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Chief of staff passed over for a promotion

Dear Office-Politics,

Let me begin by stating what a wonderful website that you have. I found the content very informative and thought provoking.

I worked for the largest financial services company in the world and it was of course filled with office politics as you can imagine. However here is the challenge for me professionally:

I was recently passed over on a promotion opportunity to replace my boss who is nearing retirement. My position, described by my boss on numerous occasions, was Chief of Staff, his right hand man, you name it. He has two other direct reports.

My performance ratings have been outstanding to exemplary for the last 10 years. This year has been no different. Of the department’s accomplishments this year, approximately 60-65% were the accomplished under my direct leadership or under the leadership of my direct reports with my oversight, while my competitor for the job contributed maybe 20%. Here is what confuses me about the decision:

1. I have demonstrated initiative and a stronger work-ethic to take on tasks, while my colleague tends to avoid work unless given to him. He has even made numerous statements to fellow employees that he is not going to commit to the job at the level that I have.

2. As stated above, my contributions to the department have been greater. When it comes to major initiatives, I am the one who generally takes the lead, even some which my boss or his boss have backed out of.

3. I have a broader job knowledge, that is very diverse. The person who received the promotion comes to me for input.

4. My leadership skills are good, based on the number of departments that I have built or grown, and the positive results that I have received on the Company’s Voice of Employee survey.

I also have excellent communication skills as indicated on my performance reviews. However, based on feedback from several other people within the organization, the reason that I did not receive the promotion, is that the thought is my colleague is better at handling the office politics (this is only their speculation or analysis of the situation, and not the facts). The quote given to me “The belief may be that he is better equipped to deal with office politics, while you are a straight-shooter, who does not play games”.

I understand that office politics exist and do a good job in working through situations and compromises when warranted. I find that getting involved in office politics creates inefficiencies and creates moral and ethical challenges. My colleague has a reputation of intentionally providing misleading information or manipulating people. Many of his ex-employees have indicated that he cannot be trusted. Why is my approach of straight-forward, honest communications to work through issues, passed over by someone with this style? I personally saw one task take 10 months to be resolved in what should have taken no more than 2 months.

It is unclear who made the actual decision on the job promotion. My boss who is taking on a new role indicated that he was involved in the discussion, but that I should have be given the opportunity to talk to his boss. Furthermore, when questioned several times on what skills I needed to improve on, he gave no response. What should I make of this? I would like some answers to know how to improve myself, but do not want to be viewed as a poor loser type? I have been in my role as the “chief of staff” for 5 years, have delivered exceptional results, have a much broader base of job knowledge and a stronger work-ethic, but do not play office politics, despite finding it at times immoral and a waste of energy? Would you think that I should get the job? Do I need to change my approach to advance, and if so, how do I accomplish this without reducing my ethical and moral standards?

Any suggestions?

Thank you,

Blindsided

Followup email from Blindsided:

WOW! I never expected a response back so quickly. Whomever you feel is most appropriate is fine with me. I can wait 2 months if they are the most skilled to provide an answer. I spent the weekend reading through your site and others, and found some interesting ideas, all thought provoking.

With the holidays coming up and 2 weeks of vacation, I plan to relax and reflect. Life and our careers are full of breaks, some good and some bad. Obviously, I feel it was a bad break, but I must continue to perform as I have in the past. I have had some other good breaks in the past, so maybe it evens out.

I will take some time to reflect on what I can change. It was just a complete shock, and disappointment that my boss did not provide any guidance or reasons, after 5 years of supporting him as his “chief of staff”. I still hope to receive feedback from him and his boss, but quite frankly not sure that what I receive will be honest communications. They may resent my questioning of their decision.

As previously stated in my earlier email, I find it ironic that if the speculation that office politics is the reason, it would seem surprising. One of the biggest political initiative that we faced this year, both my boss and his boss backed out of it, deferring to me and my colleagues. While I took the lead to bring the initiative to successful completion, my colleage chose to sit back and watch. Seems to me that I did handle an “office politics” issue well.

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN

dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Blindsided,

Your situation illustrates the core dilemma and reason that prompted us to translate our executive coaching findings into leadership development workshops and write a book — Survival of the Savvy. You see, as you sadly discovered, many good, competent, ethical, company loyal, dedicated, technically brilliant and productive people MAY end up suffering being passed over or worse –– not even having a job or situation to complain about –– due to equating all corporate politics as evil and negative, and thereby refusing to “play the game” or enter the political arena. The result can be “losing the game” because you ARE in the game whether you choose to be so or not.

