I’m not a fan of sporting analogies used in a business context. They make some people (people who like sport) feel smug and comfortable and exclude others (people who are less interested in sport) feel excluded.
That being said I am going to use one here – along with an accompanying explanation – to see if it strikes a chord and helps you identify a character type that we see in business from time to time. Heaven knows, you might even recognise yourself and if that helps you to be come a better person you can thank me later. Or send money. Either work for me. Money is better.
The expression I would like to highlight was coined by the man who was described in one article as “the bumbling pundit and casual racist” Ron Atkinson, but let’s not let his obnoxious opinions cloud the concept he introduced and that I am going to talk about here… The Little Reducer.
In a football (or soccer if you must) context The Little Reducer is a tactic employed by a player who is concerned that another, more skilful, swifter player is going to literally run rings around them in a game. At the first opportunity the less talented player will launch into a full-blooded tackle that will either injure their more able opponent or sow sufficient doubts in their mind that they are less confident next time they find themselves close to their assailant. It might be as subtle as raking their studs down the back of a calf or going over the top of the ball to make heavy contact with a leg. Either way it sets a tone for all future interactions between the two.
So how does it manifest in business?
I have yet to be physically assaulted by a client (although perhaps some of them have wanted to), but the psychological equivalent does crop up from time to time. Those of you who have worked with Colour;Noun will know that we don’t want people to settle for a bog-standard, sit-down-and-read-the-PowerPoint type of conference or event so on occasion our eagerness to push the organisers towards trying something different makes some people a little anxious.
Wherever this anxiety stems from, whether it is challenging their status and authority or making them fear that they will lose face somehow, it can manifest in a number of comments and/or behaviours.
At the low end of the spectrum is “I don’t think that our people will go for that.” (Really? Is that the best you can do? Must try harder.) For a start, when did you ask them and who made you spokesperson for the group? Don’t try to justify your own anxieties with the mythical democracy of imagined public response. We can gladly skip over that clumsy attempt.
Harder to deal with is the late challenge. This has happened historically recently, just before an event started (although for discretion’s sake I am not going to ascribe a time-frame to what constitutes “recently”).
The individual in question had already railroaded fifteen minutes out of each of three absolutely vital hour-long briefing calls to provide utterly unnecessary context for the event that was to be held. This was the equivalent of an animal “scent marking” their territory. Fair enough. You go ahead. If you want to emphasise how vital your role or department is for the sake of your ego, be my guest. I’ve seen enough CEOs insist on an hour-and-a-half at the top of a conference to not let that faze me.
More insidious and much harder to deal with was the late challenge on the day before the event. We were just going through last-minute rehearsals to ensure everything would run smoothly when they slid in with this beauty:
“Yes, well last time we did something like this a lot of people said they didn’t really get anything out of it…”
Ouch! Psychologically I’m holding my shin but the referee has waved play on. What do I do now? Do we need to tone it down? Do we need to change what we’re doing? Do we need to re-jig the whole section to emphasise the context and relevance of our contribution? Whatever we choose why have they have waited for the best part of three weeks and missed countless opportunities to voice misgivings only to stick in that Little Reducer at the last minute?
[I know you’re worried. We didn’t do anything drastic. We re-wrote the intro to our section, carried on as normal and left with a smug look on our faces when everything worked and people engaged as we intended with our content. Back of the net. You’re not singing anymore etc.]
The point that we are trying to make is that people, being the weird little bundles of ego and status and anxieties that they are can find the most unhelpful ways to preserve that ego, that status and protect themselves from their perceived anxieties.
We sometimes highlight these in our Applied Improv sessions when we let people experiment with ways to undermine and under-commit to ideas and suggestions… “yes, good suggestion… although of course we will need to fund it with cost savings elsewhere”, or “great idea… but we’ll need to consider all the implications. Let’s schedule another meeting to see if it’s really feasible.”
Our instinct is that most Little Reducers are born out of insecurity and a need to preserve a sense of authority and status and a desire for control, or to give them an escape route if things go wrong.
More useful is the spirit of willing collaboration that underpins the African concept of ubuntu (sorry, but not sorry casually racist football pundits) that states that:
“Every action I take to elevate you, elevates me. Every action that I take to bring you down brings me down.”
You don’t have to a sports fan to appreciate that the spectacle is better when people aren’t trying to kick each other off the park…
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)