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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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...

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