A Seven Minute Read
It was another difficult week with our client Erin; as usual, we wrapped with a stand-up briefing with my team, Erin’s team, and the Director of Business Improvement. Even though we held a “pre-meeting” to coordinate, Erin pulled a Lovejoy: Rather than using any generally-accepted methods to display progress, she conjured what she called a “stoplight chart” (that resembled nothing else ever used in recorded history called a “stoplight chart”) and proceeded to describe how she decided that, rather than using such tried-and-true project management processes as “resourcing” and “scheduling”, she was going to lead a 25 million dollar capital project using the principles of Lean – “which, as you know,” she said, “is all about project communication.”
While this should have left us as stunned as MSNBC anchors on election night, it was just more of the same with Erin. I won’t say we had become callous to such dimwittedness, but it wasn’t surprising. What we (including Erin’s own employees) struggled with was, How do we manage a person like this?
My colleague and I were discussing this while driving back to the hotel. At a stoplight, a (presumably) homeless man crossed in front of us. It was August in the West – so the temperature was hovering around 110 degrees (all together now: “but it was a dry heat”) and the sun was directly overhead. He was bundled up – in an oversized down-stuffed parka, scarf, stocking cap, and corduroys. He was dancing and singing along with an 80s-style boombox on his shoulder, which did not appear to have any batteries, nor could we hear any music coming from it.
Trying to imagine how he could tolerate the heat, something dawned on me. This may sound naïve, offensive, or psychologically unsound but… In his mind, perhaps he was cold. He could clearly hear music that I could not. Maybe, when he looked across the park, he didn’t see a greenfield, but one covered with snow; when he looked at us in our car, he could have been thinking, “Those guys must be freezing in their short-sleeve shirts. And how can they hear each other talking over these sweet tunes I’m cranking?”
It was not just a matter of recognizing that someone has a different perspective than I, but rather he and I saw completely different realities. And, without resorting to dorm-room Philosophy student “Twilight Zone” fanfic, who’s to say that his reality was crazy and I was right?
I turned to my colleague and said, “Am I That Guy? Am I looking through a completely different lens from everyone around me? Am I hearing things that simply aren’t there? Am I dressed for the completely wrong season?” I look at someone like Erin, drawing nonsensical conclusions from spurious data and calling it fact and think, “Wow, she is crazy.” But who’s to say that she’s not driving home, thinking “’Gantt charts’? ‘Risk matrices’? Man of Action or not, that guy needs professional help!”
How do I know I’m not That Guy?
Don’t Be That Guy
“That Guy” became our shorthand on subsequent projects. We would come out of meetings which had rotated 90 degrees in both pitch and yaw from their intent, and our first question would be: “Am I That Guy?” In other words, if the agenda was to discuss reorganizing the financial governance division, then the client spent 90 minutes debating ways to show appreciation for everyone’s “courageousness”, were we the lunatics? Were we the ones dancing to music that wasn’t there?
Even in this age of “alternative facts”, being That Guy and rejecting reality is career limiting. Best case, people think you are merely clueless; at worst, you implement decisions based on faulty information. Like anything else built on a shaky foundation, your judgment won’t stand the test of time. It also shows a lack of alignment.
Sometimes being the sole source of reason is necessary to prevent an entire organization from going over the edge. (Which is actually the opposite of being That Guy – the individual is the only one rooted in reality, and the group is delusional. The effect, though, is the same.)
So how do you check if you are That Guy?
It is surprisingly hard to do that – any improvement or change management team, by definition, is living (at least intellectually) in a world that doesn’t exist yet. Your reality will be different. And to check with fellow change agents is fruitless – everyone walked in with the same set of assumptions, drank from the same well, so how would any of us know if the others had gone Colonel Kurtz?
Dealing with That Guy
If, one day, you suspect that you are working with That Guy, there are a few things you can do to manage the situation.
