Teflon colleagues

Have you ever worked with a Teflon colleague? I have come across several during my career. A couple of them even had the word in the nicknames by which they were known, as in ‘Teflon James’ or ‘Teflon Andy’. Whatever happened, they were never blamed for anything, even when it was clearly their fault. I began to wonder whether they had guardian angels. Others would get reprimanded or even disciplined but the behaviour of the Teflon Men (and in all but one case they have been men) was never challenged.

In one case, the person’s behaviour was so bad that people refused to work with him. As soon as he had a large project to deliver, everyone suddenly became very busy and disappeared. Reasonably sound stories from his previous employer indicated that he had been much the same there. Yet he had managed to convince a number of people that he was a ‘rainmaker’. I never saw any evidence of this but it seemed to be a legend that had stuck; “Yes, we know he can be a pain but he does bring in the business.” 

In another case, a lad in his late twenties had managed to convince everyone that he was a creative free-thinker and that it was against his culture (he was Italian) to follow too many rules and procedures. Amazingly, this worked. When he disappeared for hours on end or failed to document things properly, the reaction was usually, “Oh, that’s Mario for you” and there the matter would rest.

So what is it that enables some people to get away with lazy or destructive behaviour, while at best going unpunished and at worst being praised and handsomely rewarded? It is usually a mixture of charm and confidence. You can get by with just one if you have enough of it but it helps to have both.

According to this article in the New Scientist (Hat Tips: Chris Dillow and Robin Hanson) humans prefer cockiness to expertise. People are drawn to those who appear confident and will continue to accept their views even if they are proved wrong. So if you tell people, with enough conviction, that you are a rainmaker, they will accept it even if you don’t bring in any more business than anyone else. If you can say, with conviction, that you are creative, people believe you even if your great ideas are no more off-the-wall than the rest of the team’s.

Looking and sounding as though you are totally convinced about something, and doing so with a little charm, can work wonders. Our last prime minister is a case-study example of this. He took us into an expensive and unpopular war on a spurious pretext, he had an embarrassing wife who cooked up a dodgy property deal with a convicted fraudster, then lied about it, and he was interviewed by police as part of a criminal investigation into the sale of public honours. Yet despite all this, and a number of lesser gaffes and scandals, he would always come out with a plausible defence. His statements, while laced with blokey ‘heys’ and ‘y’knows’ always sounded totally convincing. He believed he was right, knew exactly what he was doing and was working for the good of the country and so should we. And, for the most part, we did because we kept on electing him.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, is probably more intelligent than Tony Blair yet he often sounds as though he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That slight hesitation is enough to make us doubt him and, whatever he does, the mud sticks. In fact, quite a lot of Tony’s mud sticks to him too.

Of course, as well as speaking with conviction, Tony Blair understood the other secret of being a Teflon Man; knowing when to get out.  You need to quit before anyone wakes up to the fact that you are not an expert, a rainmaker or a creative genius.

You might think that in the harsh recession-gripped business world, such people would no longer be indulged but, anecdotally at least, it seems that the hard times have had the opposite effect. In an uncertain world, people seem to value certainty even more. Like drowning men, they grasp at any straw available. Those who look and sound authoritative and seem to know what they are talking about get a hearing. When things go wrong and the blame flies, as it always does when people are feeling insecure, the Teflon Men are always somewhere else.

It was ever thus!

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8 Responses to Teflon colleagues

  1. Sackerson says:

    Interesting and plausible.

  2. Bina says:

    I have come across many a Teflon-story teller and I can assure you they don’t convince everyone. More than once I have expressed my doubts about certain individuals only to be dismissed or sidelined. It does not make me feel any better that those Teflon-toads were eventually found out – unfortunately only when the damage they’d caused could no longer be ignored.

  3. jameshigham says:

    Great post. I’m going to run something today, later, and will use this. It is a phenomenon, for sure and the more Teflon, the more suspicious. “Teflon James” – had to smile, Rick.

  4. Rick says:

    Actually, I changed the name James. The original also began with a J but I thought I’d better change it just in case the guy read it, recognised himself and came looking for me.

  5. B A Napier says:

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt”
    Bertrand Russell.

  6. Rick says:

    What a great quote. I shall store that one up for the future.

  7. Isabel H says:

    Fascinating! I would, however, add a third element which allows Teflon Types to triumph even when confidence and charm are lacking: management’s refusal to admit they’ve been taken in by a BS artist!

    I have 2 colleagues who fit into this category, but keep getting away with (in one case) being a liar; and (in the other case) being treated like the Messiah by management who are aware he is being ‘carried’ by competent colleagues.

    The woman who lies has set herself up as an expert in a field where she is the ‘one eyed queen in the kingdom of the blind’. Having said that, she’s despised by all colleagues who know her tricks – but the management don’t want to accept that they’ve been taken in by a wrong ‘un, so they do nothing!

    Ditto with the man. As the managers have no knowledge and are not respected themselves, they are in a poor position to see that he also knows nothing. When colleagues feed back their frustrations, the managers’ own inadequacies lead them to turn a blind eye, as that would mean admitting – again – that their ignorance had led them to be hoodwinked.

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