Tug

Bulldogs don’t always play nice. My bulldog is especially bad; he has been indulged, the behaviorist tells us, and believes he is king. My son is working particularly hard to make the dog a better citizen. Together they try to play ball, the baseball-crazy boy and the chew-toy-crazy dog. The problem is that when my son throws the ball he wants the dog to chase the ball then drop it so it can be thrown again. The dog wants to seek out and dominate the ball, crushing it in his bulldoggy jaws. If my son tries to tug the ball out of the dog’s mouth the dog clamps down harder, and nothing is getting a ball out of a determined bulldog’s jaws. Stalemate.

They’ve made progress, boy and dog, by ceasing the tug of war. My son started carrying treats in his pocket, and handing one over every time he asked for the ball. He then started swapping in some lavish praise instead of a treat. There are times when the dog seems to feel that the game of fetch itself is reward enough, and he drops the ball simply so it can be thrown again. And then there are times when his bulldog nature overwhelms his training and he runs off with the ball to gnaw it gleefully in a corner. He’s a work in progress.

Surely you see where I am going with this. Many of us have a bulldog nature, and all of us have at least a bit of the bulldog in us. When someone tries to take a ball from us, we tug back. Doesn’t matter if the ball is worth the struggle; it is impulse to resist giving in. The problem is that usually the ball isn’t worth the struggle, or the ball gets torn up in the process, or (most often) at the end of the tug of war, no matter who ended up with the ball, we have created an atmosphere of power and dominance rather than one of cooperation and play.

This tug of war dynamic plays out as a power struggle in the workplace all the time. The key to understanding when a conflict is a tug of war is understanding whether it is, at its heart, about power and control, and a person’s fear of losing those things. When we get to tugging over control everything else falls away, and the actual thing we are trying to control (the ball, the decision, the data, the product) becomes beside the point. If you find that you are tugging, and the harder you tug the more resistance you feel, consider that you are not engaged in a struggle for all things good and just, but in a struggle to be right. Let us assume that you are, in fact, right. Doesn’t matter. In that moment, when you realize you are in a tug of war, drop the ball.

Alright. So you’ve dropped the ball and you are no longer tussling over which budget should pay for the trip to Timbuktu. No, you aren’t tussling, because you dropped the ball and now your colleague is gleefully in the corner gnawing on his win. Even if you didn’t agree that your budget should pay for the trip to Timbuktu, you’ve tabled the issue for the time being, and that feels like a win for him and a loss for you. That feels pretty rotten. Resist the urge to go after that slobbery ball, and try something else instead.

The best antidote I know of for bulldog behavior is to understand what someone really wants most, and give it to them if you can (sometimes that “someone” is you. Sometimes you are the boy, and sometimes you are the bulldog). Some people want recognition, or applause, or even domination. Most people also want their projects to work well. Understanding what is going to motivate someone else to drop the ball is an act of pretty radical empathy. Putting yourself in the headspace of someone you are wrestling with isn’t fun or easy, but it pays enormous rewards if you can do it. Ask yourself: what does she really want? What really drives her? (Or, alternatively, what really drives me?) When you have an answer, you need to figure out how to get her that thing, because then she’ll drop the ball and you can get back to work. Some things you can try to end the tug of war:

  • Treats: People will often stop tugging when there is a reward for doing so. If you know your tug-of-war partner is motivated by recognition, hand them some. Appreciation? Dish it out. Maybe he really will pay for that trip to Timbuktu out of his budget if he is recognized publicly for doing it. Find something the other person loves, and offer it if you can. Or agree to pay for the trip out of your own budget (give up the ball) and take pleasure in your colleague’s appreciation.
  • Distraction: You can get someone to drop a ball when you offer another thing to chew on: replace the ball with something of equal value. “Gosh, Bulldog, I’m not sure whether I can manage the Tashkent budget when I’m so focused on Timbuktu, and Tashkent is really hot these days. Could you take it over?” If Timbuktu and Tashkent really are both interesting and important, simply identifying that there are TWO balls of equal value in play can diffuse the tugging on both sides.
  • Control: Some people are so motivated by being in control, or being right, that nothing else will do for them. It’s galling, but its reality. You can allow someone like this to be in control while still feeling confident in your ability to get the outcome you need: this is influence, and it is powerful. You could suggest to someone like this that they be in control of implementing a process to make a decision (or whatever) but offer to write up the process for them. And if you design the process well, you can ensure your voice will be heard.
  • Structure: Sometimes controlling behavior is a response to a vacuum of leadership or clear process on a team, and so bringing those things can help. Chaos is uncomfortable, and many people will understandably react to chaos by trying to take control of it. You can ignore the power play and focus instead on bringing structure, processes, and predictability to the problem. With everyone feeling secure the need for control may abate.

Giving up the ball, working so hard to find ways to get someone else to also drop the ball, can be exhausting and demoralizing if you let it. There are a couple of redeeming ways to consider this, though:

One, the greater good. You can remind yourself that you do all of this because you care about the work, and the work matters. If the work is going well, and you are facilitating it, you can trust that somewhere, somehow, the issues of control and credit will sort themselves out.

Two, if you are of a more cynical nature, you can take pleasure in knowing you have outsmarted a bulldog, gotten him to exchange a slobbery ball for a liver treat, and he still thinks he got the better end of the bargain. There is, indeed, some pleasure in that. Play on.

3 thoughts on “Tug

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  1. Didn’t you know that I am secretly conniving and scheming behind my office door? I’m just very sneaky. But seriously, I do think power struggles get in the way of good work, and they certainly are draining and aggravating. Hope you are finding your work free of them most of the time!

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