Companies & Industries

When the Need to Win Runs Riot


Colleagues who seek victory in the office instead of the marketplace can hold a team hostage with their emotional blackmail

I used to have a colleague, John, with whom I had a complicated relationship. John was bright and capable, but he had another attribute that gave me agita on a regular basis: He really, really needed to win.

When we'd disagree about an issue, John would get miffed and say: "Don't you trust me enough to defer to me on this issue?" I'd have to say: "Of course I trust you. But we disagree on this matter, and that's going to happen from time to time." As a manager, I had to make decisions based on my knowledge, combined with my gut, not some invisible tally of "I overruled you last time, so this time you can win."

The trouble is, John was keeping score. He would become enraged when I failed to support him on the smallest issue—so much so that I realized, over time, how much I was avoiding conflict with him. Conflict-avoidance is common, but managers need to be willing to make tough calls even if doing so upsets the people around them.

Expert Opinion

Just about every time we disagreed, John would say: "You should let me make this decision—I'm the expert on this matter." What John didn't get was that subject-matter expertise isn't something you claim and trumpet to others. People gravitate to experts and defer to them because their command of the topic has been demonstrated, not stated.

Even worse, John wanted me to confer expert status on him. Of course, he wouldn't have needed me to do so if he had used his knowledge to educate and support his teammates.

Because he hadn't done those things, John needed my support to create the subject-matter-expertise following he sought. But that kind of thing has to emerge organically as a team works together.

Playing to "Win"

One time, John made a pitch to add sales responsibilities to his job description. "I can be instrumental in closing deals," he said. I told him I would consider it only if he would commit to a result.

John resisted that idea—no surprise. We went back and forth in a series of wearying harangues. After weeks of rancorous debate, I was exhausted and agreed to give John most of what he wanted—enough to surprise my boss.

And here's the punchline: When John heard what he should have considered good news, he sniffed: "I don't think I'll do any sales calls after all. I just wanted to have the debate with you, to see where we would come out."

What he meant was: I just wanted to win the debate with you. Him besting me was the desired outcome! Final tally: No new sales, big waste of time.

This experience gave me a new perspective on colleagues who play to win—not out in the marketplace, but at home in the office. When people need to be the victor solely to alleviate their own uncertainty about their place in the political structure, they suck energy and goodwill from the team and turn every conversation into a barometer of how much juice they possess.

Talented Bad Apple

In the end, John's knowledge and experience couldn't outweigh the negative effects of his bow-to-me style of teamwork. He said to me: "You only want people on the team who suck up to you."

I pointed out that everyone in our group had disagreed with me—sometimes on a daily basis—and everyone on the team had convinced me to change my point of view any number of times. They didn't pressure me by declaring that my disagreement with them represented a grave personal insult. Shortly after that, John left the company.

After some time had passed, I realized that the relationship amounted to emotional blackmail. John's style conveyed this message: "You wouldn't dare overrule me, would you? You would? How could you? You are a traitor! This is an outrage!"

You may be wondering why I put up with this behavior for so long? Good question. Every one of us on the team had felt the heat of John's wrath on more than one occasion. But when someone is engaged and productive, capable and smart, it becomes easy to overlook their shortcomings.

John helped our department in a million important ways during his tenure, but the cost was high—so high that the working environment was noticeably better once he departed. As a manager, I'd never faced that combination of talent and, well, let's say it—attitude—before. It can be a tough mix to sort out. But once bitten, twice shy—I'll never make that mistake again.

Boosting Morale

Since then, I have begun to pay more attention to the nature of disagreements at work. I try to frame each conversation in the context of: "What is best for our organization? Which solution will get us the results we want?"

It is hard enough to achieve the objectives that our organizations demand from us. Managing the emotional welfare of people who need to win every battle, no matter how minor, is way too hard.

And apart from the effort involved, there's a high cost in having a player like this on your team. Such a person creates a force-field of negativity around him or herself that other teammates won't cross. They don't dare to. And what happens to teamwork then?

In retrospect I saw that amidst my own difficulties with John, I'd subjected the team to his emotional blackmail as well. There was a huge, collective sigh of relief when he departed the group. That sigh reminded me of another lesson for managers: No team member, no matter how talented, is worth keeping around if his or her presence destroys morale.

My experience with John has vaccinated me. I'll never tolerate that kind of behavior on my team again. And as for the teammates who put up with it for so long—here are my apologies to them, via this story.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at www.businessweek.com/managing/. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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