Leadership

Six political animals you might encounter at your client's office

Chip Camden outlines six political personality types that consultants might encounter at a client's office. He also offers tips on how to handle them.

 

Jacques Mattheij recently published an online manual titled How To Be a Consultant, a freelancer or an independent contractor (hat tip to IT Security blogger Chad Perrin for the link). The Politics page on his site grabbed my attention. I've written about the role of the consultant in office politics before, but Jacques approaches it from a different angle: He discusses three types of political personalities that you might encounter and how to handle them. Let's explore each type, and then I talk about three political animals (types 4-6) that I've encountered in the wild.

1. The Intrigant Intrigant isn't a commonly used word, but it's related to intrigue. By Jacques's definition, The Intrigant is someone who's got it in for you but isn't telling you so. This person is actively looking for some way to sink your ship without making it obvious that the torpedo came from his direction. How to deal with The Intrigant: As Jacques advises, the best protection against this person's scheme is to broaden the scope of open communications, so everyone is aware of the real issues. Jacques recommends exposing The Intrigant, if possible. I'm not so sure about this approach -- it depends on the case and how much power that individual wields. Sometimes all you need to do is stick to business, and the person's political intrigues will become irrelevant and ridiculous. 2. The Cuckoo

This is a person in a position of power who requires his/her employees and vendors pay homage to certain cherished beliefs and provide assurance that The Cuckoo is always right.

How to deal with The Cuckoo: Jacques advocates getting out of this situation, and I agree that many times it isn't worth the hassle. But sometimes The Cuckoo isn't entirely stupid; sometimes this person secretly fears his truths aren't all that absolute -- that's why he's constantly looking for assurances and considers anything to the contrary to be threatening. He needs these absolutes because he can't see how to survive without them. One way to break out of such an ideological lock-down is to plant ideas that don't seem contradictory but eventually lead to The Cuckoo coming around to new conclusions on his own. This approach definitely requires patience. 3. The Prima Donna

As Jacques states, The Prima Donna isn't necessarily female. In my experience, IT prima donnas are usually male. The Prima Donna has an overinflated ego that's usually partially justified by their abilities. As a result, The Prima Donna often takes a stance wherein you must agree with their superior intellect, or they'll fight you to the end.

How to deal with The Prima Donna: Jacques lists three approaches to dealing with this type of person: do things their way, cut them down to size, or win them over with a well-reasoned argument. In my experience, none of these tactics are particularly effective. What works for me is to befriend The Prima Donna and gradually introduce him to some of the knowledge that he lacks (note: this approach takes a long time). And you don't want to have an "I'm going to educate you now" attitude, but rather, "Hey, what can you tell me about this cool technology?" Play to his ego, assuming that he certainly must know at least as much as you do about the technology. Let him pretend to be more knowledgeable than he is, while he scrambles to search Google and Wikipedia to keep up. After enough of those episodes, The Prima Donna will begin to realize how little he really knows about the technology. Be sure to also check out Bob Weinstein's tips for dealing with IT prima donnas. 4. The Meerkat

This person spends all his energy looking around for danger. His first response to any new idea is "it isn't safe." In fact, even the idea of change seems unsafe to them. Sure, all change comes with risks, but if you never take any risks, you'll end up living the rest of your life in a hole in the ground. Unfortunately, that sounds like a good plan to The Meerkat.

How to deal with The Meerkat: To convince this person to consider the new idea, you must make the benefits of taking the risk crystal clear. Ideally, you can paint maintaining the status quo as a risk in itself; that is, "If you do nothing, then you risk losing A, B, C, etc." Make The Meerkat aware of the hyenas that are about to breach the burrow. 5. The Evangelist

This person believes that a specific idea or methodology will save the company and writes off any practical objections as short-sighted.

How to deal with The Evangelist: It's useless to argue that they should place the practical needs of the business ahead of their ideology because this person truly believes that the two goals are identical. Sometimes it's possible to convince The Evangelist by analogy that no theory in itself is sufficient. More often than not, the only way to get this person to change their mind is to let them reach disillusionment on their own. Fortunately, these people are rarely in a position of power (for long). 6. The Petty Tyrant

This person is probably a bigger threat to the success of the company than all of the other types. What matters most to The Petty Tyrant is the number of people who report to them, the number of products under their control, or any other measurement of the extent of their own little kingdom. Therefore, any proposal that might shake up their organization is a threat, while anything that would add to it is a benefit. Focusing on empire building rather than business needs often leads to rigid bureaucracies and the duplication of effort.

