“Why doesn’t he tell her she has to do better? She doesn’t have to listen to me. Why doesn’t he tell her?”
A distressed VP was venting to me. His team was trying to collaborate with another VP’s team, and it wasn’t going well. He had tried working things out with his peer, but when she didn’t seem interested in his point of view, he complained to his boss, the EVP. His boss agreed with him but didn’t seem willing to use his power of authority to persuade the other VP.
We’ve all known executives who were so conflict averse that they wouldn’t give their direct reports necessary feedback or insight about problems they were having. This happens for all kinds of reasons: for instance, the boss thinks they won’t be taken seriously; they’re afraid the team member will feel resentful and actually do worse; or they just don’t know how to hold the conversation because no one ever explained it to them earlier in their career.
Team Relationships Are Complicated
But this was a different issue. I knew all these players. This EVP really thought of his team as his work family — he cared deeply about everyone on his team, and he wanted them to care about him in return. [Note: This situation can occur at any level of management.]
Occasionally, the EVP was willing to demonstrate tough love if a team member needed it — and if he was certain they would still love him back. But his desire to be loved sometimes meant that he didn’t take on certain crucial issues that would disrupt someone so much that they might withdraw from him. The idea that anyone would feel less loved — and therefore return less love — basically stopped the EVP in his tracks, which meant he wasn’t able to help the group move forward.
Get Your Boss to Back You Up
It can be frustrating if your boss knows he can count on you to stay loyal and keep delivering, yet because he’s leery of leaning on your colleague, he doesn’t provide the support you need. But you’re not completely stuck. There are still some things you can do to try to realign the parties and the situation.
Refocus on goals. Review with your boss both the purpose and expected results of the initiative or project. Verify that they are important, valuable, and whether or not they take priority over your colleague’s desire not to accommodate you. If your boss seems committed to the goals, ask if they are willing to intervene on behalf of the goals, if not on your behalf.
Explain to your boss how you feel let down and unsupported. Although I usually recommend against using I statements at work, this is a time when they can actually be helpful. If your boss is more focused on relationships than forward progress, use their need for relationship strength as a reason that they should be helping you more. Say something like, “I know you care about my ability to succeed here. But when you make it clear that you’re not willing to go to bat for me, it feels like you’ve removed your support, and I don’t know why I should keep trying so hard for something you don’t care about and aren’t willing to get involved in.”
Look for ways to engage other aspects of organizational influence. It’s possible that a nudge from someone else will help break the logjam. Maybe your HR business partner already knows your boss’s tendencies and can coach your boss on the relationship side. Or maybe there are other senior management leaders who could provide some pressure on the work production side.
Whatever you do, just stop waiting for your boss to make things better for you. Think about how you can work with your colleagues directly, or how you could make a compelling case to their boss for support.
Even when your boss doesn’t want to rock the boat — and even when you don’t want to rock your boss too much — you’ve got options before you hit a dead end. Try some of these suggestions and see if they work for you.
Onward and upward —