Is the “Passing the Pain Game” costing your company time and money? Some examples of the game:
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Passing pain, casting blame cost time and money
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A customer reams out a salesman. Part of a job wasn’t done the way the customer wanted. The salesman doesn’t know what went wrong but he doesn’t want the blame. He placates the customer by exploding and blaming a department he says was responsible. He tells the customer he’ll have those people fired. Then he yells at innocent victims in that department.
A new manager is panicking. He has to present his project to senior leaders on Friday. It’s Monday morning and he still hasn’t received information from a manager in another department. He e-mails her and vents his fear and frustration; he harasses, bullies and abuses her. He tells her he’s tired of begging, he needs the *&@# information right away, he counted on her and she’s let him down. What the *&@# is wrong with her? All in capital letters. To cover his back, he copies his vice-president.
A director stomps into a supervisor’s office, scowling along the way and slams the door. Anxiety and tension spread at the speed of gossip. People congregate to speculate: Did she meet with the big bosses yesterday? Did she get reamed? Did we mess up? Who’s going to get blamed next? Fear spirals, staff finds excuses to be in other areas, productivity tanks.
Some leaders specialize in negativity, finding fault, bullying and spreading blame when something goes wrong. Since no one wants to be the victim of mistakes, everyone carries a “blame thrower.”
Is that game familiar?
People feel hurt, scared and angry, and inflict their pain on someone else. The game is also called, “Who has the rattlesnake?”
How much does the game cost?
Try this method of calculation: Estimate the time you’ve spent dealing with uproars, multiply by the number of people who bring their pain to you, multiply again by the number of innocent spectators you and they draw into the ever widening circle of players, factor in salary and productivity wasted. Add in a fudge factor for your level of frustration.
Pretty large number, isn’t it?
It’s important to have a code of conduct stating that passing the pain and throwing blame is not acceptable. But that’s not enough. Most people already know that. They just don’t follow the code when they’re suffering, scared, angry or supporting friends in a vendetta.
For example, in one training on this subject, some managers questioned why I was wasting their time presenting information they already knew. So I showed them the e-mails their department heads had given me, in which these same managers had used their blame throwers on each other. They had perpetuated an intense game that scorched everyone in their departments and all senior leaders.
Imagine you’re a newly appointed project leader of an existing management team. How do you know if you’re walking into a club of entrenched buddies who want to run the show and will sabotage your efforts? And what can you do about it?
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Fire people who think they’re entitled to run things
I recently observed a team of a dozen managers with that dynamic. Harry was the newly appointed project leader. His two predecessors, also experienced leaders, had been unable to move the team forward. Both reported problems building team agreement and developing aligned effort.
Sitting in on a team meeting, I saw two people repeatedly cast furtive glances to a third, who signaled displeasure by frowning, eye rolling and head shaking. After each instance, the trio resisted the direction being taken by the rest of the group. During a break, the three clustered outside, reinforcing caustic personal comments about Harry.
A little investigation on my part revealed the extent of the pattern. One person was the Queen Bee, obediently supported by her attentive court. She thought she should run the whole team because she always “knew best.”
The core of the pattern is that righteous and arrogant people feel entitled to special privileges. They make their own rules and have double standards. They’re self-reinforcing, and ignore or don’t care about what other people think.
The pattern is a common one. It’s especially prevalent on boards of directors and in government offices and nonprofits. People like this trio will fracture any group, destroy productivity and subvert the next generation of potential leaders. Their personal agendas to achieve power and esteem take precedence over the job.
What can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?
Recognize that fixing it will take determination and skill. A powerful image of the situation will help keep you on track. Harry saw them as a grown-up version of a high school clique; three princesses who know they’re the best and deserve to be in charge.
You can try reaching out to the offenders in an effort to get them working with the rest of the team. But don’t count on that approach succeeding.
Harry tried a conciliatory approach but the trio was so arrogant and deluded that every gesture he made to find common ground was interpreted by them as an admission that he was wrong, was begging forgiveness and was ready to follow their direction. The previous two leaders had also tried to placate them and failed
But, whether you’re a peer or a project leader, you can’t afford to ignore them. If left unchallenged, they form a not-so-secret power structure that will sabotage your best efforts to succeed. They will force you to take sides. For them, it’s about control and adoration.
