I’m oddly inspired by the challenge of navigating the blockers at work—the types that are impediments to change and progress. Every workplace has one or more, and if they don’t work for you or if they are at a peer or senior level, you are left to figure out how to deal with them.
Most of your coworkers steer clear or walk on eggshells around them. After all, every encounter is a challenging conversation. In my experience, many of these individuals are a challenge worth tackling, particularly if you’re comfortable wielding the tools of positive persuasion and applying finesse, not force.
Frequently Observed Blockers in the Wild:
Here are just a few of the blocking characters I’ve encountered.
The Turf Protector
One of the most common is the manager who fiercely guards turf and views any incursion into their territory as potentially hostile. These characters are highly political and incredibly self-serving. However, I’ve observed many who run a tight ship and produce solid results. They’re not easy to gain support from, but it’s possible with the right approach.
The Status Quo Manager
Another character is the middle manager that hasn’t agreed to anything new since before the end of the Cold War. They’re obsessed over consistency and status quo and may secretly have, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” tattooed on their forearms. They are challenging to engage.
The Senior Power Broker:
A third that you likely will encounter at some point is the power broker. These are often highly placed senior managers or executives who are a bit more polished than the characters described above, but exhibit many similar behaviors. They’re proud of their accomplishments, protective of team and turf, and savvy when it comes to making sure the organization dances to their music.
When You Need a Blocker’s Support, It’s a Process, Not an Event
The difficulty factor raises substantially when you need support from the blocker/co-worker, and your request potentially requires them to expend resources or gosh forbid, change tried and true processes.
The biggest mistake I see over and over again is noble-minded change agents using logical arguments and moral suasion in futile attempts to gain buy-in. Mostly those fail or are deftly placed into stall mode by the blocker. Some are so good at the stall that the requesting party feels good for a while until they realize that the perception of progress is different than the reality.
Working with a blocker and gaining support is a process never an event. Instead of expecting the individual to recognize the brilliance of your logic and the goodness inherent in your request, you’re safer assuming that you need to manage a process that can only move in steps. First, you’ve got to break down resistance.
Once you have them listening, it’s another big jump to considering and finally to doing.
Respect the process, and it will pay dividends for you.
A Case Study in Finding the Loose Brick in the Blocker’s Wall
“Managers, CEOs, and salespeople often tell me, Talking to so-and-so is like hitting a brick wall. When I hear those words, I reply: Stop hitting your head against the wall and look for the loose brick.” Keith Ferrazzi in the Foreword to Mark Goulston’s book, Just Listen.
It’s imperative to spend time understanding your blocker and striving to tune in to their key interest. Too many of us focus on the “I want” part of our pitch instead of working to understand and deliver the “you want” part.
In a highly siloed global technology concern, one unit’s need for the products of a much larger and more established group to package as part of a system seemed like an easy ask. There was little chance of channel conflict and the smaller, requesting business unit only needed one product.
The brick wall in this instance was the long-standing leader of the larger unit who protected his turf and channel with unwavering ferocity. A direct pitch would have been dismissed with a laugh.
Instead, the individual in need of this leader’s offerings took the time to tune in to the background. He discovered the loose brick in the form of the leader’s intense pride in bringing the unit from start-up to market leader. The requestor focused on this pride and the chance to have that same impact again and then did something brilliant but straightforward. He gave complete autonomy over how, what, when, and how much to this other leader’s team.
Things moved quickly and painlessly once the loose brick was discovered and strategic power given to the other side. From resisting to listening to considering to doing in a step by step process.
4 Helpful Approaches for Navigating the Blockers in Your Organization
You need to pick and choose the tactics and approaches for your situation, however, I draw upon these tools regularly.
1. Address Their Respect Deficit
Recognize that many challenging co-workers are operating with a deficit of respect. Many of these individuals are accustomed to being on the receiving end of grief instead of accolades. As one manager described his role, “I’m like the office copy machine. When things go good, no one cares. When something goes wrong, everyone kicks me.” It’s incredible how resistance melts when you show authentic interest and appreciation for their work.
2. Explore and Uncover Interests and Design Accordingly
Similar to the case study above, it’s imperative for you to tune in to the real interests of your blocker. In one instance, the manager had been burned on a significant change initiative and lost headcount and budget. She wasn’t interested in living through that again. Once I understood this, we were able to design a solution that gave her increased control over the situation. She actually gained substantially more headcount and budget than she had lost in the previous situation. Building to interests beats pitching for position every day of the week!
3. Give Power to Gain Support
The single most potent approach for ultimately gaining support is to give the other party as much control as possible. We resist situations out of our control, and we gravitate willingly toward situations where we maintain control. Do this strategically. In the case study, there was no deal unless the senior leader of the established unit had complete autonomy over the approach. All the other party needed was access. It worked!
4. Make Heroes Along the Way
One of the best ways I know to grow influence and power is to make heroes of the people you work with, and this includes the blockers. In addition to meeting their business interests, your ability to support their career interests earns a lifetime of reciprocity. If you focus on making the successes about them, in the future, they will slay dragons to help you.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
No one ever said people were easy. Instead of lamenting over your more difficult coworkers—particularly those blocking progress on something important to you—apply finesse to get your way. In the workplace, the philosophy of finesse over force wins more often than not.