Sunday 14 July 2013

Office politics :: Handling co-workers who make themselves look good at your expense

Office politics is a common phenomenon that occurs when a co-worker uses power and actions to pursue a personal agenda or undertake an action for selfish reasons that usually does not give regard to the rights of fellow employees and is undertaken to gain “pseudo-authority that influences the behaviour of others.”

To give context to this discussion I will sketch a scenario using imaginary names. Sunil (a co-worker) is known to get involved in matters outside his domain or jurisdiction usually with the disclaimer that he has been asked by Tony (a senior executive) to check on something and report back directly to Tony.

I was resolving an escalation when Sunil walked up to me and stated that he had been tasked by Tony to get an update on the status of the resolution. I advised Sunil that I would update Tony in due course. Sunil then stated that Tony had asked him to get an update as Tony trusted him (i.e. Sunil). For me this was the equivalent of saying that Tony did not trust me!

I was wondering about Sunil’s behaviour when some other members from my team and colleagues told me that this was a regular feature with Sunil and since I had not provided an update to Sunil it was likely that he would take the information out from someone else and still update Tony.

I realised that this seemed to be a regular feature with Sunil i.e. typically take information from others and then publish it in such a way that it implied that he had been instrumental in resolving the issue and thereby looking good in the eyes of Tony.
I sent an update via email to Tony on the escalation. I happened to meet Tony the next day and to my surprise he told me that he was unhappy about my management of the escalation and that he felt that the escalation only occurred because of my team’s incompetence. I was perturbed and asked if Sunil had given any feedback. To my surprise Tony said yes and then went into a monologue of how Sunil had helped fix a number of matters and that how others (including members of my team) were failing the organisation while Sunil was delivering by getting involved in critical issues and closing them. 

I then asked Tony why he was involving Sunil and complicating things rather than relying on the established chain of command. I also advised that it was a common feature with Sunil to walk around using Tony's name as a rationale for having people give him updates on issues and escalations, which he then repackaged and sent back to Tony giving the impression that he was the only one working in the organisation while the others were useless or incompetent. Rather than respond to my direct challenge Tony went into an obtuse discussion and started giving me corrective feedback on my own performance! That is when I realised that sycophants like Sunil are a danger as  they aim to make themselves look 'bigger' at the expense of others including myself! If this could be done to me (a manager) then imagine the damage that could be done to a co-worker a few rungs down the corporate ladder!
People like Sunil exist in every organisation and my own assessment is that they typically show the following characteristics that can help in identifying them:
  1. They are hoarders of critical information. They do not provide this information to people until the last possible moment and then too in such a manner that they appear to be saviours as that critical information can help in resolving a critical matter or issue
  2. They tend to pass judgement on others in public forums and question people’s loyalty to the organisation in such a manner that their own loyalty to the organisation becomes visible
  3. They tend to get involved in matters that are not in their domain but do so under the guise of a purported relationship or instruction from someone senior (In the case of Sunil it was invoking the name of Tony that did the trick)
  4. They tend to use language (both verbal and written) that tends to apportion blame rather than show understanding of why an issue occurred. For them all issues are an example of bad co-workers rather than process failure
  5. They tend to over-magnify any failure on the part of co-workers and always use comparative language to ensure that people realise that co-workers are always failing while they are not
  6. When a failure does occur on their part they are quick to divert the failure and attribute the same to others as that would also be an extension of their strategy to maintain their aura of ‘organisational alignment’ and ‘organisational commitment’ whereas others are not as committed as they are
  7. They tend to confuse allegiance to a senior executive (Tony) i.e. personal servitude as evidence of their ‘organisational alignment’ and ‘commitment’. For them serving Tony is tantamount to serving the organisation, which is clearly a self-serving agenda and evidence of sycophancy
  8. Such individuals tend to keep talking about their relationship with senior executives and maintain the illusion that they are part of an inner circle. Using Tony's name Sunil was always seeking information from colleagues and ensuring that they felt threatened by his direct connect with Tony
  9. They also are fairly brazen and open about their continued mistreatment of other employees as they deem their ability to have direct access to a senior executive as a license to belittle. These people are not threatened by HR or any corporate policy as they know that these things don’t matter if Tony's name is invoked as surely if Tony wants it then do rules really matter!

