Ahhh, the joys of working for oneself, of being a sole proprietor, a lone creative entrepreneur. We have clients, not bosses; colleagues, not co-workers; and hire independent contractors rather than supervisees. We’ve never even met most of the folks we work with, and probably never will… because we communicate via phone, email, fax and chat. Office politics? Are you kidding? I thought I was done with all that. Didn’t you?
Scenario 1: Low-Level Sabotage
But consider this scenario. You’re working on a project for a client. In the routine course of the work, you need to send a file to someone else who’s also working with your client. On their end, something goes wrong. They don’t look at the file soon enough, they asked for the wrong thing, they don’t have the right software and can’t read it… whatever. Pretty soon you get a verging-on-snippy email (and here’s the kicker) cc’d to your client, telling you there was a problem—on your end—with the file you sent. It’s petty, you let it go… then it happens again. And again.
Scenario 2: Virtual Back-Stabbing
Scenario 2. The stress escalates. Now, in order to complete the client’s project, you have to work with this same person on a long-term basis. It becomes clear to you that there is a pattern to their behavior. They seize opportunities to make themselves look good by making you look bad. Worse, you begin to realize that there’s method to this madness: they actually want to take over some of the work you do for this client.
You, of course, want to keep your client, your billings, and your self-respect. The client doesn’t care who actually does the work, as long as it gets done well and cost-effectively. But how is the client to decide between the two of you? The snippy back-biter is very convincing. The more sniping they do, the worse you look.
You find yourself beginning to dread your interactions with these people. How do you handle it? Go on the defensive? Go on the offensive? Meditate, ignore it, hope it goes away? Aren’t you working for yourself precisely to escape wasting your time with this kind of b.s.? Do you think that the work is getting done as well or as quickly as it could and should be? Are you giving your best? If you have to sit and stew, or seethe, or carefully craft a reply every time you read an email, I doubt it.
Scenario 3: Total Fiasco
Now let’s kick things up another notch. In Scenario 3, your client assembles a team of several different individuals and their subcontractors to finish one project. You have expertise and problem-solving ability in the project area, but you’re not “in charge.” You have no authority over your colleagues, nor they over you. Your client has authority, but no expertise. Nominally, your client is in charge. In practice, no one is.
Because the participants were brought on board at different times and weren’t able to coordinate planning in the beginning, the work goes slowly. As progress lurches on, key portions of the project run into roadblocks. Communication is difficult—some of your colleagues don’t answer crucial calls or email for days at a time. Everyone also has work to do for other clients, which they may have postponed thinking that this particular project would be finished within a certain time frame. You’re in the same boat. When you scheduled your time, you were imagining everything flowing smoothly… not the disorganized, frustrating mess that things have become.
The project gets finished months behind schedule and way over budget. Your client is understandably angry and unhappy. He admits “I have no management skills. I just want people to do what I tell them.” (True, but not helpful.)
The back-bitingstabbing colleague with whom you’ve managed to work all this time, can hardly wait to heave you under the bus.
And you? On the one hand you feel terrible for the client, who spent so much more time and money than would have been necessary with good planning and communication from the start. On the other hand, you’re so fed up and aggravated that as soon as you’ve met your obligations, you say a permanent sayonara.
Did virtual office politics sabotage this project, not to mention this client relationship? You bet. How can you avoid this situation—as a contractor or consultant, or as the project owner? Stay tuned for part 2.
Have you experienced politics in the virtual office as a contractor, contractee or consultant? I’m eager to hear from you.