Registering Dis-engagement: How would you respond?

by cv harquail on May 13, 2010

Here’s a little story, compelling in its simplicity, about an organizational situation that raises issues of loyalty, commitment, and engagement.

When I heard about the initial situation, I had an immediate reaction. My analysis was quickly followed by a few recommendations for the employee involved.  [ Of course, as an ENTJ, I am quick to come to conclusions — and I try to balance that by quickly re-opening to new interpretations.]

Turns out, my analysis was completely wrong. So, I’m interested to hear your interpretations of what could be going on here.

The story:201005131124.jpg

This recent MBA grad works as the communications/ public relations/ social media/ odds ‘n ends person for a small-ish tech start-up. The start-up’s team is composed of full-time employees, some Hr- & accounting-ish folks loaned to them part-time by their investors’ other companies, and a few of the investors themselves.

A few weeks ago most of them participated in a meeting where they talked about their product development plans for Q4. Their market and their products have been changing rapidly; they have several new and revised product ideas and were tossing around some potential names. A few of the names were really great combinations of their main product’s name and these new features, and seemed like winners.

The day after the meeting, while thinking about social media opportunities for these new products, this manager thought she’d run a (Google) search on some of the proposed names.

Should she have been surprised to discover that three of these possible product names had been registered as domain names, that very morning? Not by her, not by the product manager, not by somebody’s staff attorney, but by somebody.

Oh, yes, and these domain names were up for sale.

Coincidence? Conspiracy? Coordination problems?

If you were this employee, how would you have reacted to your discovery? Then, what would you do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.   And, I’ll share the rest of the story tomorrow in the comments.


Dan McG. May 14, 2010 at 6:30 am

Is this really going where I think it’s going? You may have given us too much of a hint in the title. I’ll bet that one of the team members went off and registered the domain names with a plan to make a little extra cash off of their insider knowledge.
Maybe I have a pessimistic view, but that’s the worst kind of problem I could imagine.

Maren May 14, 2010 at 10:45 am

Without additional details, it’s hard to assign good intentions to someone when the domains were up for sale. If I were that employee, I think I would run it up the flagpole with the rest of the team, assuming she doesn’t know who the “somebody” is. (I suppose it is possible that an employee had blabbed to a friend who purchased them hoping to turn a quick buck.)
If an EMPLOYEE purchased the domain names with the idea of making money, I’d say they weren’t really interested in working there any longer… Or maybe even that they were angry about something and saw this as a way to get back. In any case, it certainly wasn’t someone taking accountability for the good of the whole!
Will be interested in hearing the rest of the story!

jamie showkeir May 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

My reaction to this would have been surprise and curiosity. I would pose this as a difficult issue to the original group in the previous meeting. The difficult issues are the names are not available and this cause for disappointment. These are issues the group ultimately has to deal with in relationship to the product launch. It seems of critical importance in this situation not to rush to judgement about “who dun it?” This is not useful.

Dealing with the facts – the domain names are taken, this is a cause for disappointment and this must be resolved – is the most useful orientation.

oldfeminist May 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm

There are a couple of possible explanations that don’t involve treachery.

One is that several people went home, searched on the site of a domain name registry site (like for the names, and the domain name registry site’s metrics picked up the sudden burst of queries and bought those sites because people are interested in them.

Alternatively, maybe someone made these idea suggestions before and her or his ideas weren’t listened to by the boss, so they bought the names as a kind of “told you so” self-bonus should the idea actually pan out.
.-= oldfeminist´s last blog ..Dream Mall — Blog Against Disablism Day, May 1 2010 =-.

cv harquail May 18, 2010 at 11:03 am

Hi Dan, Maren, Jamie, and oldfeminist-

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what possibly could be happening here. I’ve realized, reading each of your comments as you made them, that I couldn’t respond to then in an effective way– Somehow, having “the rest of the story” (while you didn’t), didn’t work.

So, here’s the rest of the story, and then we can think about the implications.

The team member shared the information about the domain names with the CEO, who had the lawyer send a letter to the domain agency/domain owner. It turned out that the domain owner was one of the part-time team members and one of the most senior members of the investor groups’ companies. The domain owner threw a major hissy fit, blaming the lawyer for blowing the issue out of proportion, and by accusing the younger team member of stepping outside her area of responsibility. (This despite his having no responsibly for anything on online, legal, or domain related.)

It was unclear whether there was any nefarious intent behind the initial purchase, since the domain owner explained that the domains were only up for sale b/c they were parked with dozens of other domain names he owned and hope to sell … (so, them being ‘for sale’ was an ‘accident’). The domain owner explained that he bought them because he was sure no one else was thinking about it and he didn’t want the business to lose the opportunity. He would have eventually told the CEO that he had the names and intended to transfer them to the business. When pressed by the lawyer (also a senior guy) the domain owner admitted that an email letting everyone know he’d bought the names for the business might have been a nice idea.

What was really awful, to me, was what this situation exposed about the dynamics among members of the so-called team. Especially in a start-up, who’s supposed to do what is up for grabs- everyone is expected to pitch in where they see a need. But, they are also expected to keep each other up to date on what they are doing, especially when their actions directly affect someone else’s work. Discretionary effort, beyond one’s ‘boundary’ and above the call of duty, is expected. It is also supposed to be helpful to the team and rewarding to the individual.

What was exposed here was an alarming amount of distrust and disorganization. There were real reasons (conscious and unconscious) to expect that someone had done something self-serving in buying the domain names, although it turns out it wasn’t for financial gain. Instead, this action was the latest in a long line of independent action supposedly in service of the business but more often in service of the actor’s ego and/or need to be ‘the decider’.

The situation also makes me think about what might be effective ways to deal with this situation in the short and longer-term. So much is missing, from the abstract & powerful ‘trust’ all the way down to simple communication practices like informational emails. Asked to give one tactic for improvement, for the team overall, I’d go with having the CEO make more of an effort to focus people on the idea that they are working together, and to create two mechanisms for making this feel real. For the employee, I’d suggest something completely different… that she start looking for a new ‘opportunity’.

I also appreciate Jamie’s suggestion of focusing in the situation at hand rather than on suspicions about motivations. Getting the work done/focusing on the work is an important way to work through this issue, since trust isn’t built on claims but rather on actions. But overall, what a depressing display of what we don’t want in our organizations.

ultrasound technician May 30, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

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