Seven staff personas that obstruct CX transformation - and how to deal with them


Arguably the biggest obstacle to CX transformation is internal politics. Here, Steven Keith profiles seven types of difficult employees that obstruct customer experience improvements, and how to manage them effectively. 

16th Feb 2021

It may sound strange, but we keep a database of obstructive entities in our CX transformation practice. As we were looking through it recently, we grouped the database by political obstructions and found the results too interesting not to share. So here goes…

First, it’s surprising to us the frequency and depth of internal politics impairing customer experience innovation in a number of good companies. It turns out that this is a real issue many companies experience in one way or another.

As more people in these companies approach CX, many are realising the time is now to deal with these political obstructions head-on. When a company decides to get serious about customer experience and engaging the employees in that initiative, long-standing behaviours that don’t support a clear CX strategy become visible very quickly.

For companies trying to innovate around CX, there are dozens, if not hundreds of obstacles; internal politics are certainly at the top of the list. Half of the battle is identifying the political obstacles and understanding why they exist; the other half of the battle is how to deal with it. We’ve included methods and tools in this article to help you address both.

When we reduce the political behaviours down to their component parts (tenure, agendas, leadership style, decisions, behaviours, speech, respect, and influence) we’re able to help our client companies deal with them.

Following are the seven most common politically obstructive personas from our database:

1. The “Fence-Builder” 

The Fence Builder is a data and information hoarder. They will claim they are protecting your busy calendar and overflowing inbox by taking on more projects while keeping the information to themselves. They operate in the smallest group they can, if not entirely by themselves. They believe, at the core, that information is power and skills of gathering information and releasing it at opportune times builds their organisational knowledge equity. Organisationally, their goal is to be seen as the smart one, however their power lies in their ability to validate, deflect or subvert key decisions. Many of their sentences begin with, “Actually, the data tells us, empirically that…” Through scarcity, they seek personal success over organisational success.  

Counterintuitively, this person’s value to the organisation is normally very high. However, they feel undervalued or disrespected and are driven by building quiet influence and being publicly applauded for their analytical and insight creation abilities. 

Identifying Attributes:

  • More often quiet than vocal.
  • Present in most meetings.
  • Develops private relationships with members of IT.
  • Tremendous interest in analytics.
  • Typically contradictory or discordant.

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “I’ll take that project on; you have way too much on your plate.” 

Obstacle Severity Score: 7/10

Top Diffuser Strategies:

  • Assign very specific deadlines and expectations of delivery from this person’s involvement in data gathering and sharing activities.
  • Give them more access to information in exchange for broader sharing of outcomes. 
  • Show them more respect for the behaviours that advance the organisation’s goals.
  • Give them a team to lead responsible for insight creation and thought leadership.
  • Have them liaise with marketing, finance and HR using data to make key departmental improvements.

2. The “Extreme Pragmatist”

The Extreme Pragmatist is generally found higher up in the management hierarchy. They are steadfast followers of conservative management principles formulated in the mid twentieth century. This person commonly advises teams to ‘stick to the company’s knitting’ rather than try new methods to operate and compete effectively. They believe success is more a matter of hard work on the core of the business and that innovation is fraught with unnecessary risk. They are hawkishly obsessed with dividing the company into profit and cost centers; with an extreme drive to control the cost side with an iron fist. They do not see value in investments without a hardcore proof of value or long string of industry-proven precedents which typically keeps the organisation locked back in the 1970’s. 

The Extreme Pragmatist normally has decorated tenure but is generally identified by the aging of their accomplishments. They will publicly display calm enthusiasm for potential innovations but lobby hard behind closed doors with leadership peers to limit investment in CX until there is very specific industry-relevant data to boost their confidence.       

Identifying Attributes: 

  • Quick to quote Drucker or Jack Welch.
  • More negative than positive.
  • Firmly believes in second-mover advantage.
  • Corroborates their conservative points with evidence of others' failures.
  • Quick to point to company’s successes from decades past.
  • Finds comfort in stories of competitors’ failures. 

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “People, let’s not boil the ocean here.”
  • “We cannot invest in every fad that pops up.”
  • “We’re not Apple.”
  • “Show me the ROI.”

