Dealing with the Office Saboteur

How to Deal with the Office Saboteur

I have never understood why some co-workers feel compelled to gain the upper-hand by acting like a saboteur. Is it insecurity? Possibly jealousy? Or maybe they’ve been facing challenges at home and need to take it out on someone at work.

I’m not talking about The Arrogant Bore who tries to take over your meeting or The Know-It-All who is all too happy to tell you what to do because they of course know best. I’m talking about the person who creates real havoc in your work life. I’ve come across many types of saboteurs, and I’ve grouped them into the following titles:

  • The Sniper
  • The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter
  • The Smiling Assassin

Before I talk about our 3 featured villains, I want to stress 2 very important concepts:

  1. Most people do not come to work each day with a mission to sabotage your project. So, before you act, make sure that you’re reading the situation correctly.
  2. Most important, do not take things personally. I repeat, do not take things personally. Bad behavior at work is the result of many different factors.

Always address the behavior in a professional and objective manner, citing facts to back up your observations.

Now, on to our bad guys.

The Sniper

This saboteur throws you a curve ball or directly opposes you (out of the blue) at a meeting. The Sniper seems to like striking in public, where they can do the most damage.

In my experience, The Sniper is often motivated by the need to have some control over what is going on or what is being discussed. This saboteur is best diffused by including him in pre-meeting discussions. I ran into one of these guys during a consulting job for the government, where I was a project manager.

At a major status briefing, when I came to a statement concerning his area, he sabotaged my briefing by saying the facts I reported were wrong. I didn’t say anything negative about his area, but he found it necessary to degrade me in the meeting anyway.

The next week, before the status meeting, I met with him and explained what I was going to report. I asked him if my report on his area met with his approval. I also made a point of asking him if I could count on his support at the meeting. He agreed, and I never had further trouble with him.

All he wanted was to be recognized and offered some deference. After I started looping him in prior to meetings, he turned into one of my most effective supporters.

The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter

This saboteur can create quite a bit of havoc when she has a beef with you. The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter comes to you in confidence and tells you something negative that another person said about you.

I’ve found the most effective way of dealing with this behavior is not to act on the information you receive. I worked with a woman several years ago, when I was managing a team of 125 analysts. One day, my co-worker approached me and told me that someone complained to her about one of my team members.

I decided I wasn’t going to play this game. I told my co-worker that if someone has an issue with a member of my team, then that person must come to me and discuss it themselves. I do not engage in watercooler talk and react to hearsay.

After this incident, I never had this sort of problem again, and people started coming directly to me with issues.

The Smiling Assassin

This saboteur can be one of the toughest to deal with, because on the surface, this person is nice to you and in agreement with you. Then, when you least expect it, The Smiling Assassin undermines you with your co–workers when you’re not around.

I have found a couple of ways to deal with this threat without resorting to an HR intervention:

  • Direct confrontation
  • Enlist co-worker help
  • Cultivate your network

Confronting The Smiling Assassin requires cool professionalism on your part. Approach him and tell him that what you heard he said. Give him a chance to explain or discuss the problem directly. Stay calm. Don’t get emotional. Listen objectively. If there some truth to the criticism, own it and work to correct it. If there is no truth, you have effectively shut this back-corner talk down by bringing it out in the open.

Enlisting co-worker help is a less confrontational strategy. Hopefully, you have co-workers that you are comfortable approaching for help. Ask them to shut down the conversation or come to your defense any time The Smiling Assassin speaks ill of you. This shows that negativity falls on deaf ears, and that soon stops the behavior.

Cultivating your network undermines The Smiling Assassin. I faced a situation many years ago where I was in line for a promotion. I found out after the selection meeting that a particular VP who didn’t like me vetoed the promotion. I confronted my Smiling Assassin and asked what I could do to improve his opinion before the next promotional cycle. He hemmed and hawed, and I figured out that there was little chance that he would change his mind.

I made a special effort to engage the Senior VP of that group and to worked to impress him. After the next promotion meeting, my network told me that the Smiling Assassin again tried to derail my promotion. But now, I had the Senior VP on my side and his vote overruled the other. I got the promotion. Afterwards, I avoided The Smiling Assassin as much as I could for the rest of my career at that company.

Closing Thoughts

Many times, workplace challenges are self-inflicted. Learn to honestly assess your own behavior before you blame others’ bad behavior on your negative outcomes. But, if you’ve done your soul-searching and you still think the problem is not yours, don’t become a victim and have faith in your power.

Always remember to stay professional, don’t waste energy taking things personally and try not to go over to the dark side yourself.

If you’ve run into a different type of Saboteur that you’d like to discuss, leave a comment and let’s see if we can add some more coping mechanisms to this post.


Gerri Slama Grove


Gerri Slama Grove

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Help Your Product Owner Prioritize Stories

Two Winning Techniques that Help Product Owners Set Priorities

We’ve all seen it.  The business provides a list of enhancements to a Product Owner. You, as Scrum Master, call a meeting to walk through the enhancements and try to facilitate prioritization.  What happens?  The Product Owner ranks all of the enhancements as high priority or must-haves.  And of course, if every priority is Number 1, there’s actually no priority at all.

