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Political and power stock has mysteriously tanked

Text-illustration by Franke James, MFA. Paper bag heads ©istockphoto.com/Lise Gagne

Dear Office-Politics,

I recently left a law firm after 14 years, to go to another larger firm, working both for the top team and a new division.

It has recently been brought to my attention that I have a “reputation” and I am no longer in consideration for that top team because my “reputation proceeds me.” I have done everything asked of me at the new job and have received nothing but good feedback. Now this.

I know that they conducted a review on me – speaking to my new boss and everything. He isn’t sure of what was going on either. I have no idea what that means, I’ve never had a reputation. However, I do know that my former boss had a history of bad mouthing anyone who left him. I have emails and cards from clients, thanking me for doing such good things for them. I have copies of my reviews from over the years. I believed I left on good terms.

Not sure how to handle this situation. Should I ask further questions, how do I defend myself?



dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Devalued,

Your situation is not uncommon, where suddenly and mysteriously your political and power stock “tanks”. Our job is to help you figure out why it happened and what to do next.

That said, there is no way that we can read the minds of people we don’t know. Sometimes when people like you write to us (no offense) there actually might be valid performance concerns. Even so, it sounds like no one is clearly conveying what the objective problems are so you can fix them, so you still have a right to feel mistreated.

Here are some questions to consider. They may help you to understand this sudden negativity:

Often when people are doing the task part of their jobs, producing results, and generating solid substantive ideas, they still bump up against hidden dynamics in the company that create a career plateau or even a derailment factor. Few companies are pure meritocracies where keeping your head down and doing your job is enough. Usually, the written scorecard and measures for success are only part of the equation for surviving and thriving, since there may be a separate, more subjective “score card” with different criteria for what traits and qualities are positive, and which are negative and taboo. Here are places to discover clues for this “real list”:

Written Rules:
There are published and spoken core values, leadership competencies, performance measures, company tag lines and missions that often give clues about what characteristics are valued or shunned –– clues that are NOT spoken elsewhere. For instance, years ago Fed Ex’s tag line on commercials was “On Time, Every Time.” Well, clearly, punctuality at meetings would matter there more than other companies! Is some trait you have going “against the grain” of the company culture in some way?

Unwritten Rules:
Watch what behaviors are rewarded or punished, traits of those who are fired or promoted. Is there a pattern and have you broken the pattern?

The traffic manual’s written rules for driving in a crowded city are to merge onto a thoroughfare by slowing down and making eye-contact to await drivers’ signal to merge. Anyone living there will tell you… NOT! Pedal to the metal! And above all, never establish eye contact with oncoming drivers, or that person’s glare will be non-verbally telling you, “Forget it!” Of course you could get nailed for merging unsafely, but many people nevertheless, floor it.

Now, we’re not saying break the law or ignore written and stated company or societal rules, merely that there are additional unwritten, informal rules for how to get along. Maybe you don’t know them, but someone does, so network to find out if you’ve violated any. Have you built a network of friends and informal mentors who “know the ropes?” Is one of those ropes a noose around your neck? Let’s hope it’s not too late to loosen it.

Seniors’ Agendas and Biases
Whatever the written or unwritten rules from the top, check ten feet down the hallway! Your boss may have certain biases and preferences that the backstabber has sensed more readily than you have. The backstabber probably has ways of giving false flattery, maybe even appealing to the boss’ ego and image to fix blame on you as making him look bad. Start to study human nature and watch for what taboos and turn-ons he or she has so you can make informed decisions –– not to kiss up or cop out on your ethics, but to not get kissed off!

You may have been doing a terrific job of fulfilling your tasks, as well as following the formal and informal rules of success. But you may still have bumped into an unforeseen obstacle by unwittingly (fairly or not) getting on the backstabber’s and/or boss’ “list.” Some people, more politically motivated than you by ambition, power, image, self-promotion, etc., can start seeing good, competent, and recognized colleagues through a “tinted lens” as threats to their own status and ‘promotability’. You know the rest of the story.

Additionally, perhaps one or both of them have some self-interest-oriented hidden agenda that you somehow are countering by the work you do or by people looking favorably upon your results. Might they have some pet project? Someone’s favor, a vendor or consultant they want brought in? Some initiative they are pushing? Or an ego-invested agenda that they perceive you as criticizing or opposing — even though you were well-intentioned for the good of the company and its clients and customers?

Ironically, it might even be that your requesting a promotion was what kicked off the dual sabotage (if you are in fact the most competent producer). Are the supervisor/manager enjoy “coasting” on your results rather than working hard themselves? Is it possible that they are blocking your avenue out so that they can have it easier? Being right or fair is not the issue when ego, turf, and hidden agendas are concerned.

Also, you may well have “Wounded the King” by openly “confronting” the boss as you admitted to doing. We’re not saying you were wrong from a justification or right-wrong perspective in doing so, simply from a tactical vantage point, because when you directly accuse the one with power of unfairly taking sides without a valid reason, it’s like showing your cards in a poker game instead of being as shrewd as they are.

So please do ponder this action a bit to decide if you “blew your cover” too soon before documenting enough, advocating confidentially first to human resources, and aligning with other more powerful people who might be in your corner. When you Wound the King, he is still alive and not happy with you.

This is more innocent, where you might actually fall short of expectations but managers are unskilled at managing.

Let’s face it, we sometimes have to be realistic that we might be part of the problem. Search hard to discover whether there are any real instances of falling short of targets, either qualitatively or quantitatively. After all, you did note the complaints by the backstabber are either lies or exaggerations. You have not told us those examples or how serious they are. So, show good faith about wanting to genuinely wanting to develop and grow to be a company asset.

Ask for a visit with Human Resources and talk frankly and non-defensively about the possibility that there are two truths going on –– one involving needed changes on your part, and one involving exaggerations. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Ask if the problem is a matter of requiring coaching, training, or mentoring and whether the company has a commitment to helping people succeed since that is your goal, to be a valuable contributor. Ask for your boss, the boss’ boss and HR to use the “camera test…” In other words, what would a video camera see and hear that is the problem, to nudge them to be specific with behaviors and examples. As Franke James has written on www.officepolitics.com, all the while you should be documenting your positive performance, with any testimonials or endorsements about such matters. Invite developmental coaching, implying you are open to growing without admitting you are so under-performing so as to warrant termination.

This, of course, is a possibility not fun to acknowledge, but not every person is right for every job. They might actually be down on you for appropriate reasons and your upset may lead you to project onto them that they are lousy performance communicators. We doubt this is the case, but it would not be the first time a writer was the one underperforming and having real fit factor problems. If so, don’t play guilt trip games or critical parent games with yourself. Check your pulse… is it ticking? Good! Call yourself human and move on! Winston Churchill once said that success is the process of moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm! That doesn’t mean to admit you’ve failed if you have not, but to allow yourself some shadows and gaps without trashing yourself. Every pro needs to grow in some area.

Bottom line, you ARE valuable and will be, either where you are with some unraveling or somewhere else. But go in with eyes wide open and learn what you can about the unwritten rules, people’s agendas. Love everyone. Trust no one! (Just kidding… sort of.)

But do be realistic and less naive about what may drive others’ behaviors. Trust people when they earn your trust. At this point, we’d suggest a private meeting with HR to go over these issues without the manager present. Lean into letting HR know you know they understand proper HR language means behavioral descriptions of what incompetence means. This will at least yield more data. And lack of data is more data! Let us know the next stage, please!

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Warm regards,

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.

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