Obstacle Severity Score: 9/10

Top Diffuser Strategies:

  • Charts and graphs clearly depicting the positive impact of CX on revenue, customer retention, customer lifetime value, and employee engagement.  
  • Any article from Harvard Business Review (they’ll call it “HBR”), MIT Sloan Review, Bloomberg, or Inc.
  • CX Value Planning Workshop for Executive Leadership.

3. The “Quant”

The Quant shares many attributes with both the Extreme Pragmatist and the Fence-Builder but is way more over-indexed in math. The Quant is generally the organisation’s ‘wizard’ who is less interested in creating scarcity as they are in creating complexity. They will go to great means and ends to illustrate how much investment is needed in time and analytical software/platforms to figure things out and do it right.

The Quant will work tirelessly to generate models on top of models that only they understand. They will over-legislate the importance of insights from data which generally impedes the organisation’s ability to pilot small successes in CX that may require fewer math problems. This person was born in R&D and has generally had multiple jobs in the past decade stemming from an inability to truly outflank the complexity that intoxicates them. 

Identifying Attributes:

  • Quick to bring marginally relevant statistical models to every conversation.
  • Lobbies hard to prepend every initiative with a thorough statistical analysis, creating logjam after logjam.
  • Uses multiple metaphors at once.
  • Typically has pencil behind one ear.
  • Knows every subtle difference between a TI-36X Pro and TI-34 MultiView.

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “Can’t you people see what this means?”
  • “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.”
  • “Let’s do the math on this.”
  • “Economically speaking….” 

Obstacle Severity Score: 7/10

Top Diffuser Strategies:

  • Clearly articulate to this person a narrow and well-defined window to establish proof.
  • Talk about the value of simplicity.
  • Help them balance the importance of math and statistics with the concepts of agility and experimentation.   

4. The “Teamster” 

The Teamster takes union-building and committees to whole new levels and yet, rarely makes any meaningful progress. On the other side, they never make enemies. The teamster, terrified of solitude, would spend 10 hours a day in meetings if they could.

They’re not so much about forging productive consensus around smart and agile movements as they are into making sure the pace is set at weakest or slowest link. They are the polar opposite of the Fence-Builder.

They will over share and only move to the next step once everyone has had a say and that all viewpoints are fully considered and incorporated into the mix. They are masters at democratising each element of any program and are perfectly comfortable with immovable stalemates as viable outcomes.

This person is patient to fault and is willing to postpone that important status meeting until a colleague returns from his summer hiatus. They will never make a unilateral decision because they’re crippled by the thought of potentially alienating any person with a different opinion or idea about best approach. 

Identifying Attributes:

  • Paralysed by tension, conflict and uncertainty.
  • Quick to call a meeting.
  • Misuses Robert’s Rules of Order to govern meetings.
  • Always calls for a vote in small meetings with an even number of participants.
  • Often postpones meetings when any participant is unable to attend.
  • Typically focused on the tree, totally unaware of the forest.
  • Almost always the nicest person in the company.
  • Overly accepting of the most irrelevant tangents to derail meetings.
  • Over laughs.

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “What do all of you think?”
  • “Do you all think this is fair?”
  • “I don’t think we’re ready to make that kind of decision.”
  • “That’s okay, we can wait until you get back.”
  • “How about next year - we’re not ready for this right now.”

Obstacle Severity Score: 6/10

Top Diffuser Strategies:

  • Share clearly articulated deadlines and expected outcomes from this person at any cost.
  • Refuse to attend this person’s meetings. Instead ask to talk to them one-on-one with a clear sense of urgency.
  • Send them to leadership training on strategic decision-making.
  • Limit the number of meetings this person can initiate and attend; and limit every meeting they initiate to 30 minutes.
  • Force them to participate in agile design thinking exercises.  

5. The “Card Shark” 

The Card Shark is defined by their inconspicuous solo competitiveness above all other characteristics. They hold their cards very close to their chest and spend more time spying on what other teams are doing than they do in collaboratively making progress on necessary work. They share some attributes with the Fence-Builder by claiming their approach is in the best interest of others when in reality it is far more about winning small solo battles and achieving short-term and independent glory. They obstruct by planning entire systems by themselves through their own means and ideas and aren’t likely to consider the value of other contributions. 

