Problem Solver, Problem Seeker or Problem Maker?

Last week, I was forced to attend a lot of lengthy, irritating and time wasting meetings. I abhor spending valuable working hours listening to some blowhards go on and on about nothing. The meetings were not intended as venues for characters that love to hear themselves talk and continuously steer the agendas off course. We were supposed to share valuable information, discuss real problems and come up with workable solutions. Nothing was accomplished. The blowhards walked away feeling smug and self-satisfied. It was pretty obvious that they had nothing to contribute and nothing better to do with their time. The rest of us had to tack on additional hours at the office to make up for the lost productivity. What a wonderful premise to blow off some steam about the whole thing!

The experience reminded me of a chapter from 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic about a manager named Bob. This chapter targets a type of manager or employee who spends a great deal of their time focusing on everything other than their own responsibilities. I have edited and abridged the chapter for the sake of brevity.

Bob had been transferred into our department as a midlevel manager. He was supposedly sent to our group because of his industry “expertise.” Even today, I am still unsure of what that expertise was. He certainly never displayed any technical or managerial expertise of any kind. Bob’s role was to head up an auditing section that had been leaderless for several months. The purpose of Bob’s section was to review, approve or challenge charges that had been invoiced by various suppliers. Bob was one of three other managers that reported to the same department head. I was part of that group.

I got the sense early on that our department head resented Bob’s intrusion into his “turf.” The auditing section had a lot of contact with suppliers who were all vying for favored status with our company. These vendors provided a lot of free lunches, invitations to golf outings, industry events, etc. The manager of the auditing section had always been invited to partake in these activities. Since the time that the section had become leaderless, our department head had assumed direct command and had become the beneficiary of many of these offerings. Having indulged at the trough, he was not very keen on giving up or sharing these perks. Our boss had also picked out his “pets” in the auditing section and he did not want those relationships tampered with either. But Bob had been sent to us from above and there was very little our leader could do about it. Although Bob had been advertised as an expert, it was clear that he had never served as an auditing department manager before.

Bob surprised everyone. He immediately embraced the boss’s pets and more than shared the “spoils of war” with him. In fact due to Bob’s contacts within the industry, he was able to steer even more of these “freebies” in our boss’s direction. This ingratiated Bob to our leader and created suspicion and mistrust with the other managers.

Bob was a blowhard and spoke in low slow monotone voice. He could go on for hours about minutiae if he wasn’t interrupted. Bob began to dominate our monthly departmental staff meetings with his ramblings about the day-to-day problems confronting his new section and how he and the boss’s pets had solved every one of them. It was as if finding the lost coffee pot was a major event requiring an hour and half dissertation. He seemed very excited about these types of activities but rarely spoke about getting overcharges cancelled or auditing concerns in general. Our leader eagerly gave Bob an attentive ear. They soon became fast friends. Bob began to receive constant praise for solving problems such as the distribution of office furniture as well as mediating clashes over the use of the copier. Our boss became so enamored with Bob that he dubbed him the department’s official “Problem Solver.”

Our regular staff meetings and even Ad hoc department sessions were transformed into “one man shows” dominated by Bob’s lengthy and boring dissertations. The rest of us were forced to attend and suffer through Bob’s droning. You couldn’t even get in a word edgewise to talk about real strategic issues or discuss operational problems. We just sat there, yawned, rolled ours eyes and began to wonder what Bob actually did when he wasn’t making mountains out of molehills and then claiming credit for flattening them. His speeches would go on for hours but he rarely spoke about auditing activities. The boss just smiled and nodded attentively at Bob’s every word.

Due to his contacts with the suppliers, Bob began picking up rumors and gossip about several of our company’s buyers and quality inspectors and eagerly shared them with the boss. Our leader, in turn, would immediately pass the items along to upper management. Even though the rumors would rarely pan out, our boss loved the opportunity to “blow the whistle” on other departments. You couldn’t even sit in the department head’s office and discuss a work related issue without Bob constantly barging in and bellowing his three favorite words that began every conversation with our boss, “Are you aware….?” This intro would then always be followed with the latest molehill to be turned into the Himalayas or bit of gossip that would be escalated into something like the Watergate scandal.

Bob’s “scoops” never seemed to concern supplier billing or anything having to do with his section’s auditing function. They were trivial in nature but he had a way of turning everything into earth shattering events requiring extensive time and attention. One would have thought that the boss would have seen through all of that. But the goodies and gossip kept rolling in and the boss even began to hold Bob up as a role model for the rest of us to imitate. He honored Bob with the additional title of the department’s official “Problem Seeker.”

Bob reveled in the accolades. However, his “Problem Seeking” activities reached the boiling point when he began sharing his opinions, rumors and gossip about the personnel within the other department managers’ sections. Of course our boss would take every observation made by Bob as gospel. This triggered some really heated confrontations between Bob and the other managers. We all began to see Bob for what he really was – an attention grabbing “Problem Maker” with a lot of time on his hands.

It all came crashing down when an internal audit revealed that tens of thousands of dollars of erroneous billing had slipped through Bob’s auditing section and been paid out to suppliers. Recovery was unlikely. The pets had missed it. Bob had been too busy investigating everything and everyone else to even be aware of it. Someone had to take the fall and it sure wasn’t going to be our department head. I believe that Bob as well as the pets were put on probation and passed over of annual increases. Bob was furious. He really believed that our leader had betrayed him. How could such a hero suddenly become a zero? Relations between Bob and the boss were never the same again. Bob eventually transferred out of the group.

Take this story for what it’s worth. It sure made me feel a lot better thinking about what might be in store for other blowhards of Bob’s ilk. Know any Bob’s in your organization?

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