Does Anyone Know What They Are Doing?

Have you ever been driven up the wall by a mainliner? ‘What’s a mainliner?’ you ask. Read on. You likely are already familiar with the type.

Mainliners go into things in disorganized and unprepared ways

For these players, their approach is to dive in without any pretense of or need for preparation or organization. They rely on their instincts and agility. They are usually from the group who never bothered to do their homework in high school. Later, they wrote their college papers the night before they were due, without inhibiting themselves with trivia such as a trip to the library. In a pinch, they used someone else’s notes or reading list. The solution is always at hand if the player is observant enough and clever enough to recognize it.

Mainliners start before understanding what is expected

This technique is axiomatic for mainliners. To find out what is expected is a waste of time. The player has no intention of doing anything other than what comes to hand. This is called ‘winging it.’

Someone once said that if you do not know where you are going, you probably will not get there. The mainliner says that if he does not know where he is going, wherever he ends up is where he was headed. If played right, the people who count define it as the only place to be. Ultimately, no one likes admitting getting taken for a ride, especially to somewhere he did not want to go.

Mainliners solve problems before knowing why the problems came up in the first place

It is like a doctor doing surgery for an undiagnosed condition. The doctor raises the knife and slices. Quickly, the patient has a visible condition, usually with a lot of blood thrown in just for good measure. Now it does not matter how it turns out. If the bleeding stops, the doctor is a hero. If not, the doctor made his best effort, but the patient was too far gone to be saved.

When a mainliner in your organization creates a predicament, he tries to find a scapegoat for the problems. People ask, ‘Why do we have this problem?’ The mainliner likes to say something responsive. Whenever possible, skilled players blame the problem on someone outside the organization or on an employee who has left. At a minimum, they attribute it to someone who is out of favor or someone who cannot defend himself. Should an explanation actually be forthcoming, the player refers to it as a cover–up or an attempt to avoid responsibility. ‘Double talk’ is also a good term to work in somewhere. Finding out real causes and explanations is not in the player’s best interest. People might start looking for valid explanations for problems as a routine behavior. This lays the player open to who knows what.

Understanding the mainliner’s motivations is easy. He does not want to be found out. The mainliner does not know how to do the job needing done and would rather foul everything up than admit the truth. The player’s goal is to bluff his way through, no matter what the cost.

Managing Mainliners:

With this in mind, counter play proceeds like this. Do not accept excuses and explanations that are not factual or do not have a ring of truth. If things are getting worse, if problems are getting out of hand, if business is going down the tube, the likelihood is that you have a mainliner at work.

The best counter play starts with a clear notion of what the goal or task is. It then extends to defining what progress is. Finally, counter play sets specific criteria for deciding if things are moving toward or away from the goal.

If there is no movement toward the goal or especially if there is movement away from it, it is time to hold the player accountable. Listen to the excuses and explanations and then hold him responsible.

Much of the time and especially in technical jobs or in complex situations, knowing whether the problems are the work of a mainliner or are unavoidable is difficult.

Frequently, a single person gets into a position where only he appears to be qualified to judge his work. The result is that the mainliner has no accountability to anyone who can knowledgeably and objectively judge his work. He has, for all intents and purposes, a free rein.

The issue with mainliners is that no one knows how to separate problems caused by the mainliner’s behavior from situations that are going sour despite reasonable and skilled action. If you have an active problem, the only counter play is to develop a strategy to evaluate the project and the people objectively. The key here is to be sure the plan includes outside people who are experts in the problem area.

For you, the best counter play is to know that mainliners can and will do in your company while they drive you up the wall, given the opportunity. Since you may not detect them until it is too late, any important project should be mainliner–proofed in advance. Built into every important project should be an evaluation or monitoring process separate from and not linked to the project. This process needs to include people who are qualified to judge every aspect of the project. They also must have the proven ability to tell when circumstances are the problem and when the people in the project do not know what they are doing. Just be sure that the monitoring activity is not itself a haven for a mainliner of its own.

Now you know and there you go.