All companies have politics, so political blind spots develop if we abandon the political influence arena (politics and influence are one and the same) to those who are either more skills while retaining ethics or who are OVERLY POLITICAL (which does sound like your less competent, more self-serving counterpart who “won out”).

We fear, like many, in your effort to avoid negative, Darth Vader politics (the “dark side of the Force”) that you may have simultaneously avoided the light side of the Force and honing political astuteness skills that are more positive ways of viewing some of the potential skill deficits people are “speculating” about as a reason for your losing the promotion:

• networking for visibility,

• knowing your image and perception since politics does include impression management versus saying “substance and results, not image should matter” (they both do!),

• selling your ideas through Ethical Lobbying rather than assuming good ideas and results will speak for themselves,

• respecting turf and ego while knowing when and how to speak truth to power as opposed to blurting out the whole truth.

• balanced self-promotion of your and your team’s accomplishments and contributions (versus being too good a secret or over-promoting)

Please notice how we position these and other political traits and behaviors as positive and astute IF they are implemented in a balanced manner and not over-doing them. They help Under-Political people achieve influence, impact, career management and growth, and role credibility for one’s whole team.

These skill sets are assets especially the larger a company is where negative, destructive politics increase and positive politics become more valuable, as in your huge firm. The culture of companies can be more or less political, AND can be Under-Political or Overly Political, just like individuals within them. So it may be that your company is a bit more political, making your less political style a liability. Essentially, we are saying you may have thrown the baby out with the bath water, labeling anyone more political than you as evil (poly= many, tics= bloodsucking parasites!). In fact, some Overly Political types ARE sharks, but that doesn’t mean you should be Under Political, doing water ballet in the shark tank!

The Overly Political who misuse and pollute the above skill sets sometimes gain the competitive advantage through their verbal mastery, charting the winner and loser projects, spending time networking and promoting themselves, knowing the hot spots and ways to influence top leaders, and doing these things for their own interests versus the company’s. Sure, we’d rather have YOU as our friend and colleague, but we’d also rather that same friend (you!) to ADD some high-integrity political skill sets to your obvious competence and ethical, moral compass. It’s not an either/or, black-white affair since our book is about “high-integrity” politics.

So we have addressed why this may have happened to you by saying “of course it can happen.” Everything you’ve analyzed about your more deserving contributions and attitudes we’re sure is accurate and rationally “correct,” but you’ve omitted the dimension of politics.

You might argue it shouldn’t be this way, that results alone –– the pure meritocracy –– should seize the day. We won’t argue back, but just say that we don’t know where it’s written that life should or will always be fair. Your P.S. note conveys this healthy, coping perspective versus holding onto outrage, disbelief, or anger. It’s just life in the big city. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, meaning it could be people sensed that a particular competence or skill set lacking in you around politics or job skills (doubt that) is important for a given company culture or new direction. But sometimes the person IS competent, but some hidden agenda is percolating –– favorites, payback, threat, revenge, saving the company money, whatever. We can’t know for sure, so hope you’ll provide further hunches once you accept political realities.

That said, a personal note… Please understand –– we wrote the book on the need to accept politics as a fact of life, but that does not mean we don’t get emotional, too, and have to calm ourselves. In fact, one of our best friends just lost a job after 19 years, right before being vested fully, a dedicated, fully giving individual -– an unfair, uncaring dismissal for no clear reason. And WE were upset for her, then had to regain our balance and help her (and us) practice what we preach. Time to reach out to friends, vent the emotion, then rebound to focus on what’s to be learned, counting her blessings, salvaging the situation the best she can, make a sound decision about next steps (weighing the pros and cons of staying in the current environment), and moving on.

The savvy person understands and accepts the best… and worse… in organizations and in individuals. We recommend not driving yourself crazy getting answers, proving you were “right” or building a case. Just make a sound decision about whether you’ll stay. After all, your only real choices are: you can stay and be upset, stay and accept things positively, leave and be upset, or leave and accept things positively. Know that “we feel for you” and wish you well. Please keep us in the loop on how you fare! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Warm regards,

Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success


cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

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