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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.


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