi in the front row (heckle-free, no less).  I shared with them how to use office politics as a proactive tool rather than a reactive weapon.  The presentation was very well received, and I am appreciative of the opportunity.

So, it's a new year... are you still being stumped by office politics?  You know what to do.

Image from despair.com

Caucus Office Politics: Annoyance or Irrelevance

Ghost_townTo my fellow Iowans:

Thanks for letting me poke fun at our politcal process (more at the expense of the candidates than at your expense, so maybe I should be thanking them).

I'd like to encourage all of you to get out and caucus tonight.  I've heard many of you complain about the incessant TV ads and the irritating phone calls over the dinner hour.  Please, we deal with humidity and mosquitos during the summer months... how bad can the candidates really be?

The important issue is demonstrating to the rest of the nation that we are relevant decision-makers in this process.  We get to be first.  You may be thinking "big whoop" to that, but it goes beyond bragging rights.  Think about the millions of dollars that are poured into our state over the past several months all because a bunch of people want to seek the presidency.  This is the first time in 80 years that there has not been a sitting incumbant (President or VP) running for this office.  It's a wide open field.  And we have protected our "first in nation" status once again.

In office politics, the players complain a lot about little annoyances until they are gone... and they are generally replaced by even larger annoyances.  The little annoyances for us are a few ads and phone calls.  The larger annoyance is that nobody would pay attention to our little state if it weren't for the caucuses.  We owe it to the rest of the nation to take this seriously.  We owe it to ourselves to protect it.

Regardless of whom you love or hate, just get out and caucus tonight.  It won't take that much of your time.  I was originally planning on staying home with our children so my wife could caucus without interruption.  Then we decided we'd take the kids with us.  We need to set an example for them that we live in a democracy, and it's something to be proud of.  We even decided to split the parties (one going Republican; the other, Democrat) and compare notes later.

Tomorrow, Iowa will be a political ghost town as all of the candidates scamper off to New Hampshire.  Let's make sure that Iowa is not a political ghost town in four years.

Carpe Factum, Folks!  Get out and caucus.

Caucus Office Politics: In the Dogma House

Mitt_romneyYou didn't think I was going to let Mitt Romney off the hook, did you?

You all know, of course, that if Mitt Romney wins the election, that the Mormon Church will be running the US, didn't you?  No?  Well, that's the rumor going around.  Mike Huckabee said so (which is entirely possible given all the mud-slinging between the two).

Actually, it was just one of those early "urban myths" that was circulating about the former governor and business leader.

This is one of those office politics situations that always amuses me:  guilt by association.  Of course, Mitt has good company.  The Catholic church took over the US when Kennedy was elected in 1960... not!  Because somebody is associated with a given organization, association, team, or department, a lot of times we apply the "halo effect" to them and make assumptions based on these affiliations.  This is the reason many organizations bring in consultants to lead cross-departmental issues; we have no loyalty or affiliation.

So, what are your associations that make your colleagues scratch their heads?

Caucus Office Politics: The Early Winners

Sam_brownbackTom_tancredo I don't even need to tally votes or watch the polls tonight to find out who the winners are for the Iowa Caucuses.  I've already identified one Democrat and two Republicans who are winners:  Tom Vilsack, Tom Tancredo, and Sam Brownback.

Yes, yes, I know they dropped out already and that they have as much chance of being president as Britney Spears has of becoming the next role model for wholesome living and abstinance.

Tom_vilsackHowever, in office politics, sometimes knowing when to drop out of a conflict and walk away can make you a big winner in the end.  Too few people know how to lose a battle in order to win a war.  I wrote a post a few months ago on effective retreats, and the principle of "win-win or no-deal" holds true in almost any situation.  Instead, too many people press ahead only to worsen their case.

Tonight, the official winners will be Huckabee, McCain, and Romney for the Republicans.  For the Democrats, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama will impress the caucus-goers.  No big surprises there.  (The order is really irrelevant - win, place, or show are all rewarded.)  However, in the game of office politics, an early departure means that you may get to come back and fight another day.

Caucus Office Politics: Bad Hair Day

John_edwardsIn retrospect, it was probably blown way out of proportion, but it happened nonetheless.

John Edwards needed a haircut.  When you're on the campaign trail, you have to look your best at all times, and getting a good trim is difficult.  So, you see if you can get a reputable stylist to make a house call.  To your private jet.  On the tarmac.  Then you pay him $400 and send him on his way.  Realistically, it was probably a cut for which he would have spent $50-70 if he had gone into the salon, so the $400 is reasonable from the stylists' view, who most likely had to forfeit a half day's worth of business to accommodate Edwards.  And the haircut had to happen, because if the media get a hold of a picture of you with bad hair, a picture like that can haunt you through the rest of the campaign.  So the $400 haircut seemed reasonable.  He could afford it.  He needed it.  It happened.  So, what's the problem?

The problem is that John Edwards has been trying to pass himself off as the "working man's" candidate.  He's one of us.  He was raised poor in the South (um, yeah).  And now he's pushing for you, the little guy, and he wants your vote tonight.

