The unsaid questions present in any group are:
- Are you working with me, with us, or only for you?
- Are you telling me the truth?
- Will you participate in this project to the fullest of your abilities or am I going to have to carry your sorry ass for the next six months?
Personal investment is the term I’m using to represent the level of trust possible within a team. Trust is a foundational requirement for a group of people to work toward together toward a goal.
There are two dimensions to a client’s personal investment in a project outcome:
- The balance between personal and corporate objectives. Everyone works toward both, but it is the balance that is important.
- Vulnerability describes how willing a person is to say, “I don’t know”; in short, how willing they are to look “stupid” in front of their colleagues.
The Corporate objective parameter represents the effort the individual is willing to devote to the project objectives: revenue, cost reduction, market share, and customer satisfaction ratings. By default, assume that the team member is working to corporate objectives.
Personal objective parameter represents the effort the individual is willing to devote to achieving monetary reward, prestige, an enhanced reputation, a better or different title, career advancement, and/or even getting home to see their family at a reasonable hour.
Less obvious personal objectives that introduce more risk to the project are objectives like changing roles: does this person want to be seen in a different light by their colleagues? Perhaps they are a frustrated designer or a wannabe project manager. This is destructive when this role change means that they are not performing their assigned role on the project, and/or they are doing someone else’s role too.
I have issues with people who put their personal objectives before corporate objectives, and I sincerely hope that their employers acknowledge the misfit between the person and the company and move the person on, or at least off my project.
- Build their own personal power base, or
- Gain more power for their department within the organization as a whole.
Power plays are a problem for the project if the power play turns into a power struggle. These can cause delays, and waste team time and energy, especially if your project champion is losing.
A person’s willingness to be vulnerable determines, at a fundamental level, how well they are going to communicate, and whether they are going to let themselves be changed by this experience.
Vulnerability is often reflective of corporate culture. More “macho” organizations and those that don’t value failure don’t encourage vulnerability. If you belong to one of these testosterone-fuelled fire pits, arm yourself with the phrase, “I’ll have one of my juniors look that up for you.”
The best people to work with are those willing to admit when they don’t know something. (It never hurts when they preface that with, “what a great question!”) It shows both a willingness to be wrong and confidence. It encourages team members to ask the difficult questions because they then have no fear of making someone look stupid or causing some hard feelings.
The graph above shows objectives mapped against vulnerability, and how to treat clients who fall into each quadrant.
People working toward corporate/project objectives, and who are open to saying, “I don’t know” are the best people to work with. Since you are being paid to deliver on the stated project objectives, you are aligned with them. Because they are willing to admit when they’re stuck, they’re also able to move forward to fill in gaps in their knowledge, or find the person who can.
WHAT TO DO: Work with them as honestly and openly as possible. Because they are comfortable with not knowing, they should be comfortable with you not knowing either.
All of us have found ourselves in this mindset: our hearts are in the right place, but for any number of reasons we lack the guts to risk looking stupid.
WHAT TO DO: For the person on your client team who fits that profile, do what you can to make them look good when the opportunity presents itself. If this person is critical to approvals, ensure that you build a good rapport with them behind the scenes to create opportunities to explain things to them privately.
How to make them look good:
- Acknowledge their good ideas, questions, in the meeting or at least in public etc.
- When they flub a minor point, rephrase it for them in design language: “Ah, do you mean X?” If you get it right, you make them look smarter. This also brings the whole team onto the same page.
One of a couple good things could happen:
- Their group profile rises enough that they feel confident enough to expose some vulnerability, either in public or during a private conversation.
- You build a strong ally.
Personal Objectives & Open
Odds are, if this person is confident enough to expose what they don’t know, they are confident enough to reveal their personal agenda. They will look for support for their agenda, either formally or informally. Most personal objectives relate to increased control and credit.
WHAT TO DO: Your response is going to depend on their role in the project, the company, and how you want to develop your relationship with the organization. I tend to stay with the stated corporate objective, and veer away from side coalitions that support personal objectives unless directed by my boss to join the coalition.
Be aware that this person may be looking to take lots of credit for any success and distance themselves from potential failures.
WHAT TO DO: Document your work and make other alliances accordingly.
Assume to start that this person is in over their head because they have taken on a Stretch Role, wants to succeed and is terrified of being revealed.
WHAT TO DO: Create an opportunity to talk to them in private and create some trust.
Worst case, something about the project or your team’s role in it is working directly against their aims. They are the person most likely to try to sabotage your work.
WHAT TO DO: As with any hindrance, build your alliances elsewhere on the team, especially over their head, and document meetings and phone calls in emails. If you have documentation to surface the conflict or get them off the project, go to your higher level ally and move on it. If they’re too slippery, make a personal decision either to suck it up in the interest of a worthy end and move on at your earliest opportunity, or just move on. Life is too short.