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Marginalized like a fly on squat

Dear Office-Politics,

The rundown of players:

My Boss: Overall a good guy, with a great work ethic but appears to have misplaced his balls. In all honesty, he lacks leadership ability and there were many of times I was forced to sit in his office and hear him bemoan the lack of respect he feels he does not receive from his boss (who has recently been promoted to VP.) He wants his boss’s old position.

My Coworker: Incompetent in his position. He plays up the relationship with the CIO of the division. I hear he cuts his grass on weekends and does other menial tasks. He appears to have some sort of learning disability or he is playing a game well. He has won an award on slacking when he is there. He has been in his current position for several years, performing the same duties. He is incapable of completing most assignments without my assistance, my being there for less than a year. I have spoken with my boss to find that other’s that held the position prior to me have complained of the same thing.

The recently promoted VP: Has included me in a task group to make changes to the processes in a department (specifically the department I was recently promoted from). My boss let me know he was disappointed that he wasn’t asked. The group is comprised in the majority of managers. I am not a manager. I am attempting to participate as fully as possible, but question the ability or the desire for the managers I am working with to consider my ideas especially when my ideas may require some additional work. My ideas are discounted and due to our positions I feel it a mistake to argue my position.

I feel marginalized on a regular basis and no more entertaining or engaging than a fly on squat as far as the managers are concerned. I was told by someone who works there, outside the project, I am only there to give the manager whose department is considered, information regarding limitations and needs in the job. If this were true, why am I being asked by the VP informally for status updates on where we are in our implementation? Why did the VP place me in this position?

What am I dealing with here and how do I cope?

Thank you!



dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Marginalized,

Even more than you, we can only guess at the dynamics operating since there is much missing data in your outline (e.g., are you in government or private sector, are your goals for increased recognition, visibility, career movement, or what, etc.), but what is our hunch?

Your Corporate Buzz Seems Positive
Your “political stock” is reasonably high, at least equal or more than your boss’ since he whines about how the top dog VP does not respect him, you landed the task force your boss envies, the VP counts on you for status updates, and your promotion after less than a year on board hints at the favorable company perception of you.

It’s Not About You
While it must be frustrating to continually hit a brick wall, if we assume that your observations are accurate, then the discounts appear less about your lacking power or being the victim of some agenda, and more about the organizational culture. You describe a work ethic of slackers, coasters, performance deadwood, and low performance bars that permeates various levels of the enterprise. If so, and the managers are simply biding their time, there may not be some deep political issue at work –– rather, simply a hidden norm of laziness, reinforcement for doing the minimum, little incentive for going the extra mile. If the unwritten rules are to just put in your time and go through the motions, you may pose a threat or nuisance for those who are less competent, less striving, and less dedicated to improvement results.

You May Be Selling Yourself Short
We don’t as readily accept your conclusion that it’s a mistake to “argue” your position, since you are clearly viewed as integral to the task force by the VP, the sponsoring manager, and others who value you enough to feed you the inside scoop. Further, remember that formal position power does not automatically equal informal and true influence power (as demonstrated by your boss’ lower political stock), so you might be making assumptions based on unfounded fears. Finally, we find your way of phrasing things (no more engaging or entertaining than a fly on squat) to actually reveal the very interesting persona that you fear you do not possess. So perhaps you are on safer ground than you realize?

So How to Cope?
Here we go with some ideas that won’t be panaceas, but hopefully will provide food for thought and potential first steps toward getting your needs met.

1) Check Your Mindset
One common reaction to marginalization is to adopt a Victim Mindset instead of an Accountability Mindset. Dr. Paul Stoltz’ book, The Adversity Quotient, summarized 600+ studies on people’s reactions to adversity to find greater resilience, performance, health, creativity, and a host of positive outcomes accrued to people that adopted an Accountability Mindset in the face of obstacles.

Victims are characterized by pessimism, blame, helplessness, hopelessness, and a crisis perspective, while Accountability-driven counterparts are optimistic, take control of their destiny, are hopeful, take-charge, and see opportunity in any danger or challenge. So make sure you are not framing the scenario in ways that create a learned helplessness.

2) Get Clear on Your Goals
We’re not sure if you want greater visibility, another promotion, recognition for your ideas, just to make a positive impact on the company, clarity about your reputation (and with which players), or what?