I truly think that Edwards believes he has good intentions.  But he made the error in judgment of spending $400 on a commodity where most of the people he is trying to reach maybe spend 2-3% of that amount for the same service... or they do it themselves.  And certainly never in a private jet on a tarmac.

Office politics is mostly about perception.  There may be a perfectly good explanation for your actions, but if those same actions can be twisted around, they probably will be.  My first boss out of college had a habit of using the phrase "in all fairness" when she was trying to sell us on a concept.  The more times she used the phrase, the more unfair we knew the policy actually was going to be.  We would do IAF counts at meetings to figure out how much we were getting screwed over.  Shrewd office politicians - both for positive and negative actions - know how to play with perception and use it to their advantage.  A lot of perception starts with self-awareness, though, so if you don't have a keen grasp of how you are coming across, you may be challenged in understanding how others perceive you.

So, how are you managing the "spin" that revolves around you?

Caucus Office Politics: Gut Check

Barack_obamaBarack Obama says all the right things to become President of the United States.

Barack Obama looks presidential (and his wife looks first-lady-ish).

Barack Obama seems personable, funny, intelligent, and articulate.  He appears to balance big picture strategies with the tactics needed to pull them off.  He's "stately."

Barack Obama could probably unite the two parties better than most of the other candidates.

Then why on earth can I not caucus for the guy?

Simple:  because of my gut.  Something deep down in the pit of my stomach (and no, it's not the enchiladas my wife made for New Year's Eve) is telling me that "President Barack Obama" is the biggest mistake our country could make.  And doggone it, I can't put my finger on the reason why.  And that is bugging the heck out of me.

But my gut has never steered me wrong.  Every time I've ignored it and given somebody the benefit of the doubt (against my better judgment), I keep wishing I'd have listened to it.  Every time I have listened to it, I've not regretted it.

There is a lot of intuition that goes into playing the game of office politics.  If you are somebody who is very tangible and black-and-white, you are probably somebody who takes an ostrich stance to office politics.  Some of you do it well, but I'd be willing to bet that the lack of engagement bites the rest of you.  The gut-check isn't just fluffy.  All of our experiences (direct and vicarious) go into making up our intuition.  It all just sort of swirls there and helps us as we create perceptual filters about the world around us.  And those perceptual filters aren't all bad.

So tonight, I won't be caucusing for Barack Obama.  My logical side says I should.  But I gotta listen to my gut on this one.

Caucus Office Politics: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Duncan_hunterUm... Duncan who?

Duncan Hunter?  Nope, never heard of him.

What?  You say he's running for president?  Really!  What country?

No!  Ours?  Which party?  Republican, eh?  You sure?  OK.

In office politics, sometimes it pays to make a little noise.  A lot of people get passed over for promotions and cool projects because nobody knows they are even there.  Kind of like Hunter Duncan... er... um... I mean Duncan Hunter.  I think.  Not sure, really.

Have I made my point?  Good.  Now get out there and make sure people know about you... in a positive way (or even in a negative way... at least they'll hear about you).

If you're not managing your publicity and self-branding effectively, you may as well just pack in your career now.  Just like Dalton Hopkins... uh... Duncan Hunter will be headed back to (pssst... where's he from again?)  You, just like this "candidate" (wink, wink, nudge), will merely be a footnote in history.

Caucus Office Politics: Conveniently Unavailable

Rudy_giulianiJohn_mccainIt's been interesting to watch John McCain slowly start to gain ground in Iowa, since he and Rudy Giuliani have purposely been avoiding the state since the beginning of the caucus season (which I believe started sometime in 2005, right after Bush's inauguration).  Actually, the unofficial launch is the Straw Poll that was held last June, from which both candidates bowed out.  Neither has made much effort to maintain a strong presence in Iowa, and I was a little surprised when The Des Moines Register gave McCain its nod for Republican selection.

McCain, at the eleventh hour, has been engaging a little more than previously.  All of a sudden, the Iowa publicity is appealing to him.  Rudy still hasn't made much of a splash here and probably won't be in the next 24 hours.  What amuses me is when I see this kind of behavior in office politics.  It's a basic power play, where somebody in power (generally an executive) will avoid meetings and phone calls and not respond to emails, leaving the parties on the other end to attempt to progress without him or her.  Then the offender swoops in at the last second and upsets the entire apple cart, leaving everybody scrambling from their hit-and-run drive-by management.  For those who read GUST - The "Tale" Wind of Office Politics, the chief antagonist in the book was based off of an actual executive who played those games.

Are McCain or Giuliani right for the nation, let alone right for Iowa?  Who knows?  A buddy of mine is an editor for a small town paper, and they were unable to get representatives from either camp to even show up for an editorial board interview.  When you make yourself unavailable, you leave a lot of room for people to make assumptions.  That's my best way of dealing with this type of individual:  document the assumptions about what is acceptable behavior (showing up for meetings, turnarounds on requests, etc.).  If only we could apply those rules of engagement to the candidates.

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