Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Paper Tigers - Making the Decision to Help Move Difficult People

Sometimes doing your job is easy. You go to work. You send emails, you attend meetings. Sometimes its not. Sometimes its not easy because of Paper Tigers--basically, people who, on paper, can effectively cock block you (and possibly others) in getting your job done. In person, they range from sweet and kind to cunning and dictatorial to just plain incompetent and unaware.

Whatever their reasons, these Paper Tigers make work twice as hard to get through, as you work around them, or meet their weird requirements to work through them, or have to stop and back up when they suddenly unapprove a decision they'd approved the previous week.

There are lots of reasons people become Paper Tigers. Whatever the reason, however, they are the sorts that you either work them, or you work around them or you don't get anything done.

As far as I have seen, these folks become stumbling blocks on the road to getting things done for three possible reasons: 1) Insecurity 2) It is their nature be extremely detail oriented/try to do the best job possible, no matter if their definition matches yours or not, 3) They have an agenda.

Note: no Paper Tiger is limited to just one of these (they can have combos), and this probably doesn't cover every reason that someone might stumble across your path and stop you.

Insecurity (1) is a very loaded word. Some people are new to a role and trying to figure it out--this includes determining the reach of their own power, to trying to make sure other folks already in the game aren't taking advantage of them. Insecurity also encompasses people who are worried about their jobs or threatened by you and what you are trying to get done. A lot of people who are insecure don't admit that insecurity to themselves; it shows up as blustery, power-grabby, hand-in-every-pie behavior. These are the kind of Paper Tigers you are most likely to work around, as there's rarely any good reason for the behavior beyond making themselves feel better and, typically, that's not your job (or your team's job).

The nature of a person (2) can be influenced by agenda or insecurity, but there are honestly people out there set to do the best job possible because that's just how they are. It's how they've gotten where they are in life. These folks may be breaking up your rythm and blocking your ability to get things done, but you can see if this is truly a detail oriented/gifted worker by looking at the reasons you're blocked; if it's by-the-book work that stops you, then despite the fact it feels like they are riding the brakes on your project, they really are doing you a good turn in preventing you from getting in trouble in the future. Annoying as any other Paper Tiger, these are the best kind to have, and the least likely you'll want to work around.

Finally, a person with an agenda (3) can have one because he/she is insecure (and often does), but often it has nothing to do with you, the project, or their immediate feelings about the work. It's hard to fathom all the various agendas people have. Some are lazy, so they make you fill out that request form for EVERY LITTLE THING. Some are busy, and the way to reduce their work is make you fill out the request for for every little thing. Some want to help you, but have bosses that will penalize them--and you--if you don't fill out a request form for every little thing, and their agenda doesn't include being penalized for you or anyone else. Some people might want your job; oftentimes, they don't give a darn about you or your job, they want something completely outside of your sphere of influence, but stopping, halting, or otherwise slowing the progress of your work (or your team's work) helps them in some way to achieve this goal. These are the types of folks you who evenly can be worked around or worked with. If you can spot the goal they're trying to achieve and it's not against your own interests, it can make working with them a snap. Of course, if they are working against you (accidentally, incidentally, etc.), then working around them becomes your only option.

Now that we've looked at the types of Paper Tigers out there, let's look at some approaches for handling them.

Normally when you have a problem or an issue with someone, as adults we're taught that, instead of hitting people and/or taking their candy, we should use our words. Generally you find out about an issue in a meeting or via email or IM and then you talk to that person. This is really the conversation that will set the stage for further action (though you will have other conversations with this person).

If they are blocking because they are not comfortable or can't give a definitive answer beyond "I need more time," then their reasons for blockage are generally suspect to me. If they won't release a resource under their control or refuse to let the process move through a specific phase without further information, while I'm still suspicious, there's good reasons involved that should be tracked down and explored. If they won't release a resource under their control or refuse to let the process move forward for very specific reasons that those items don't map back to their agenda (which, I note, rarely will people say, "That not part of my agenda," so you're looking for trends in activities that give you the clue that this is not mapping to their agenda, say, of taking over the sales department), then you have a pretty good clue that the motivations are not necessarily perfect, but could be made to serve your needs if you can map things to their agenda.

How do you determine, for sure, what type of Tiger you're dealing with? The only one that can really, eventually, be sussed out is the Paper Tiger that is doing the best job they can. Over time, their actions, again and again, will map to an attention to detail and to get the job done, not just in a timely fashion, but right. Everyone else is a matter of asking questions, keeping track of their behavior, and trying to stay on their good side while you try to determine how to get what they want so they'll help you (or what you can do so you don't have to rely on their help). Basically, the answer to finding out what you're dealing with is time, patience, and observation.

In the meantime, standard protocol for dealing with a blocking person or issue is pretty much the same:

1) Talk to the person. Find out what the problem is.
2) Solve the problem.
3) Try to move forward
4) If blocked, talked to the person again.
5) Resolve that problem
6) Repeat until/unless you reach a point where you cannot solve the problem because it's been constructed in such a way as it is unsolvable.
7) Talk to the person about that.
8) If that doesn't resolve things, escalate (I've done some blog entries on escalation)

In the "solve the problem" portion of the instructions, one assumes the problem is solveable. For example, it's blocked because legal must review it. You get legal to review it. If it's blocked because "I need more time to review it" you're probably moving into step 6. If you successfully solve the problem to the satisfaction of the agenda seeker or detailed professional, additional blockages tend to not recur. If you successfully solve the problem for an insecure individual, you may have a much longer path to go unless you can find a way that solves the problem and makes them feel better about themselves and the work they are doing.

The point of this Paper Tiger discussion is that you WILL run into people that WILL block you. They might do it once or twice, but typically Paper Tigers repeat; same project or future ones. These are the folks that other people dread including in meetings. These are the people they never tell you about when you're being promoted to a manager, whether its a project manager or a people manager. But these folks exist. Knowing how and why they tick will give you insight into getting them to tick outside of your way. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can turn a Paper Tiger in a really productive member of your project/team/group by looking for their motivations and giving them what they need, so they'll help you get what you need.

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