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 and how they can cause havoc in your company.


Mainliners cannot be bothered with elementary groundwork.


These players will plunge into any project without so much as a pretense of preparation or planning. 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. The solution is always at hand if the player is observant enough and clever enough to recognize it.


Mainliners assume that actually knowing how to do a job is irrelevant.


The essence of this technique is seeing that “knowing how” only limits and inhibits the range and flexibility of expert players.


The blind spot here for non-Players is in understanding what “knowing how” refers to. The uninitiated think that “knowing how” means you have specific knowledge and skills related to the task or problem. They also think that related experience is useful.


Dyed-in-the-wool mainliners understand that, for them, these kinds of things are not important. The only skill they need is an ability and willingness to dive in and to keep poking. Usually, things have a way of working out. If not, truly creative mainliners either abandon the task or call in a specialist, taking full credit for saving the day. — Read and learn.


Liz is an engineer assigned to troubleshoot a lockup problem with a computer installation at a small retail business. For some reason, the main application and the operating system are not interfacing correctly. The result is that the system is lockingup and the business is having trouble staying open.


Liz’s first approach is to say that the people operating the system are causing the problem. When this does not hold up, she next attributes the difficulties to a hardware problem or bug in the operating system. Again, the explanation does not stick. Finally, she reverts to type as an experienced mainliner.


There are a few minor deviations from specifications in the way the business uses the system. One part of the application is one no other customers use.


“You are the only user who has tried to use this function. It’s only an add-on to the main application. We did not expect it to be used on a daily basis. That is what your problem is.”


“Well, it’s important for us to use this function. How soon are you going to fix it so it doesn’t keep locking up?”


Sure, Liz knows just what to say. “This problem is unique to your system. You will need to exercise your support agreements with the hardware and operating system vendors. They will need to straighten out your problems with their installations before we can help.”


“We bought the system from your company. Aren’t you going to stand behind your sales?”


Liz is again ready. “We will support you 100 percent. Just as soon as you get the other problems worked out, I will see you have a specialist assigned to the problem.” A specialist? Yes indeed. That is someone, anyone other than Liz. That’s the way to pass the old buck!


Mainliners start before understanding what you expect.


This technique is axiomatic for mainliners. To find out what you expect is a waste of their time. Adroit players have 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. Mainliners figure that if they do not know where they are going, wherever they end up is where they were 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 you did not want to go.


Managing Mainliners:


Understanding mainliners’ motivations is easy. They do not want to be found out. They do not know how to do the job you need done and would rather foul everything up than admit the truth. Their goal is to bluff their way through, no matter what the cost to you and your company.


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 your goal 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 your goal.


If there is no movement toward your goal or especially if there is movement away from it, it is time for individual accountability. Listen to the excuses and explanations and then hold the responsible person accountable.


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 and especially in smaller businesses, individuals get into positions where only they are qualified to judge their work. The result is that they have no accountability to anyone who can knowledgeably and objectively evaluate their performance. They have, 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 situation, the best counter play for you is to develop a strategy to evaluate the project and the people objectively. The key here is to be sure that your strategy 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. Build into every critical function in the project an evaluation or monitoring process separate from and not integral to the project itself. 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.



During the fellowship hour after church, a few parishioners mingle but most take their usual places near their usual companions. A scattering of conversations can be overheard.


In a small group toward the back of the fellowship hall, things are getting a little emotional. A teacher has just said, “I think I’m going to give up teaching one of these days. It’s getting to where the children just have no respect. It was all right but the new ones in the class just add to my problems. I don’t know what happened to the traditional family.”


The group is sympathetic except for one young mother at the fringe. Abruptly, she sets down her coffee cup and rushes away.


The teacher says, “What got into her? She and her children have only been coming here for a couple of weeks, so I don’t know her very well.”


Across the fellowship hall, the preacher is saying to an extremely agitated man, “Melvin, I agree there may be a small problem; but I doubt if it is as bad as you are saying.”


Not to be appeased, Melvin presses his point. “I don’t think we should just brush this incident with Carolyn off as a minor problem. The next thing you know, the parents will be up in arms and then the church itself may be in trouble. If we lose members over this, everything we’ve worked for will be in jeopardy.”


Just at the moment Rev. Lewis thinks he has managed to get away from Melvin without getting him more upset, another agitator steps up. “I couldn’t help hearing what Melvin said to you, Reverend. I don’t want any bad feelings and wouldn’t upset anyone for the world. I just have to say this. Carolyn is doing her best and deserves our support.”


About twenty minutes later, Rev. Lewis feels a tug on his sleeve. As he turns, he hears, “I think you better talk with Carolyn. She has a right to have you tell her to her face what you said. She is my best friend and I’m going to stand by her.”


