It’s infuriating when a colleague goes over your head to your boss. Not only have they left you out of the conversation but they’ve potentially made you look bad. What can you say and do when someone tries to sidestep you? How should you address it with your colleague? And how do you make sure it doesn’t hurt your reputation with your boss?
What the Experts Say
There are both practical and psychological reasons why a colleague might try to go above you, says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and coauthor of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both. Practically speaking, they may want a different answer or outcome than you’ve given. Psychologically, it’s possible that they’re keen to show they have more clout or authority than you do. It could also be that they’re conflict averse and afraid to address the issue with you directly. You might be tempted to stomp over to the person’s desk and read them the riot act. “You have to be a saint to not be annoyed or stressed or nervous about something like this happening,” says Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. But, as with any conflict, even when you feel you’ve been slighted, it’s better to take a more measured approach. Here’s how.
Question your assumptions
Webb suggests you start by considering what you actually know. You may think your coworker went over your head to spite you, but perhaps you’re misreading the situation. Look at only the facts and avoid snap judgments. For example, rather than thinking, “He completely disregarded my authority,” tell yourself, “He had a conversation with my boss about the initiative he’s working on.” Then ask yourself: Are there different ways to explain what happened? “Work out three or four different scenarios that broaden your aperture and help you question the assumption that this person has been dastardly or ill-intended,” suggests Webb. It might just be a simple misunderstanding, notes Galinsky, who admits that he once went around a department chair to speak to his then-dean, not realizing it would be frowned upon. “It never occurred to me that the dean would then go to the chair,” he confesses.
Find out more
If you don’t know all the facts of the situation – perhaps you just heard about the conversation through the office rumor mill – try to find out what really happened, says Webb. You might go to your boss and ask in a neutral way about what transpired: “Hey, I heard you and Carlos were talking about his new idea.” Take care to maintain a casual, non-accusatory tone so that your boss doesn’t think you’re trying to start a feud.
Approach your colleague
Ask your coworker if the two of you can talk — preferably in a private room. Keep an open mind as you enter the conversation, says Webb. “Don’t go into the conversation with the intention of sticking it to your coworker. Instead think about the importance of your working relationship.” Focus on your ultimate goal, whether it’s to restore trust or to protect your authority. And be ready to hear what he has to say about the situation and why he did what he did.
State your position
Begin by saying what you know in a “straightforward” way, says Galinsky. Explain why you’re disappointed, but stay away from words like “angry” or “betrayed,” Webb adds. That may be how you feel, but it’s going to put your coworker on the defensive. You might say something like: “I heard you talked to Roger about your initiative after we discussed it and that made me feel a bit concerned that we’re not communicating well.” Then ask for — and listen to — his perspective.
Once you’ve shared your views with one another, decide together how to remedy the situation. “Try asking them for their thoughts first, then build on their suggestions. Research shows that people feel far more attachment to any idea that they’ve had a hand in shaping,” explains Webb. So instead of giving directives — “Here’s how we should handle this situation” — ask questions: “What do you think would be the best way to address this, given where we are now?” For example, you might go to your boss together and explain that you are now on the same page or you might be willing to reconsider one aspect of the person’s idea that they felt you unfairly dismissed. Webb says you should also consider what you might need to change. Did the person go around you because he felt like you weren’t giving his ideas fair consideration or you weren’t transparent in your decision-making? If so, you may need to rectify that.
Clarify the lines of communication
You should also discuss how you’ll handle similar situations in the future. Ideally, you and your colleague will agree that she should come directly to you next time. But if she’s not immediately on board with that plan, try to show her that going over your head is not only hurtful; it’s also ineffective, says Galinsky. Explain that you and your boss are in regular contact, so you’re going to find out if someone goes over your head. You might say, “I meet with Roger regularly to discuss our group’s priorities and he usually lets me know if he gets requests from other teams.” This shouldn’t be done in a threatening way; you’re simply educating her on appropriate lines of communication.
