On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
Four kinds of problem people to avoid.

In the age of the Internet, the computer, and the most exciting advances in information and telecommunications technology in history, there seem to be few limits to what networked microprocessors can do to help humans and businesses. Yet, despite all this technology, things still go wrong. Why? Because people get in the way. Either consciously or unconsciously, people sabotage systems and thwart progress. Here are four kinds of problem people to avoid: 1. The overpromise-and-underdeliver type -- This person wants to please you, knowing that what you are asking for is important and needs to be done. So he or she says "Yes" to every request, agreeing to do more than is possible. These people may not realize that they lack the time, energy, resources, or know-how to make it all happen. So what gets done is late, and a lot of things never get done. Their credibility suffers, along with their relationships with the recipients of their broken promises. Apologies are followed by new promises that also end up broken, despite the best of intentions. Favorite lines: "I'm sorry. I intended to get that done for you" and "I'll do better next time." 2. The not-invented-here (NIH) type -- This individual understands that there are many different ways to accomplish things. But he or she often refuses to accept proposed solutions that were not created in his or her mind, group, department, etc. This is frequently an experienced person who has seen and done a lot of things -- including some that did not turn out well because "someone else" created problems. As NIH types see it, there are right (their) ways to do things and wrong (all the other) ways. Active NIH people openly tell others why alternative approaches won't work, while passive ones work "underground," quietly resisting, ignoring, or sabotaging others' ideas. Operating mysteriously in the background, the passives are the worst of the lot. Favorite lines: "We tried that before and it didn't work" and "I know I told them about that months ago!" 3. The information hoarder -- This person is a human "black hole," sucking in information from various systems, subordinates, and peers but sharing it only when it is to his or her advantage. Never caught without an answer, but always protective of their sources, these people regard their hoarded information as a source of power. Even their bosses have to dig hard to uncover important information that these hoarders have squirreled away. Peers get information only when they have something to give in return or when it boosts the hoarder's reputation. Indispensable in a micro sense and disruptive in the larger scheme, this species is slowly being wiped out by the Internet and e-mail. But many of them still exist. Favorite line: "Didn't you get that? I was sure I sent that information to you!" 4. The no-bad-news carrier -- These people can put a favorable spin on any impending disaster. They just hate to give the boss bad news. They even hate to give peers or subordinates bad news. Fearful that delivering distressing reports somehow will reflect badly on them, they bury the worst of situations under a veil of minor good news. Or they just clam up, letting the bad news seep out elsewhere like an insidious oil slick. Even with strong encouragement to "tell it like it is," they will dress things up, making the situation seem better than it really is. The result is that remedial action is delayed, safety nets and alternative plans are not prepared, and others are blithely led down the road to failure -- smiling to the bitter end. Favorite lines: "I've got some good news and some bad news. Let me tell you the good news first" or "Gee, I thought I told you about that." Certainly, in the world of business and management, you'll find many other types of saboteurs as well. Some mean well. Others are malicious. But all can cause untold damage. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is the author of Smart Things to Know About Brands (1999, Capstone Ltd.). His e-mail address is [email protected].

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