If we’re not clear, possibly you are not sharply focused on your desired outcomes for this situation either? Your questions about ‘what is going’ on are analogous to wanting to know where your starting point is on a map, but do you also need to better determine your destination?

3) On the Other Hand, Assess the Risk-Reward Ratio
Don’t blindly barrel forward, by consciously listing the possible downsides of taking more assertive (not aggressive) action towards having your ideas heard. Weigh out the potential rewards. Ask yourself if it’s worth it, and especially reality check yourself on your fears, ballooning them out. Ask yourself what’s the worse that could happen, and follow that chain by asking what’s the worse thing about that, and then go back and double-check (OK, what are the odds there really?)

4) Double-Check Your Stock with the VP and Use “Straight Talk”
You say that the VP values you on the team, the task force sponsor indeed wants progress, you were selected over your boss, and the VP wants regular updates.

You seem on pretty solid ground to get an agreement with the VP that you’d like to share the team’s progress by including a summary of ideas considered, not just those acted upon, so that he will feel fully informed and have an opportunity to express a voice in whether the group is meeting his vision regarding how action-oriented, risk averse versus risk-tolerant, and critically thinking it should be. After all, many leaders have different philosophies on such issues. Meanwhile, you will have earned his endorsement for sharing more of the inner workings of the team’s decision-making and problem-solving process (paving the way not for your being a snitch or rat, but for nudging the team towards greater accountability and results without being the bad guy). This frank conversation should occur in the context of his checking for status, not as a separate special meeting, and can be positioned as your wanting clarity on how to best meet his status update needs. Now you’re ready for the next step…

5) Test the Waters on the Task Force First
Again, alter your Self-Talk from “arguing” your points to tactfully nudging the group a bit more forcefully without becoming harsh in your words. You sound like you’re possibly on the weak end of a continuum, so aim for firm language about the need to document progress and action steps given the charter of the task force, and consider letting the team know that you’re being held accountable to the VP for a status report on implementation, and that he wants to know what’s going on. Hopefully, the message will be that you want to share the kinds of ideas being considered and why the team does or does not move forward.

State your goal as helping the team’s image and reputation and to make a positive impact on the company — and this includes data flow to your boss’ boss who regularly wants to take the pulse. You want to be honest about actions and represent the team well, so it seems prudent to amp up the group’s action orientation. They can’t have less respect for you according to your assessment, and this might force them to respect you more. Of course, if you’re already a threat due to the work your orientation represents, then putting it out there how you need to provide status reports will further ruffle feathers, so be careful how you position this.

Remember, you can’t lose what you don’t have, so why not go for it? Just be clear on your goals, double-check your fears, weigh the risk and reward, protect yourself by talking to the VP for his request for more detailed data, and then graciously position the need for more data flow through you to the VP, hoping this will grease the wheels for the fat and happy managers to start percolating more ideas and less inertia. Meanwhile, feel good about your contribution and value which seems to be appreciated by some important others in the organization! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com.

Stay Savvy,

Rick and Marty

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.

  1. One Answer to “Marginalized like a fly on squat”

  2. Feedback from Letter writer:

    Rick and Marty, thank you for taking the time to respond candidly about my experience. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s of utmost importance not to assume a victim mentality. Navigating the sea of working with those who are “just riding it out”, can indeed be frustrating. I am excited about my new opportunities and want to do my best in my current position with the hopes of continued growth. My position is not to make anyone uncomfortable in my decision to grow. I am not finished yet. The culture that I am a part of tends toward the negative especially with the backbiting and in some cases sabotage that I have seen take place that has occured when one speaks up and demands to have a voice. Those in higher positions tend to then band together and have long memories. I am looking toward growth and continued promotion and have a vision for the niche I can serve. I do want a voice and to be contribute all I can. Tip toeing around ego’s can be frustrating especially when it appears it has more to do with low self esteem rather than good business sense. You have made clear to me that I allowing myself to absorb some of this negativity. I must find a way to manage this where my frustrations are not as high as the day I wrote this letter. I will reread your advice often to ensure I stay on course and recognize what the real goal is, to provide a cost benefit both to myself and my company. Thanks Office-Politics!

    By Not a fly on squat on Apr 23, 2008

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