Quite a few years ago I was working as a technical project manager (for my sins) and I was running a software project. The team were great and we delivered lots of value whilst having fun. There were a few small changes which we needed to the core systems, which were written in a different language and which needed to be done by a different team.
The core system team lead was always happy to speak to me and would always assure me that the work needed was small and his team would easily be able to deliver. If I checked up a little while before the work was due he would let me know that of course his team would deliver on time. But when it came to delivery day he would look annoyed that I even asked whether it was ready and would tell me that something more important came up. Every single time. In my head I called him ‘Yes But’ man.
This is the type of scenario where I like to stand back and look at the situation. Emotional reactions are rarely helpful in the workplace and so when I feel a strong emotion it is a signal to me to stand back and assess. The question I always ask myself is “What do I want out of the situation?”, in this case I just wanted to get my work done on the dates that I needed.
I tried all sorts of things. Over time I became so desperate that I was willing to try almost anything and so I did whatever random things occurred to me. This was experimentation. These included, but were not limited to:
- trying to build a relationship with ‘Yes But’ man
- making contacts within ‘Yes But’ man’s team
- asking for advice from other people who had worked with him for longer
- explaining the value which the work would bring to the organisation
- being assertive
- bribery through sweet food
- discussion with management to see whether pressure could be brought to bear
None of these things made any difference.
I was a consultant at the organisation and he was a long standing employee who knew that his job was safe. He was smug in his position and liked to show his power. In the end I realised that what he wanted from me was to show respect to the power that he had and to play to his arrogance. Effectively I said to him “You’re so amazing. I’m so stupid. I should have asked you before. I’m a bit of an idiot. Could you please do me a favour? I’d really appreciate it if you could help me out of the mess I’ve got myself in to…” Obviously I didn’t explicitly say those things but they were implicit. He would smile his smug little smile and say that he would see what he could do. Then his team would deliver, each and every time.
Was this a good approach? It got me what I wanted out of the situation. I may have spent most of my interactions with him thinking “you sad, sad man” in my head, but I got the changes I needed on the dates I needed them.
It did nothing to sort out his behaviour or to let him know how unacceptable his attitude was. I wasn’t in a position where I could have addressed those issues. Also, why would I want them addressed? Because his behaviour towards me was condescending? Because he should be more respectful? Because I didn’t like it? What I wanted was to be able to get my changes on time. I achieved that. My self-respect was intact and I used his arrogance to achieve what I needed. I wish I could have come up with a solution which helped the other people who had to deal with him in the longer term though.
There are many situations in my career where I have had to try to understand what someone wanted from me in order for me to be able to deal with them. I’m glad to say that this one has been pretty unique so far.