So now what? We know what these people look like. We know their behaviour so what can one do? Here is my simplistic guidance.

1 – Do not confront Sunil directly
One thing I l have learnt in the corporate world is that co-workers like Sunil have tremendous stamina. Trying to make sense with such individuals is usually a process that will leave you feeling worse off. Do not assume that you will be able to make sense with Sunil as you would with the average rational person. My personal take is that head-on confrontations are for people with strength and ability to stomach office politics (and a good old fight!). I have found that people like Sunil have usually been around for some time in an organisation and developed thick skins and typically are seen as committed individuals in their own ‘real’ roles.

2 – If you do confront Sunil directly then do so publicly and not in a 1:1 setting
Do not engage with Sunil via 1:1 emails or conversations and try to reason with them. The pathological nature of such individuals is such that they thrive on such interactions and contra to what you believe their style of engagement is designed for confrontation and what better way to maintain a bullying presence if it is 1:1? Do your debate and discussion with others present or via a well-structured email that lays out your point of view copying your manager and other relevant parties also. Always work on the basis that one day there will be an HR issue and you will have to produce something to prove a track record of ‘abuse’ and that you had painstakingly outlined your point of view to many but the behaviour continued. Always document such things. Verbal debates that you believe you may have won cannot be published to anyone!

3 – Focus on how Sunil behaves and not why he behaves the way he does

Understand that actions taken by people like Sunil will always be justified by him and Tony that since it mattered to Tony (or any other executive for that matter) therefore it is critical to the organisation (“if it is important to Tony then it is important for the organisation”). Most HR departments have not figured this out yet and hence end up letting Sunil carry on with his intervention. Focus your debate on the means or manner in which Sunil goes about achieving his agenda! Usually it is their style that is the issue hence focus on the manner in which they treated you and the role conflict created. That is the only thing that will work with HR.

4 – Work aggressively on ensuring that people know who is actually solving the problem. Is it you or Sunil?

When Sunil invoked Tony’s name I did provide input on the matter via an email addressed to Tony (but did keep Sunil on copy, which perhaps was a mistake!). I was surprised to learn from many others that they came under pressure from Sunil and that Sunil would then take verbal input or written input from them; repackage the same and send it on Tony. Interestingly Sunil was doing that without even copying the other relevant people i.e. 1:1 emails to Tony! In summary, ensure that you give the update and not allow Sunil to give it.

5 – Neutralise Sunil’s reach and connect with Tony

One thing I have learnt in the corporate world is that even Sunil will have a detractor or enemy that is part of Tony’s inner circle. Work subtly to bring some balance into how Tony is made aware of Sunil’s style of functioning through this resource. Innocently outline such situations and seek advice and guidance.
If you do not have access to Tony then use your manager or someone who does and make sure that they forward your email or input to Tony so that Tony can start seeing that his constant approach to Sunil has led to work-place conflict and role conflict (because Sunil is tasked with handling an issue that is not in his role and job description).

6 – Never stray from the truth or facts when dealing with Sunil
Sunil may choose to stray from the truth or the facts but you should not. Maintain your integrity at all times. If you did make a mistake then admit it. This is critical to understand as your goal is to expose the style of functioning and 'maddening' work environment being created. Do not give Sunil the opportunity to turn the tables on you and further distort reality with Tony and others. Preserve your integrity and show accountability the rest will follow.

In the end, you need to have strong character and emotional intelligence to survive such co-workers. Towards that I wish you good luck from the bottom of my heart.

1 comment:

  1. What a great article!! Fascinating!!
    Thank you for your efforts and writing up above scenario.