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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

How to Work with Someone Like Joe Lieberman

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At this point, Joe Lieberman is starting to remind me of Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip. Remember the long running bit about how she'd promise to hold the football for Charlie Brown so he could kick it and then she'd snatch it away at the last minute leaving him flat on his back? My guess is that's how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues are feeling about Lieberman right about now. Yay, we have a public option in the health care bill! No, wait, we don't. Lieberman is going to filibuster a bill with a public option. That's OK, we can put in a provision to offer Medicare to those 55 and older. Yeah, that'll work. Uh, no apparently not. Lieberman's against it now even though he was for it three months ago.

Before we go any further, let me say that the point of this post is not to argue the pros and cons of the health care bill. The question I'm interested in today is how do you work with someone like Joe Lieberman who, just when you think you've got everything lined up, throws a wrench in the gears at the last minute and then does it again (and again and again)? It's a pertinent question, I think, because most people have a Joe Lieberman in their workplace. How do you deal with this kind of person?

I've actually had a number of coaching conversations this year about this topic. Before I get to a list of what might work, here are some things that I'm pretty sure don't work. First, threats usually don't work. Why? Because they usually can't or won't be backed up and your local Joe knows that. Second, anger doesn't usually work. Why? Because a lot of the time Joe is just trying to provoke a response to prove he's a player. Anger fills that desire beautifully. Finally, ignoring Joe doesn't work. Why? Because if you ignore Joe, he's going to bide his time and wait until you think you've got it all wrapped up to spring a move that reminds you he's still there.

So, what does seem to work with the Joes of the world? Here's a short list:

1. Remember it's not about you. It's about Joe. To deal with him, you're going to need to get over your pity party about how unfair and unreasonable he is and start thinking like Joe.

2. Assume that you're Joe. As uber coach Tim Gallwey would suggest, as Joe, ask yourself three questions:

  • What do I think?
  • How do I feel?
  • What do I want?

3. Give some extra time to thinking about what Joe wants. Here's a big clue. What he wants is a lot more connected to how he feels than to what he thinks. To deal with Joe, you're going to have to accommodate his emotional needs. Does he feel prideful, wronged, ignored, anxious, vindictive or something else? Whatever it is, his wants and his actions are going to flow from that emotional state. To deal with Joe effectively, you're going to have to get ahead of the curve in making some educated guesses about what he wants.

4. Make Joe feel loved. When you get down to it, that's what most everybody wants. (Even Lucy. Remember her jones for Schroeder?) How do you make someone feel loved in the workplace? (In ways that won't get you sued?) You ask them what they think. You bring them in the tent. You include them early and work to incorporate some of their ideas.

5. Keep your cool. In spite of your best efforts, Joe is still likely to do things that tick you off. When he does, take a deep breath, remember what you're trying to accomplish and resist the urge to go ballistic. That just encourages Joe.

What are your experiences in working with a Joe? What's worked? What mistakes have you made? What's got you stuck?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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