I’ve tried a lot of techniques on the various teams I’ve worked on and have found these two work the best: Quadrant Chart and Story Mapping.

Quadrant Chart

My favorite quick-and-dirty prioritization method is the Quadrant Chart.  

It looks like this:

Notice how the Priority on the vertical axis is ranked Low to High, but the Complexity/Size on the horizontal axis is ranked High to Low.

This method is most useful when you have a long list of items you want to sort quickly and efficiently. You begin by stepping through your list of whatever it is you want to prioritize. In our case, Epics, Components, or Stories.  Start with the first item and work to the last.  Assign each two ranks.  For Priority, assign 1, 2, 3, 4 with 1 representing the least important and 4 having the highest priority. After you assign the priority repeat the ranking for the item on the basis of Complexity or Size. Again, use a scale of 1-2-3-4 with 1 representing the smallest/least complex and 4 representing the largest/most complex.

Now you have a list of Stories with two rankings each that you can plot on the quadrant.

It’s very easy to see that any Story that falls in the upper-right quadrant, High Priority and Low Complexity, is your best place to start.  This enables you to bring the highest value with the least amount of effort.  Who doesn’t like that?

Story Mapping

If you to try using a technique that requires more analysis, I suggest Story Mapping. This is similar to the old waterfall method of sequencing tasks, but with the added dimension of priority.  This method was introduced by Jeff Patton in 2005 and I highly recommend that you read his discussion on his Jeff Patton and Associates website.

Write your Epics on sticky notes and place them on the top of a decision box.

Now break the Epics into Components and write the Components on sticky notes. Place them in your decision box from left to right in order of use case sequence.

Finally, break the Components into Stories and place them in your decision box from left to right in order of use case sequence.  Here comes the cool part. At the same time, arrange the Stories from top to bottom based on importance. You can use the Quadrant Chart method to rank importance if you like.

When you finish, you’ll have a map of features that you can use to plan your Sprints. You move from left to right over time for your Sprints. Because the map also provides a top to bottom order of importance, you also have a lovely map of releases that provide increasing sophistication with each delivery. This is Alistair Cockburn’s concept of the Walking Skeleton.

So there you have it. Prioritizing is really pretty simple. All you need are a couple of tools and you can organize anything. If you want to investigate some other prioritizing methods there’s a great blog written by Daniel Zacarias who’s based in Lisbon. He describes 20 Product Prioritization Techniques. It’s a great resource.

Combine this with the GSD method for project planning and you can’t lose. See Chapter 2: GSD Gold Project Planning.

Gerri Slama Grove


Gerri Slama Grove

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Can’t Learn Agile from a Book

An Agile Coach Helps with Practical Application

Hi, my name is Gerri Slama Grove, and I am the new VP of Operations at GSD Mindset.  I am excited about joining the company and bringing the GSD concepts to the East coast.

I have been a project manager for many years and I have performed just about every role in the Software Development Life Cycle that we’re familiar with. Four years ago, I became interested in Agile, specifically Scrum, and I took the two-day course to get my CSM certification. Then, I attempted to apply the concepts at work.

I wound up playing at Scrum for a number of years, but I never seemed to be able to get the hang of it. Theory is great but theory alone does not give you the entire picture. Theory can also be fun, but we all know it’s experience and working with a mentor that gets us to the next level.

This is where Cynthia comes in. I knew her from our MBA grad school days together. Since then, even though we were on opposites sides of the country, we kept in touch. She always talked enthusiastically about Scrum and we would discuss some of the issues around becoming Agile.

When Cynthia and April founded GSD Mindset, I started asking Cynthia specific questions about Scrum and we had some great discussions. I learned more about Scrum from reading the GSD Scrum Handbook and discussing it with Cynthia than I’d gotten out of the CSM course or from other books I’d read. I brought these new concepts to work and started applying the GSD methods.

Many of us have PMPs, but did we really know how to manage a project when we first started?  I had great luck in my career working with some of the best and smartest coaches in my area.  Coaching really helped show me how to apply all of the project management theory that I’d learned.  Theoretical concepts become straightforward when you look at them the right way and with the right coach or mentor.

Another way to look at this concept is to think of sports. A basketball player can learn how to work the post position and, if they have the right height and some basic athletic ability, they can learn to score and grab rebounds pretty effectively. However, getting to the next level takes more than basic skills. Really good post players spend time with coaches, who show them some additional moves and strategies for working the position. A good coach will also watch and evaluate your skill and correct what you might be doing wrong or give you a new strategy for working the ball in. This makes all the difference. It’s what helps good players become a great players.

And so it is with Scrum. The theory you first learn is great and provides a solid foundation for getting started. To really succeed, you can’t rely on theory alone. You should find a good coach or mentor to help you apply the theory, by breaking it down to concepts that you can work in real life.

Cynthia helped me learn to apply my Scrum theory, and I’ve been able to take this methodology to the next level in my work.  

I’m thrilled to have now joined GSD Mindset, to work with Cynthia and to meet all of you.

Gerri Slama Grove

Please comment and introduce yourself.
I’m excited to get started,
Gerri Slama Grove  

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