Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jan 5, 2009

You Got Played

an analysis of Boss-on-Boss violence with you as ammunition

Happy New Year from the Finishing School. You have a lot coming up in the new year:
annual reviews, maternity leave (yours or hers), perhaps avoiding the layoff. With all the work you have to do, you may forget your fundamentals. You may forget that you are a pawn in the great game, and you are susceptible to being tagged.

In today's lesson, we discuss that uncomfortable family dynamic of the workplace: your boss and her boss in a tiff that involves you. These scenes can play out in a lot of directions; you may not have time to respond unless you have practiced. By following this case study, you can identify alternative choices for sticky situations between the highers-up.

Case Study
Angela works for a high-strung filly (we'll call her Phyllis, to be facetious) who has spent this year encouraging her staff to seek assistance outside of the organization. It is good for them, she says, to get exposure outside their daily spheres and to form relationships that strengthen the company as a whole. It is good for her, she knows, because it takes some of the pressure off of her for their constant attention.

What Phyllis didn't expect is that a lot of that "outside assistance" has been in the form of her own Boss, Marilyn, who now finds herself visited almost daily by one or more of Phyllis' team asking to "run something by" her. And none of them knows that is happening either.

This has set-up a pattern of outcomes for this team and its manager:
1) Marilyn provides immediate instruction when asked, and wonders why Phyllis is not more available to her staff
2) The staff take the instructed action, presenting it to Phyllis as Marilyn-approved

Enter Angela. See if you can identify the missteps in the minefield she is about to enter.

Angela learns some shocking, potentially business-impacting news in a cross-functional meeting. At first, she is too stunned to know quite how she will respond to this turn of events, but mostly she is focused on how she will tell Phyllis, her Boss, who is out of town for a business trip.

Phyllis has a tendency to leap into action, often argumentatively -- in Angela's Happy Hour parlance, "to freak slam out." Angela realizes that the way she delivers this information to her boss will make all the difference in the way she responds.

Where should Angela turn for her outside assistance?
a. a fellow team member, who knows how to handle Phyllis
b. her executive mentor, who has no stake in the outcome
c. Marilyn, to whom Phyllis will inevitably escalate this issue during her freak-out
d. None of the above. Go directly to Phyllis

Angela chooses (c), reasoning that Marilyn could help form the "messaging" and at the same time be brought up to date on the issue.

A fly-by of Marilyn's empty office leaves Angela with another mine to hop.

How should Angela raise this topic with Marilyn?
a. email, to keep all the information professional and documented
b. phone, for the most efficient conversation
c. IM, just to request a face-to-face meeting
d. None of the above. Go directly to Phyllis

Angela chooses (c), knowing that Marilyn is working from home, and prefers to meet 1:1. Asking for an audience also gives Marilyn the opportunity to request an immediate briefing if preferred.
Through IM, Angela suggests a 60 minute brief for the following day: 30 minutes to explain the topic itself, and 30 minutes to strategize the resolution plan. Marilyn expresses some hesitation about having this meeting without Phyllis present.

How should Angela respond?
a. Appeal to urgency - we really can't afford to wait for her return
b. Appeal to ego - suggest that Marilyn's point of view is valuable here... for Angela's professional development
c. Appeal to honesty - reveal the ulterior motive that what she really needs is help handling Phyllis
d. Take the advice and include Phyllis in the briefing

Angela chooses (c), having not given herself enough space to plan her next move, but is quick to add that she is just seeking advice, not escalating the issue.

Marilyn accepts the meeting, but asks to have it reduced to 30 minutes.

On the following day, Phyllis' team holds their regular staff meeting by phone.

How should Angela report on the information from her cross-team?
a. Casually - avoid the freak-out until she has a messaging strategy

b. Omittedly - she shouldn't bring it up at all
c. Straightforwardly - reporting urgent issues is a standing agenda item

d. Obscurely, within a sentence that asks for time with Phyllis to discuss in more detail

Angela chooses (c), which results in the response, "Please stay on the call after we are through."

On the after call, Phyllis reveals her hidden dragon:
After accepting Angela's meeting request yesterday, Marilyn had immediately forwarded it to Phyllis and asked why her team was escalating things over her head. Phyllis has held this since yesterday, waiting to see if Angela would bring it up on the staff call.

Angela, you got played.

Phyllis assures Angela that she does not think Angela went over her head, but what matters is that Marilyn does. Marilyn has come to feel that Phyllis' staff goes over her head often. Phyllis feels that Marilyn undermines her authority by not directing her staff back to her.

When we are being ridden by our Bosses, we can easily lose sight of the fact that they are ridden too. It may never even occur to you that one of the things she is ridden about is her effectiveness in managing you.

It is not Angela's fault that the situation between her Boss and GrandBoss had built up to the point where she was made an example of. Where Angela made her mistake was in not anticipating that such a situation could happen. For the Boss to give you an extension on that deadline, she will need to justify it to her Boss; in order to give more authority to the team, she needs to convince her Boss they are capable of handling it. Miss Bender herself was once in the painful position of giving an employee a humbling reprimand, simply because her own Boss demanded that it be done.

Angela missed several opportunities to change the outcome of her game -- opportunities she didn't even consider. Remember that every dynamic you have with your Boss she has with hers, and so on. Take the time to play your decisions through, and consider all the possible outcomes of your choices. You may still be wrong, but you won't be surprised.

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