In the past, I’ve worked in several large organizations. Some have been highly matrixed, meaning it’s hard to tell the difference between a request from your manager vs. a request from a VP in a different org. Either way, cooperation and “leadership without authority” become the laws of the land. These people don’t report to you or even the same VP (line of business).
In one company, Dell, I tried to skip a level of authority and have a conversation with a VP. It didn’t go well. (The Cow Path @ Dell) So, over time, I’ve learned to hold my tongue in most circumstances. I’m often too quick to respond to adverse emails. I’m too snappy in meetings when an incendiary comment is leveled at me. For the most part, I’m learning to put myself on mute and write an email if there are further realignments that need to happen.
When a member of your team starts to flick sh*t, it can be a sign of camaraderie and trust. It can also be drama. What I think is important to remember, is your standing in the organization. In my first year at Dell I was a contractor. I worked for a company that provided health insurance and minimal guidance. My manager didn’t have an open req to hire me, so she rented me. What I learned from my manager in a highly-matrixed company, was to ask the simple question, “Who asked you to do this?”
When she asked me this each week in our one-on-ones I learned an invaluable lesson. If someone asks you to do something make sure their request falls within your job responsibilities. When my manager would ask this question and my reply was vague, her leadership was clear. “If I didn’t ask you to do it, it’s not your job.”
Now, these days, we’re all about cooperation, team-building, global teams working remotely with the primary conduit of culture and trust being Zoom meetings. So, we’ve got to be even more careful in the meetings, as well as follow-up conversations (Slack, Jira, Confluence, text), with responding in a positive and friendly manner. The banter and level of cultural connection can be built with some effort. It can also be destroyed with a few sideways comments. The fear and anxiety set in. The team becomes less culturally connected and back to the tickets and job descriptions. What is damaged when a colleague takes something defensively affects the entire team. The fallout is often a lowered sense of trust between all members of the team. When one person is singled out unfairly, or without discretion, everyone gets the message, “I am expendable. This team is no longer a safe place.”
One other point I learned at Dell. Once you have crossed someone in a large organization there may be no repair. The fabric of trust can be shattered with a simple misunderstanding. But, handled incorrectly, this fracture can infect the entire team. It takes a strong leader to fall on their own sword of “mia culpa.” It takes an even stronger one to help the offending team member navigate the situation as gracefully as possible.
If the person that you cross is above you in rank or organization, the consequences can be disastrous.
Lesson: You cannot win a fight with your boss.
Corollary: You cannot win a fight with one of your colleagues.
Wisdom: Don’t attack your champions, you may lose their support.
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