You’re talking with a coworker about an idea, and he (she) seems in complete agreement with you. But the next thing you know, this same coworker is now agreeing with someone else’s opposing point of view. It’s not that this coworker won’t take a position, it’s more like he wants to take every position. The fence sitter is particularly hard to work with when they are involved in a group project. You never really know where he stands, and you can’t really ever count on his support.
Fence-sitters are often unfairly characterized as being manipulative, or playing both sides against the middle. In truth, most are not nearly that devious. It’s much more likely that a fence-sitter is really just trying to avoid conflict. He doesn’t want to make waves, so he simply agrees with everyone. Few are actually aware of how counterproductive their behavior is in the long run.
If you are having to work with a fence sitter, there are two useful things you can do:
1. Ask open-ended questions
Instead of asking, “Hey George, do you agree with this?” (to
which George will invariably answer “Yes”), ask “Hey George, what do you think of this?” This will force him not just to take a stand, but support it in his own words.
2. Document his agreement in correspondence
When you send correspondence out expressing your position, don’t just say “I was thinking that…”. Instead say, “George and I were thinking that…” This will force George to hop off the fence one way or another. (Don’t do this, of course, unless George has actually agreed with your position. You don’t want it to be you who is the co-worker from Hell…)