Don’t be a faithful drone. Take steps to take away their power to do harm the organization.
Reasoning and evidence won’t change these people. And only a small percentage of them learn their lessons from their obvious failures.
This is not a task for wimps. You’ll need the help of your management, which means you need to do your homework and document your case. Look for a smoking gun. When you’re ready, shine a light on the pattern and confront the offenders head on.
If you find yourself in a situation like this one, quietly build an airtight case, gather allies and act decisively. And be prepared for a battle. People like that trio are a cancer in any organization. Remove them surgically before they metastasize.
If we don’t act promptly and decisively, performance decreases. Behavior sinks to the lowest level tolerated. Narcissists, incompetent, lazy, gossip, back-stabbing, manipulation, hostility, crankiness, meeting sabotage, negativity, relentless criticism, whining, complaining, cliques, turf control, toxic feuds, harassment, bullying and abuse thrive. Power hungry bullies take power.
To be a successful administrator, basic operational savvy is necessary. But to be a successful leader, you must also master human savvy.
For example, Joe worked his way up through the financial ranks and had mastered three of the major skills of internal operational savvy:
Setting high performance standards.
Joe’s teams met their goals within budget and deadlines.
When I explained to Joe that he was missing the human savvy I’ll describe below, he said he couldn’t change. He had strength of character and responded successfully to the ups and downs, and the challenges of business. But he said he was an introvert. He could achieve high performance in operational areas but it wasn’t his personality to excel in people areas.
Joe’s progress was halting when he was simply memorizing lists of how-to’s. But his learning took off when he modeled himself after the subject of one of the best leadership books, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Joe saw himself as having a personality similar to Lincoln: a melancholy introvert who could come out of his shell to make human contact. Lincoln’s human savvy was a crucial component of his success. Joe resolved, “If Lincoln could do it, so can I.” Joe drove himself to use Lincoln as his guide and to learn what Lincoln learned.
Lincoln said that the most important task of a leader, once he has finally decided on a course of action, is to educate people so they are inspired to proceed on that course. Lincoln used insightful comparisons and memorable stories to transfuse people with his vision, dedication and perseverance. Joe realized that appropriate stories have an emotional impact greater than the effects of logical arguments.
Like Lincoln did, Joe can now tell memorable stories of his team’s effort and progress. His staff is now enthused to achieve team and personal goals in the face of challenges that demand their best.
Many people teach basic operational savvy as if it’s all that’s necessary for leadership success. But good administrators aren’t necessarily good leaders. Basic operational savvy is necessary, but it’s not enough. Leadership success is more all or none. You can succeed only if you master human savvy.
There are toxic people in every environment – toxic family, toxic friends, toxic lovers and toxic coworkers. If you don’t recognize and respond effectively to toxic, bullying coworkers they can make your life miserable, harass you, turn the rest of your team against you, scapegoat you and even get you fired.
Jane is known to be difficult, obnoxious and an out of control retaliator. But she’s very bright and hard working so management tends to minimize the problems she causes, overlook the tension, hostility and chaos she creates, and explain away her behavior by saying, “That’s just Jane. She must have a good heart.” She specializes in vendettas. Most people are afraid of her; they usually walk on egg shells around her and try to avoid setting off one of her tirades.
The bosses make you the leader of an important project that requires tact and people skills because they don’t trust Jane. Jane is enraged. Sometimes she blames and threatens you – you stole her job, she’ll report everything you do wrong, she’ll ruin your reputation and she’ll get you fired. Sometimes she acts sweet – as if she wants to be your best friend. Sometimes she tries to make you feel guilty so you’ll refuse to lead the project she thinks should be hers – that’s the only way you can prove to her that you’re a good person and her friend.
Is Jane right? Are you sneaky and manipulative and have you wronged her? Or is this a misunderstanding you can overcome so she’ll still be your friend?
How can you distinguish a friendly coworker who’s justifiably upset from one of these toxic bullies? Simple. You look for patterns in how Jane acts and how you and others feel when you’re around her.
Are sneaky, manipulative, back-stabbing stealth bullies.