It is natural to presume that if you only explain yourself, one more time, but. With. More. Pauses? For. Understanding? then That Guy will understand. It’s the same principle as over-enunciating, loudly, to someone who doesn’t speak English; in neither case does that work. There may be a rational explanation why that guy is That Guy, but repeating yourself won’t solve anything.
Presume the Best.
If you go in thinking That Guy is reluctant, ignorant, (what did I call Erin? “Dimwit”?), or just batshit crazy, you know who you will face? Someone who is loathsome, recalcitrant, or erratic. Part of that will simply be your perception, but part of it is because people tend to meet expectations. If you expect the worst, you will get it. Show up with the mindset that you are both professionals who want to accomplish something good. Keep telling yourself that, no matter how the other responds. Counterintuitively, this gives you more power in the conversation, because you can build on a positive discussion.
(Re)Confirm Your Objectives.
Rather than repeating where you are, go back to the beginning. Peel all the way down to the initial conversations about what you (both) are trying to accomplish in the first place. Think in terms of results, not outputs – that is, talk about the “why” and not the “what” or the “how”. From there…
Highlight the Points of Agreement.
You may agree on ten percent, you may agree on 90 percent. Either way, make that visible. It is always easier to work with people we agree with; even if it’s just a little bit, you have some common ground to build from. Look for ways to exploit the areas where you agree– if it is indeed only ten percent, how can you spread that to 15, or 20 percent? Every bit helps.
Boil the Disagreements Down to Their Essence.
Do you agree on objectives, but not how to achieve them? That’s a different conversation than not agreeing on objectives. Likewise, agreeing on deliverables, but not how to measure success, is a different level. Understanding the impact and priority of where you differ goes a long way to resolution. If you agree on the big picture, but not about the small, annoying bits? Let it go.
Find Out How They Came to Their Assumptions.
Simply, ask. Ask open-ended questions, “How do you think we can accomplish this?”, “Why do you say that?”, “What makes you feel that way?”. Listen, truly listen, to the answers, and ask follow-up questions. Check your tone of voice. If you are Presuming the Best, it becomes clear that you are honestly seeking to clarify and understand; it can be all too easy to sound arch and condescending if you are not careful.
State Your Position.
Let the other side explain first; you may find more places of agreement than you thought, and you can add those to the “W” column before ever having to say a word. If you still need to explain an area of divergence, simply state it, e.g., “Here’s how I interpret the data…”. There are times to be Socratic, and to use leading questions to get someone else to an “a-ha!” moment; this is not one of those times. No matter how you phrase it, what That Guy will hear is, “Why can’t you just agree with me?” This, too, comes from Presume the Best.
When stating your position, state what you believe and why, not what you assume they believe and why it is wrong. Do not think of this as a “defense”, or you will come across as defensive; think of this as continuing the understanding between the two of you. Presume the Best.
Are You That Guy?
The steps above for dealing with That Guy are also the steps for discovering if, in fact, you are That Guy. Be prepared to discover that, somewhere along the way, you took off on the wrong track. If that’s the case, while it may be a little embarrassing, you have at least given yourself the ability to re-align.
In having these conversations with Erin, we discovered all the points of agreement and turned her loose. The significant areas of disagreement, we were able to delegate to others. (It was like one of those shopping carts shaped like a race car – she sat in front, twisting a do-nothing steering wheel and felt like she was driving the whole thing; the grown-ups – her employees – pushed her where she needed to go, and away from where she didn’t belong.)
Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re That Guy or the person you’re dealing with is That Guy; to succeed, you both need to find “reality”. Doing that requires putting yourself in a mature headspace, and having some difficult conversations.
None of this is foolproof, of course. What you get, though, is a broader understanding – of where the successes are, and clarity of where the pitfalls may be. You have demonstrated that you genuinely want a rational, professional solution, and you have done so in a way that enhances your credibility.
You will never change the person, but you can change the landscape and open a positive dialogue.