I am about four months into a new job as a senior executive in a large global infrastructure company. I report directly to the EVP of Operations, who is the person who brought me into the company. I manage a huge team of fellow engineers, and so far, so good. (I’m an engineer also.)
The problem is that my boss and I are being bullied by my boss’s peers on the executive team. It’s true that my boss was brought in by the CEO to implement change, but the response from the rest of the executive team has been unreasonably negative. We are interrupted and challenged on every assertion we make—all of which is supported by data.
This situation has grown worse over time. After a recent meeting, one of the other EVPs actually cornered me and said my boss and I don’t belong in the organization; the CEO doesn’t know what he is doing; and the rest of the executive team is going to set him straight.
I feel threatened and confused. My boss and I are used to producing results that contribute directly to the bottom line and shareholder value, and I can’t understand what is going on here. What would you recommend?
Lost and Confused
Dear Lost and Confused,
I’m sorry. Your situation sounds rough. You’ve had the great good fortune of spending most of your career working with reasonable people—which, in my experience, makes you an anomaly.
In my world view, human beings behaving reasonably is a rare and precious thing. But listen—can you blame anyone for exercising their God-given right to withhold cooperation in the face of what feels like a mortal threat? Think about it. Anyone who has made it to the senior executive ranks of a billion-dollar global company has a number of things to lose when change comes: power, money, status, influence—and that’s just for starters.
This is a straight-up political situation. You can examine it using John Eldred’s Model for Organizational Politics. Eldred, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, says that any political situation will have two dynamics: power balance and goal confluence.
Power balance describes the degree to which each person possesses position or personal power. When the power balance is high, power is shared or is relatively equal. When the power balance is low, one person has significantly more power than the other. Goal confluence measures the degree to which each person’s individual goals are in alignment with those of the other person.
These two dynamics form a quadrant of contingencies.
- When power balance and goal confluence are both high, a dynamic of collaboration is created. Relationships are naturally easy to develop and maintain.
- When power balance is high but goal confluence is low, there is equal footing but each foot is going in a different direction. Negotiation is possible.
- When power balance is low but goal confluence is high, power is irrelevant because both parties are going in the same direction. Each person can influence the other.
It looks like this:
The most dangerous quadrant is when power balance and goal confluence are both low.
The party without the power feels dominated and oppressed by the other.
Because oppression and domination are extremely uncomfortable conditions, the individual who is dominated will respond in one of four ways: they will submit, submerge, engage in open conflict, or sabotage.
I suggest you meet with your boss and use this model to analyze your situation. The EVP who attacked you has some power, for sure, but your boss has the backing of the CEO.
Questions to ask:
- Does the CEO have the backing of the rest of the executive team?
- Does he have position and personal power? If so, is it enough to protect your boss and you?
- What are the goals of the bully in question? Is it at all possible that you can achieve some goal confluence?
It is awfully tricky to adapt to political situations when you aren’t used to them. No one wants to think of themselves as a political person, but when the sharks are circling you have to rise to the occasion or end up on the losing end of a battle you never really understood.
The good news is that you have the analytical skills to think this through and to plan smart and measured action to protect yourself and eventually achieve your mandate.
Welcome to the boardroom! It is not a place for the faint of heart.
About the author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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