These people are masters at bluffing. They make false claims about their progress and are always working more on a “winning hand” than moving the organisation forward. They are zero-sum thinkers who see the accomplishments of their peers as personal losses.    

Identifying Attributes:

  • They want to call meetings to share what they have alone figured out or accomplished much to the surprise (not often positive) of their managers and colleagues.
  • They’ll spend weeks “working on something big” and never show forward progressive movements until it’s time to lay their card on the table.
  • They epitomise competitiveness.
  • They will never be able to rattle off the company’s vision or mission statement.
  • Always late to work, never without an incredible excuse.
  • Deep jealousy.

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “Yea, good luck with that.”
  • “I’m almost done.”
  • “That dude doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
  • “Okay, what I am about to show you is something that I’ve been working on that will not only going to change our company, it’s going to revolutionise our industry!”  
  • “The CEO is a joke.”

Obstacle Severity Score: 8/10

Top Diffuser Strategies: 

  • Give this person more narrowly defined accountabilities.
  • Set concrete deadlines with clearly-defined milestones and progressive checkpoints shared with somewhat larger groups.
  • Encourage them to work with a manager in the beginning who can help them set and adhere to specific, team-based goals.
  • Express the importance of collaboration, sharing and team dynamics. 
  • Team them up directly with the CEO on a small initiative, closely managed.

6. The “Ego-centric Micro Manager” 

This person is formidable and is perhaps the most dangerous of all political obstructionists. On the other hand, they do get stuff done; albeit in their own way. The Ego-centric Micro Manager is always in upper management and is always ‘right.’ They never see value in the contributions of others unless they’re comfortable they have adequately trained or otherwise influenced that person or whole team. If an initiative wasn’t their idea, it’s dead in the water unless they can reluctantly rework it enough to claim ownership. 

Everyone who reports to this person does 300% more daily work to masquerade their ideas as his ideas to get important work done. Their personal sense of accomplishment is measured in red ink or the number of highly-publicised course corrections to all ideas in the company. This helps fortify their sense of self-worth and helps them believe all work requires their participation to succeed.

They refuse to acknowledge the difference between leadership and management because they are both unwilling and powerless to adapt. This person’s antics are commonly spotted through their pretending to be exhausted by the company’s need for their sole source of diligence and institutional knowledge.    

The best part of this person’s week is the hour they get to sit in their manager’s (often the CEO’s) office and express their concern about the dubious dangers of any high-performing people that pose a competitive threat to their tenure.

They are a master at repackaging others’ performance as reckless, rogue and outside the interest of the organisation’s core objectives. They are chronically suspicious of anything new they don't yet understand (i.e.: CX, UX, social, cloud, mobile, anything with the word ‘system’, etc.) 

Identifying Attributes:

  • Disingenuously advocates the power of teamwork.
  • Typically fishes for solidarity among their converts about those who don’t see and follow their particular world view.
  • Takes great pride in offering office hours as opposed to joining meetings.
  • Perpetuates a false sense of personal time scarcity.
  • Is effusively intoxicated by their superior’s power and influence.
  • All compliments paid are either insincere or contingent on the other party’s ability to capitulate.
  • Incapable of acknowledging the value of a peer or subordinate unless that value is first expressed by someone capable of extending their power in the organisation.
  • Desire to be involved only in the beginning of important initiatives to help steer them in the ‘right’ direction, then grows progressively angrier as each initiative moves forward without their persistent involvement. This forces high-performing teams to take all necessary program detours to recontextualise all their work in a format they believe will reflect this person’s imprint and their  implicit and explicit approval.   

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “I sort of like this but the only things I’d change are ….”
  • “Make sure I see that before it goes out.”
  • “Do you remember what we talked about the last several times we went over this?”
  • “Why the hell wasn’t I invited to that meeting?”
  • “Why are we doing it this way?”
  • “Whose decision was this?”  
  • “There again, I thought we discussed…”

Obstacle Severity Score: 10/10

Top Diffuser Strategies: 

  • Unfortunately, there are few strategies to diffuse the obstructions of this person at his level. Often, time is the only remedy while this person’s charade unveils itself.   