Looking directly at Carolyn, Rev. Lewis says, “I did not say anything about you except you and I would talk. I would like to talk soon except this is not a good time or place. How about tomorrow sometime?”


With obvious sincerity, the friend says, “Carolyn does not need this hanging over her head.” Turning to Carolyn, she says, “You are not going to let him put you off, are you?”


Unsure what to say, Carolyn says to the preacher, “So, what do you have to say to me?”


As the preacher fumbles with what to say to Carolyn, the agitator says, “I can see this is getting a little personal. If the two of you don’t mind, I will be headed home. I have a hungry family to feed. I will call you later Carolyn.”




The stock-and-trade of the agitator is being able to embellish and shape any information to increase its importance. An effective way of doing this comes from Melvin. “I don’t think we should just brush this incident with Carolyn off as a minor problem.” Melvin is an exceptional agitator. According to Melvin, what Rev. Lewis thinks was a minor incident has put the church itself in jeopardy. With the church at risk, Melvin has no difficulty getting most anyone to listen and take him seriously.


The teacher in the illustration provides an especially cruel example of agitating. She splits her play into two parts. First comes, “It was all right but the new ones in the class just add to my problems.” After the young mother sets down her coffee cup and rushes away, this agitator asks, “What got into her?”


Suppose another member of the group suggests that the teacher upset the woman. The teacher acts shocked and says, “I have no idea what you are talking about. I was not talking about her and her children.” It matters little anyway. The mother and her children likely will not be back. It is a variation of the hit-and-run play, except here it is hit and the other person runs.


There is yet another agitator getting in her two cents worth whether anyone wants to hear it or not. “I do not want any bad feelings and would not upset anyone for the world. I just have to say this.” Of course, she knows there will be bad feelings and someone will get upset. The trick is to deny any intent although the player well-knows what is going to happen. It is like saying, “I would not hurt you for anything,” and then punching the person in the nose.


Having given a disclaimer of any malicious intent, the player says, “I just have to say this.” She does not want to but has to say it.


What if someone interrupts and says, “No, you do not have to say anything.”


The player then says, “I’m sorry but I do have to say it. It has to be said.” Only the totally unsocialized refuse to back off and let her say her piece. Sooner or later the agitator takes center stage with a receptive audience.


There is one last complex gambit. It starts with, “I think you better talk with Carolyn. . . . I think she has a right to hear it to her face.” This opens the interchange on just the right note for the agitator. The preacher is immediately on the defensive and the player is ready for the assault. The stage is set.


Rev. Lewis tries to put it off but the agitator has none of that. “I think we should settle this now.”


The agitator presses on in spite of the preacher’s efforts to calm the troubled waters. “You are not going to let him put you off, are you Carolyn?” If Carolyn says, “Yes,” she is a patsy and someone who lets others kick her around. If she says, “No,” the confrontation is inevitable. Most people do the face-saving thing and say, “No, I will not be put off like that.” It is human nature that helps the player succeed.


The closer for the gambit is, “I can see this is getting a little personal. . . . I will be headed home.” The agitator creates the scene, encourages the participants, and sets the stage for the confrontation. Her work is done. On cue, she exits and lets the scene play itself. Her motto is Why don’t the two of you go fight?


Tips for handling agitators:


Understanding the motivations of agitators is not too difficult if you look at their behavior and then ask yourself why they are behaving that way. More to the point, what do they get out of it? Their motivations are in the payoff or what they get.


Agitators will say anything no matter who gets hurt or feels badly. They get a cheap moment in the spotlight. Just keep in mind that agitators will say anything about anyone, including you.Agitators also get their kicks from complaining.  This too gets them in the spotlight. Of course, there is always a little more power in that position.


Players make things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything appear worse than it is. They get attention, get a little more power for a little while, and are seen as in the know and on top of things.


Given the behavior, its varieties and its motivations, how can you handle agitators? Listen to what they have to say and then say, “You are a trip. You can find more ways to look at things negatively than anyone I know.” Call them on their agitating behavior and make it clear that you have no interest in what they have to say.


Is this approach too rude and direct for you? Think about this. If you passively listen to the agitator and say nothing, you have tacitly become part of the problem. People who seem interested, go along, and do not take a stand are fueling the agitator’s defamatory game.


In another example, a player is agitating and says something negative about someone. The classy response is, “I am surprised to hear you say that. I do not think it is true.” The player will likely press on with, “It is true! I. . .,” then going on to say some more critical things.


Your response can then be, “You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.” Now comes the real trick. No matter what the player says next, do not respond. The game is over.


As with most people who drive you up the wall, the trick to handling agitators is to do what needs to be done and then quit. Players can only play with people who will play. For agitators, just be sure they get minimal attention and no additional power or status from you. Quietly and calmly call them on their behavior and then let it go. When others do not play, the game will stop.


Now you know and there you go.