Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk.
Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.
BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea. The best case is to neutralize them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas. By neutralizing you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.
This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.
BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments. If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree. They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.
Which brings us to the first technique for neutralizing BBB’s.
Understand what it’s like to be them.
Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for? What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation? Not follow a standard procedure and get audited? They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.
If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.
We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.
So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)
Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them. “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say. All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them. Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.
This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.
Who is The Person Most Revered?
Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone. Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.
Then invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea. The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.
Ask questions vs. sell your ideas
BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.) You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do? What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”
If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask, “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?” This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea. Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening.
Selective disclosure and conversation goals
Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING. Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.
It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens? The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.
Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible. Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger! This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”
Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.
Remember, BBB’s are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.
You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.
Your job is to neutralize them so they don’t try to kill your idea.