7. The “Freshly Minted Guru” 

The Freshly Minted Guru is normally the person in the company who just bought a book or attended a conference on a topic of interest to the company’s future. They will disappear for a week and re-emerge as an expert in social media, account-based marketing, customer experience, user experience, content marketing or millennials.

Their enthusiasm will likely go unchecked and steer the company through their ideas of how the organisation must proceed in order for it to stay relevant or worse, remain in business at all. They will begin to write blog posts about the topic, furiously initiate meetings and send out doomsday memos to build a case in support of their ideas. 

When these people obstruct, the ultimate damage they tend to create is minor if not insignificant. Worst case scenarios typically involve them giving the company a false sense that they are marking off another box of innovation or covering a competitive threat.     

WARNING: You have to be really careful with this one. Over 75% of the time they are obstructionists. However, 25% of the time, you actually have to listen to this person because they are the canary in the coal mine. It’s all in their intention and approach. If they are part of that 25%, they actually see something important that others cannot. Their wanting to focus company attention on the topic is actually a positive and either they are more attuned to outside influences or they’re one of the people you’re lucky to have because they aren’t interested in status quo and aren’t likely to be stuck on autopilot.   

The way you tell the difference is in the quality of their reasoning and contribution. If they take the initiative to create a proof of concept and proof of value and lay out both a strategy and blueprint for how they believe the organisation should approach it and they actively seek broader input to make their contribution stronger for the organisation, they’re likely to fall into that 25%. If they start out by complaining that the company isn’t moving in the right direction or doing it fast enough, they’re interests are likely in merely elevating themselves. 

Identifying Attributes:

  • Very sudden claims of subject matter expertise.
  • Over-inflated sense of urgency around prioritising initiatives within their interests.
  • Iinability to get rational people to see same level of relevance in what they see.
  • Unbranded, yet overly-stylised PowerPoint presentations of their topic floating around with dozens of embedded Forrester or McKinsey bar graphs.
  • Sudden or increased rate of discontent with the company’s rate of innovation.
  • A new interest in conducting lunch and learns or brown bag lunch sessions with exuberant willingness to go first.

Most Commonly Made Statements:

  • “We’re dead unless we do something like this.”
  • “Our manager has no idea what’s going on.”
  • “I think we’re the only __________ that’s not doing something about this.” 

Obstacle Severity Score: 4/10

Top Diffuser Strategies:

  • Actively engage with this person and give them one week to do both a proof of concept and proof of value project. Ask that they include their best blueprint for how they think the company should roll it out including a timeline for how it can: 
    -  Create revenue.
    -  Increase customer engagement or satisfaction.
    -  Increase employee engagement or collective ambition.
    -  Decrease cost or time in the company’s value delivery ecosystem.
    -  Increase either market share or competitive position in the company’s core marketplace.
  • If they can deliver and it makes sense, you have to both believe them and elevate them with funding and support for this. If they cannot deliver, it’s just hype. Refocus their energies back on their core tasks after you make it very clear their contributions to expanding the company’s horizons are authentically valuable and that you aren’t squashing their ideas or stymying innovation but simply put, the proof of value just isn’t there yet.   


Chances are, you have at least two or three of these obstructions in your company. In fact, we all know, each of us have tendencies from at least one of these categories. I most closely identify with the Quant because I am often accused of bringing another model into the conversation when sometimes it isn’t helping the conversation - or so I am told!

Send this article out to your company and peers and ask what people think. Their responses will likely reveal who they really are. Hopefully, in that act, you’ll have the opportunity to broach difficult topics that can be worked out.  

When it comes to driving CX deeper into your organisation’s culture, it will be necessary to deal directly with these obstructionist personalities head on. It is our appeal, that you use this information to start making positive differences in your culture and peers and not to merely call people out. Good luck!

This article was adapted from a piece originally posted on the website.

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