How to deal with The Petty Tyrant: Steer clear of this person if possible. If you must work with him, make sure you document everything. Hopefully, your primary client contact has more authority than this person and can do something about it.

This discussion makes it sound like the typical client's office resembles Rome in 69 AD. In my experience, though, most people respond well when treated with respect and honesty. The few bad apples can make life miserable for everyone else, but even the most extreme examples of these six types have a human side if you can find it.

Since consultants aren't on the org chart, we have some latitude to decide how involved we want to get in the politics at our clients' offices. That not only means that we can avoid trouble more easily, but also that we can sometimes bring in the solution that eluded everyone else.

Have you encountered these types when dealing with office politics? Would you add any types of political animals to the list? What political experiences, good or bad, have you had with your clients? 

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

21 comments
qhabib
qhabib

This is a very good description of people we encounter not just in our own office but at clients' as well. It is also very safe to say that no matter where in the world we are, these types are uniform. An excellent How to deal guide and a mirror for us to not become one of these.

Thump21
Thump21

By pandering to the Prima Donna, making them think they are more knowledgeable than you in an area (when this is not the case), you risk forever being labeled as "not as knowledgeable as you should be", and this person will always feel they must educate you no matter what the topic, even when *you* are the expert. A better approach is to discuss your own suggestions that are in conflict with the Prima Donna's with their direct superior and explain you are *always* working in the organization's best interest. Also, explain if Prima Donna indicates otherwise, that you have taken there side into consideration but are doing what is best for the organization --i.e. *you're way*. Afterall, they are "paying you" to weigh *all* options and take the best path otherwise Prima Donna would be doing the work. Waving around relevant certifications and references may help too. If Prima Donna *is* the top dog, then let him/her talk, do it their way 100%, document your concerns, and cash that check. :)

fitzcandoservices
fitzcandoservices

Hey, this is great stuff. I think I have encounter all types here. Also, I am a little bit of a few of them. My approach is knowing the people you work with - Director, Thinker , Socializer and Rationalizer

Matt.Cruz
Matt.Cruz

OMG...this is pretty amazing how you were able to specify each and every type. It is just unfortunate for me that I have a client that's 3-in-1!!! This is going to be a loooooong week for me...

info
info

Ha! What about the poor office IT people that have to deal with CONSULTANTS with these personalities?

robin
robin

Chip as always is right on with his insights and, in this instance, zoological analogy. Realize though that while being sensitive politically indeed is important, it is different from the too-common and totally-ineffective practice of attributing dumb decisions one doesn?t agree with to ?politics.? Such an attribution is always one-sided. We never term dumb decisions that we do agree with as ?politics,? but somebody else undoubtedly is using the same term for our favored decision. Applying the term interferes with being effective. It does nothing to explain why we think the decision was wrong or change the decision maker?s thinking; and it sets the attributor up as a whiner for frustrating failures.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Overall good article Chip. But ... I disagree with the statement .... "Since consultants aren?t on the org chart, we have some latitude to decide how involved we want to get in the politics at our clients? offices. That not only means that we can avoid trouble more easily, but also that we can sometimes bring in the solution that eluded everyone else." 1) Politics (especially the situations described) is really a question of how people deal with each other. Since most consultants are people and so are clients (at least I think so :D), politics of this type is going to occur regardless of the legal relationship. 2) Consultants, if anything, experience additional political situations. After all, because we are not part of the organization, we are considered fair game. And because we are both superior in authority and weaker politically we make great targets. So consultants must constantly be on the lookout for clients trying to make the consultant into the goat. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca http://www.learningcreators.com/blog

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is the Petty Tyrant. Sometimes, the only way to make a difference is to sacrifice your own position. Anyone have any insights?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... hope the post gives you some material that helps you cope, or at least some food for thought.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to be meaningful much of the time. What is politics, after all, but the complex set of individual motivations and the ways they interact?