Repair your relationship with your boss
This breach in the chain of command may have annoyed your boss or caused her to question your ability to do your job. And, if she failed to redirect the colleague to you, you might be ticked off at her. So, once you’ve settled things with your colleague, make sure to also sit down with your manager to talk about what happened, why it happened, and how to avoid similar situations in the future. Again, lay out what you know and how it made you feel, then listen to her perspective: “I heard that Carlos talked to you about his initiative and that made me concerned that I might be out of the loop. Can I ask what happened or how you saw it?” Once you’ve heard her side of things, you might ask, “What can we do differently when this happens in the future? If Carlos comes to you again, would you mind sending him to me so we can address the issue without having to take up your time?” Your goal is to restore your reputation and to reestablish ground rules for communication, Webb says. You “want to come off as wise, thoughtful, and in control.”
Principles to Remember
- Keep an open mind and be willing to hear your coworker’s side of the story.
- Avoid words like “angry” or “betrayed.” Even if authentic, they will put your coworker on the defensive.
- Talk to your boss to be sure your reputation isn’t damaged.
- Make assumptions about why your colleague went over your head.
- Rely on rumors and hearsay. Instead, find out the true facts of the situation.
- Leave next time up to chance — ask your boss to redirect your coworker to you.
Case Study #1: Don’t make snap judgments
As a project manager for a cosmetics packaging company, Karen Schneider was responsible for helping new employees get up to speed on current processes and best practices. She was training a new project manager, Donna (not her real name), who had more experience than she did and “wasn’t necessarily pleased to be taking direction,” Karen recalls. “She had a general air about her that told me that she didn’t think I could really teach her anything.” Donna wasn’t happy with the process and timeline that the company typically used with customers; she wanted to bypass particular steps, such as sending initial samples or getting a pre-production letter signed, in order to speed up the sale. When Karen told her she couldn’t do that because it could cause trouble down the line, Donna went to Karen’s manager to get approval instead.
Luckily, he reiterated the company’s standard process and the reasons behind it, then asked Karen why Donna had come to him.
Karen knew she had to address the situation with Donna directly, but she wanted to be careful. “I knew that if I approached her in a certain way, she could easily become defensive and maybe even combative.” She asked Donna to sit down with her to review the account once more. “I stressed how important it was to follow the guidelines — and included the reasoning behind each process,” she recalls. She casually noted that the boss had mentioned Donna’s conversation with him but didn’t “make it personal.” Instead, she thanked her colleague for “trying to think outside of the box to see how we could potentially get samples to the customer even faster.” She then ended the conversation on a positive note — offering to help Donna in any way she could. The strategy worked: From then on, the two had a great working relationship.
Case Study #2: Maintain a strong relationship
Dima Ghawi was transferred from another department at her Fortune 20 company to fill her first management role. Unbeknownst to her, one of her new employees, Carol (not her real name) was upset that she hadn’t been promoted into the job. Team members were located in different locations around the world, but that didn’t stop Carol from bending Dima’s boss’s ear.
“She was giving him false information about my communication and management style,” Dima explains. “She wanted him to question my ability.” Unfortunately, because the boss and Carol had worked together for years, he initially trusted her and chastised Dima for “playing favorites” and creating a “harsh work environment.” When Dima reacted with shock, the boss mentioned that he had been receiving “side information” from Carol.
Dima refuted the claims, and, though she knew she would need to speak to Carol eventually (ideally in person, on her next trip to her site), she focused first on developing a stronger relationship with her boss. She scheduled weekly updates to talk about team dynamics and address any further complaints. And she made sure that Carol was aware of these regular meetings. Eventually, she and the boss worked to find Carol another, more suitable role in the organization. She moved to another department and stayed for more than 10 years.
Dima says she survived the situation by staying focused on the facts. “I knew deep in my heart that I was doing the right thing for my team and clients and a personality like Carol would not break me.”
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2016/12/what-to-do-when-a-coworker-goes-over-your-head?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=16774942&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=981104807&spReportId=OTgxMTA0ODA3S0