Are over-reactive, control freaks – their interpretations give them permission to search and destroy, no matter how slight or unintentional the insult. They throw fits and attack or embarrass people they’re upset at.
Are you afraid of what Jane might do or that Jane won’t be friends with you?
Does she threaten you?
Have you seen Jane attack, manipulate or lie about other targets before you?
Does Jane apologize but not change or even strike back later?
Does Jane tell you that you’re special and she’d never go after you?
Does Jane make efforts to be reasonable and to overcome misunderstandings, to say that the problem is partly her fault and then does she make amends and change?
Of course, you want to be careful that you’re not overreacting. You want to know if you’re seeing their actions clearly. But if you answer the first five questions with “yes,” and the last one with “no,” you should beware.
When you identify Jane as someone who is relentless, implacable and has no conscience in pursuing her targets, you know what you’re dealing with. She’s out to destroy you just like she went after other coworkers in the past.
Your first thought may be, “How can I win her friendship?” or it may be, “She’s suffered so much in her own life, how can I not forgive her?” If you follow these thoughts with feelings of kindness, compassion and compromise, if you don’t mobilize to protect you life, limb and job you will be sacrificing yourself on an altar of silly sentimentality.
I take a strong approach: Recognize evil and recognize crazy or out of control people who won’t negotiate or compromise. The Jane’s and John’s of this world are bullies, abusers and predators that do tremendous damage. They’re why well-meaning people have to consult with experts. Remember, you would have already resolved situations with coworkers who are reasonable, willing to examine their own actions honestly, and to negotiate and compromise. You need help with the terminators that you face.
Will – determination, perseverance, resilience, endurance, grit.
Skill – overall strategy, tactics and the ability to maintain your poise and carry out your plan.
Convert doubt and hesitation into permission to act and then into an inner command to act effectively. Until you have the will, no tactics will help – you’ll give in, back off, bounce from one strategy to another and you'll fail, even with the best plan.
Don’t let your good heart blind you to the damage she’ll do to you. You’ve already given her second and third chances. That’s enough. She’s not merely misunderstanding you in any way you can clear up; logic, reason and common sense aren’t effective with the Jane’s of this world.
See Jane as a terminator – she’s relentless, implacable and has no conscience. Under her human-looking skin she’s out to destroy you. Your good heart and attempts to reason politely won’t stop her.
Assume that you can’t rehabilitate or convert Jane in your life time. That’s not what they pay you for at work anyway. You’re merely Jane’s coworker with an important personal life, a personal island that needs protecting. Let Jane’s therapist change her in professional space and on professional time that she pays for.
You don’t owe her anything because she got you the job or rescued you from drowning. She’s out to get you and you must protect yourself. Let Jane struggle to change on someone else’s professional time. Don’t put your reputation, your job or your family’s livelihood in harm’s way. Don’t minimize or excuse. Deal only with Jane’s behavior.
All plans must be adjusted to your specific situation – you, Jane, the company, your personal life. Added complications would be if Jane is your boss or the manager of your team likes her or is afraid of her and will collude with her against you.
Don’t believe Jane’s promises; don’t be fooled if she acts nice and sweet one time. Pay attention to the pattern of actions. If she’s sweet, she’s probably seeking to get information that she can use against you.
Don’t expect her to tell the truth. She’ll say one thing to you and report exactly the opposite to everyone else. She’ll lie when she reports bad things you have supposedly done. She knows that repetition is convincing; eventually some of her dirt might stick to you. Have witnesses who’ll stand up for you in public.
Don’t argue the details of an interaction to try to convince her of your side. State your side in a way that will convince bystanders. Always remind bystanders of your honesty, integrity and good character, which they should know.
Document everything; use a small digital recorder. Find allies as high up in the company as you can. When you report Jane, be professional; concentrate on her behavior, not your hurt feelings. Make a business case to encourage company leaders to act. It’s about the money, coworkers and clients that the company will save when they terminate Jane.
When you listen to voice mails from Jane or talk with her in person, tighten the muscles of your stomach just below your belly button, while you keep breathing. That’ll remind you to prepare for a verbal gut-punch.
Each situation is different – you, the toxic coworker and the rest of the company. The need to protect yourself and your career remains the same, while the tactics vary with the situation. All tactics are situational tactics.