ArnoldZiffle
ArnoldZiffle

This is exactly on point. The way to accomplish your personal CYA is to document everything. Meetings, conversations, phone calls, everything. The last project I was on I even went so far as to have them revoke my VPN and all other access before I left the building!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

We are often targeted as the scapegoat, but by the same token we are usually only beholden to a single individual in the organization, and that person is usually (but not always) someone in a high position of authority.

info
info

Once I had a situation where a Petty Tyrant dominated most of the BI development efforts in the organisation. He held his position by making everyone clear that his expert opinion was more or less unquestionable and his involvement was always needed. Simply said, if he said "No, it can't be done", that was the end of the initiative getting something done. I found out that he had highly specialised skills but with a limited scope of deployment possibilities. He resisted against learning additional and new skills. He could not be persuaded to addept to the inevitable future developments. After careful consulting and with the approval of the senior management I first build what was needed to prove his wrong saying "It can't be done" and proved that to him. Then I invited him to replenish and grow his skillset to the benefit of himself and the organisation. He kept refusing over and over. He kept sticking to the believe that I could never accomplish my task without his approval and co?peration. "Power in the Tower" syndroom I named it. Again after consulting the senior management I effectively build and implemented the project without his further involvement. At his questions as to what I was so busy with I responded that I was busy trying to solve a number of tough technical issues. 2 weeks before going life with the system I confronted him again with the choices he now had. He was not really happy but the organisation was. There is of course a lot more to say and discuss about this curious situation and the personal and political topics behind it. Being a external consultant made that I could leave the project satisfied and not be confronted with a grudge of this Petty Tyrant. He still works there having the respect he deserves as expert on his playground. And yes, others fill the gap that he left open. Nico Koning IT Consultant

Beoweolf
Beoweolf

Let's all admit, that on the road to become a consultant we must have felt some confidence in our abilities, we should also admit to having at least a "little bit" of an ego. Somewhere along the line, we became disenchanted with something about working for wages. It could have been ineffective leadership, the endless cycle of lay-offs and politics of dog-eat-dog or the desire to complete a project without having to stop and explain what you are doing to your manager, even after they had agreed to the plan already. All the traits detailed here, I have seen, in me, at one point or another. To remain in the business for any length of time, we must master those demons in ourselves and possibly soothe the bruised ego of those that haven't made up their mind if they have the entrepreneurial spirit ... enough to sail the ship as their own captain. There are more than a few consultants that attract these kind of situations by failure to learn the necessary people skills. Just because you may not be there for the long term, doesn?t mean we should ignore the niceties of social interaction. In many cases; all it takes to prevent the worst battles are to recognize where your antagonist is coming from and make it obvious what your short term goals (in his/her domain) are. The good thing about documentation is it leads to transparency. If you are secure in what you can do and have a clear mandate of what you are being asked to do, documentation will remove the fangs on 3 of the 6 forest beasts in your warnings.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

One piece of advice I found most useful: "The people who complain about politics aren't good at it". From that point of view, politics is just how we get things done in the "complex set of individual motivations". It's the real economy in which we work. It behooves us (and everyone!) to learn how to be better political animals. Done right, politics isn't a dirty word. In fact, we all know "good" politicians who are masters at working with many diverse viewpoints and keeping them happy. In geekspeak, doing politics is mastering interoperability. You gotta learn the other guy's operating system.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

That that high authority personage is listening to the peon with a score to settle and an ego that needs inflating (or deflating). Like ships, projects and consultants are sunk by the whispers in the night.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I think you've hit two good nails here. We often attract exactly what we dread, but more often than not it can be dispelled by good communication.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I somewhat agree with you but it depends on the impact of the politics and the package the politics come in. One gets rather skilled in identifying the different personality types and working with them by adapting your approach. BUT... If you have a workstation that does not behave, that constantly obstructs you in what you need to do, despite upgrades, additional memory and a new image and talking to it in smooth, soothing tones, you replace the sucker. You'd be crazy not to. Some of the creatures Chip mentions are so toxic they can break your project, your spine and your career. I am seeing that right now at a client - several excellent consultants who deserve better stumbled on a few of the dangerous biting animals and are collateral damage. Some folks have a perverse pleasure in bullying, yes, that is most times out of fear, but if the client does not tackle that at iteration 1, the program is set in stone in iteration 200 when you happen to be engaged to work with that program. Sometimes politics is maturity, sometimes it is about making teams work better and adapting your approach, as you said. But there are also times the politics are so damaging you are better off getting out. You perhaps assume there is always an element of reason, Ian. The creatures in Chip's post are not always motivated by reason.