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Landed in a political minefield

Dear Office-Politics,

I’ve just joined an organization, and I feel I’ve landed in the middle of a political minefield!

One of my co-workers is a lady (lets call her Linda) … whose been with the organization for 15 years. She’s well connected in terms of informal networks … as one might imagine. She seems to be feeling threatened by my arrival as some of her “projects” are being moved over to me. Our manager has only recently joined as well … about 5 months back, and he’s basically come between this lady and the director, who she reported to directly, previously.

I suspect that, and now my arrival, only heightens her sense of insecurity. While she’s trying to keep me out of her cliques, she does offer to take me around to “meet & greet” personnel and I can catch her exchanging glances when she introduces me. I could sure use some advise on how to handle her …

My boss is determined to make a mark on the organization. I’m not sure he has the softer skills to get things done, but I can feel him piling on the pressure on me to execute. At times he comes off confused … starting me off on one thing, then asking me to wait on it while something else becomes important, and all the while assuring me that he does not want to throw me off the deep end!!

I can well understand if he’s managed to rub Linda the wrong way … anyone with 15 years would probably not stand for this sort of jerking around. The tension between Linda and the boss is pretty evident, though they do make conversations and try to get along. He is basically the ambitious sorts who wants to see action and gets things moving and gets frustrated when that does not happen .. he told me that to me in as many words …

There’s another member in the team … lets call him Ivan. Ivan reports to Linda and is a junior fellow having landed this role after spending two years in rotating assignments in the organization. He’s young, but by no means impressionable. He’s used his rotations to build networks, but does not seem to mind sharing them with me …unlike Linda who, I’m certain, would use hers to undermine me.

Ivan is ambitious. He takes time and effort to warm up to Linda’s (and mine) boss, as also the boss’ boss. I sure could use your help in understanding how I might conduct myself in this scenario. How do I handle Linda and her networks? How can I handle my boss better, and forge an “alliance” with Ivan.

I’m conscious that making conversations is not my strength, and when I am involved with work, I like to get stuck into it. That may make me seem unapproachable … what should I do? Your help will be most valuable.

Thanks,

Tiptoeing Through Minefield in the UK

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
timothy johnson

Dear Tiptoeing Through Minefield in the UK,

Wow… does your recruiter give refunds?

Actually, you appear to be feeling overwhelmed because you have three different political issues going on simultaneously, and (as luck would have it) they’re all intertwined. All three of the issues are manageable with a little effort here and there.

Let’s start with the boss, as he appears to be the easiest of the three to handle. Communication and written status will be your key to success here. If possible, try to meet with him once a week to discuss the projects and initiatives to which you’ve been assigned. Be proactive in these meetings, and create a table (in a document or spreadsheet) listing all of your assignments, their priority relative to each other, when you expect them to be done, what you’ve accomplished recently (1-2 bullets), what is coming up (1-2 bullets), and any issues that require his attention and/or assistance. As with many “scattered bosses,” if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Email this table to him prior to the meeting (preferably giving him a day to digest it). As new assignments come up, add those to the bottom of the table, and work with your boss to realign priorities. To help him, you can be proactive and guess the priorities and ask for his confirmation. He may appreciate that you are taking the initiative.

I promise this will alleviate some of the confusion, as he will soon realize that his words are being documented, and he will know that his confused ramblings will not work. If he wants to make a mark on the organization, you need to let him know very quickly that your goal is to make him look good (and yourself in the process).

As for Ivan, you and he can forge a tight bond, but proceed with caution until you’ve had the chance to build the trust in the relationship. Until he perceives you as an ally, he’s still going to be looking out for his career first. A couple of ways to build that bond are to ask him to be a sounding board on a couple of your projects. Just ask him if you can “run something by him” and get his input/feedback. Even if you don’t agree with his input, thank him and offer to return the favor. If you do use his ideas, give him some of the credit with your boss. In this way, he will begin to perceive you’re on his side and want to see him get ahead. One word of caution: since Ivan reports to Linda, she has the power to damage his career. Try to keep your dealings with him somewhat covert (i.e., at least off of Linda’s radar screen).

Now to Linda. First, you cannot rely on her for your networking. You must begin to take ownership of building those networks yourself… and quickly. Since she’s already introduced you to a few people, begin asking these same people out to lunch or to drinks after work. Determine which of them (like Ivan) could be valuable to you on your projects. It’s almost impossible to do too much stakeholder management. Your work should speak for itself. Your perceptions about her feeling threatened are probably correct. It sounds like she’s been “queen bee” for quite some time. Now she has been effectively demoted since there is now another layer between her and her boss. You also need to arrange your work, if possible, so you do not need to be dependent on her for input. People who are threatened are sometimes motivated to take actions that are damaging to their career in the long-term, and they try to bring down as many people with them on the descent. You must remember that she has longevity and you are the new kid on the block; therefore, your performance is going to be more closely scrutinized than hers.

Another note: she will feel threatened when you begin to by-pass her in building your own relationships, so try to keep it a little covert. You don’t need to play cloak-and-dagger, but you also don’t need to flaunt the networking. Possibly over time, she may come around to your camp. Right now, though, she sees you as a direct threat, and you probably need to perceive her as one as well. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Best wishes,

Timothy Johnson, Author


Timothy Johnson is the author of Race Through the Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006) as well as the upcoming GUST – The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007). In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, he teaches MBA classes at Drake University on Project Management, Creativity, and Office Politics.

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