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Office politics going on between the CEO and CFO

Dear Office Politics,

I have been noticing some office politics going on between the CEO and CFO of the organization I work for. I have been working as the Human Resources Manager for the past 5 years and I feel caught in the middle of their office politics. We are an organization that advocates and assists persons with disabilities so a majority of our own staff are persons with disabilities.

Our CEO is very people-oriented and our CFO is very task-oriented. There have been times that I have sensed our CEO may feel threatened by our CFO because of the knowledge she possesses and the work ethic she has in getting things done efficiently. Our CFO has been trying to hire competent staff for the different departments she oversees; however, our CEO will not allow her to hire the staff she wants. Our CEO insists she hire the staff she wants in the departments using the staffs’ disabilities as the reason whether or not they are qualified for the needed positions.

This creates a lot of chaos within the organization and low morale with staff who are efficient with their work. I’m sensing the CEO is doing this intentionally to undermine the CFO and the departments she is responsible for. The more attention that is put on the chaos of the unqualified staff the less attention is put on the CEO’s lack of knowledge and efficiency. How can we in Human Resources help our organization run smoothly and work through these office politics situations?


HR Tension Tackler


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear HR Tension Tackler,

Without knowing the exact dynamics, we naturally cannot offer certainty–– just some questions to guide your thinking and decision-making regarding action. If you were not in Human Resources, we might be tempted to caution you about getting in the middle or even being overly concerned about mediating this battle of titans, since it’s often the “facilitator” who winds up the heavy since both power holders may end up resenting you for not choosing their side. Make sure that this is not just the natural, organic ebb and flow of power dynamics that needs to run its course to be resolved, so that you don’t become overly-invested in resolution. Double check whether you will be making yourself a target by one of these two stakeholders.

Yet, we also admire your self-less, organization-focused desire to foster resolution since it’s best for company morale and productivity. If you move forward, make sure you ponder:

How to become involved without blaming either party in the conflict since they my be in conscious or unconscious denial about the tension and you could become the Greek messenger bearing bad news. Don’t cite either one’s behavior as wrong, especially since you’re safer positioning the issue as mere style differences, with both leaders’ priorities having merit. You might even check out People Styles at Work, but Robert H. Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton and influence the CEO and CFO to learn about communication styles (the CEO sounds like an Amiable or Expressive and the CFO a Driver or Analytic style, each with predictable preferences, neither being wrong). Sounds like you have more of an issue of communication style tensions than political styles so it may be a simple acceptance of each other’s strengths that would be healing of the rift. Perhaps you can play a mediator role. or a training role since sometimes a “developmental” good-for-all rationale for positioning a good social styles training program makes all parties less defensive as opposed to teeing up the education on style differences as needed to “fix” the particular conflict. All companies have style clashes so all can benefit is the preferred thrust.

A CEO generally is and should be the one that influences the true corporate score card in terms of what traits and values are core to the mission. Clearly, the CEO might be well-intentioned in her focus on disabilities as being congruent with the vision, core values, and heart of the organization’s identity so be sure you do not prematurely attribute accuracy to your interpretation that her biases are a shield. What other patterns, clues and signals are there throughout the company (e.g. historical stories and lore, rituals, hiring practices, biases, etc.). Our point is that the CFO might be “right” in her philosophy within a blank slate vacuum, but her actions take place within the context of an existing corporate culture that she might simply swimming upstream against, going against the grain too abruptly. You have not revealed how long each leader has been around so it’s impossible to determine, but consider that sometimes pioneers in a company are the ones with arrows sticking out. Is the CFO just pushing the river and it’s not knowledge or competence that threatens the CEO, but behavior and hiring directions that upset the status quo value system? We’re not saying to celebrate a culture of non-performance or dysfunction, just that there may be meritorious philosophies and priorities that the CEO is worried about sustaining.

We don’t know the parties, but you have described the CEO as a people person, which could be in a positive sense, so we don’t want to assume she is a power tripping political animal threatened by the CFO. If you’re right that there IS a hidden, private, self-interest-oriented agenda, it still does not mean you can deal with that directly anyway, so working more innocently on behaviors each party is exhibiting that concern you given impact on morale and results would be the discussion content, NOT naming agendas involving ego. After all, taking such a risk would jeopardize YOUR role since you’d be “wounding the queen” by naming or accusing her of what you reference. If the CEO is top-dog you’d become immediately vulnerable since you’ve only wounded her, not killed her! Practice verbal discipline and look for other patterns that support your opinion. Ask trusted others who have been around longer whether they agree. Don’t jump the gun. Even if you are right, being right often gets the booby prize so again, just work the business issues at hand in a non-emotional, non-inflammatory fashion. Of course, factor into your equation who has more power to hurt you. We assume it’s the CEO so be careful. Take the focus off of proving anything or validating your view or other’s about lack of knowledge in the CEO since you can’t really do anything about that, can you? A tough case and gains you nothing. Let it go.

Unless we’re missing something, it sounds like you’re framing this conflict as an either-or choice on recruiting philosophy–– either a qualified competent person or a qualified disabled person. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, so why don’t you offer to get your department involved in finding a person with both qualities?

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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