Safety Culture

Swim with the sharks

Don’t stay high & dry & without influence

October 1, 2011
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Before you can get things done, you have to know your organization. Know your boss, your boss’ boss, their peers and your peers. This takes studying, asking questions and most importantly documenting the answers. Understand political interrelationships and underpinnings. Your success can escalate and you can navigate organizational changes more easily.

Here are 12 strategies regarding organizational politics and the safety professional:

1. How to get the green light

Feel your boss out. Is he/she a micro- or macro-manager? Next, understand where he/she is management-wise. Begin with a small project. 

Approach your boss at an opportune time.
If he/she is a morning person catch them early.
If he/she isn’t in the office until later in the day, do it then. Avoid crisis moments at all costs. Be patient. It often means the difference between “yes” and “no.” 

When you do meet, show how your proposal fits in with his/her objectives. Don’t paint blue skies or exaggerate. Better to under promise and over deliver. Do your research and be ready with the facts from the Internet, studies, journals, colleagues, similar companies. Be ready to answer the hard questions: “What’s the bottom line of this project?”  “When will you have it ready?” “Who will work on it?” “How many people will it take?” “How does this fit within our overall plan?  Be prepared and you have the best opportunity to get the green light.

2. How to work with a boss who keeps you under his/her thumb

These bosses are domineering, autocratic and authoritarian. If possible, try to change your boss. Often you can’t do this, so be patient for the
next re-org. In the meantime, do what the U.S. Marines do, adapt and persevere so you can relate to your boss. 

Take a moment and analyze why your boss is like he/she is. They may have the belief he/she had a tough time climbing up the ladder. He/she had to prove himself/herself and by golly you will too. He/she may be under pressure from above that
you are not privy to. He/she may be faking it. He/she may have “Peter Principled” and is just waiting for the wrong person to figure it out and dump him/her.

If you get abused verbally, roll with the punches. Don’t take it personally; take it professionally. Follow a diplomatic course. Rather than wimping and groveling or picking fights, take a more judicious middle course. Pick your battles carefully. Don’t waste time on skirmishes and stay your distance. This is the moving foxhole strategy. A moving target is more difficult to get caught in the crossfire. 

View this kind of boss as a learning experience. I’ve learned many of the things I would never do as a boss from this type of boss.  They are critics and they can be your best teacher. In the end, your goal is to simply outlive them.

3. Avoid the proverbial end run 

Going over your boss’ head is like defusing a bomb. It must be done very, VERY carefully. In some companies the culture dictates it is OK; in others it is strictly verboten. Be careful not to commit political suicide. This is why you need to know your corporate culture. 

Work every angle as hard as you can before you attempt to go over your boss’ head. The bottom line is that it is a last resort. 

To avoid an end run, try to ease your boss into acceptance. Your boss is busy, help him/her out. Go to your next level up for help. Keep your boss informed. Draw the next level of management into the decision process. Use the resources as an information-gathering technique. Relieve the impression that you are going around him/her. Work through other people both peers and superiors. If you want results, get someone else to run with your idea. Plant the seed in another department head’s mind.

4. What to do when subordinates go to your boss instead of you 

Sometimes this happens accidentally, sometimes not. When you find out first go back to your office and count to ten. Think through one important question: What kind of relationship do you have with your boss? 

Relationships change over time. Is this the handwriting on the wall? Are you being left out of memos and important meetings? Are others going around him/her or not communicating with him/her?  

Talk with your boss and ask for clarification. We live in a sound byte mis-communication, crisis. If you don’t feel that you can talk to your boss, sit down with the employee and ask why. If your boss encourages this, ask them to keep you informed of these meetings.

5. Dealing with an employee who wants your job 

Don’t react in anger. See this as a positive development. Don’t fight the person’s ambition. One negative way to approach it: let them lead the charge of the light brigade. If you recall the movie, the character died. This is the failure option. 

A more healthy option is to deal with the person as a valuable resource. Point them to projects where they can succeed and have a positive impact on the organization. This affects your career, and demonstrates to peer management that you can deal with this kind of employee. 

If the person is underhanded, you have to deal with them differently. Document the person’s performance; not the personality. Document early and often. Don’t accuse the person; probe their motives, understand what is going on behind the scenes. It may be innocent, maybe not. 

Ask for an opinion at your next level of management, and what is available at other locations. Don’t whine and complain. Don’t mar your reputation. If the person succeeds and gets the coup, take credit for grooming the employee. Plan B: update your résumé.

6 Outmaneuver the back stabber 

If the employee who wants your job is also a back stabber and is malicious, you must take a different tact. Just like performance reviews, gather the evidence and document it. In the meantime, continue to be nice to that employee. Be cordial and professional.

 Keep your own counsel.  When you play your cards close to your chest, this person can’t discern your next move. If possible, move them out of your inner circle. If available, re-allocate their duties where they do not have the resources, or the opportunity to continue. Remote field locations are good for this purpose. 

For you as a manager, go back to the drawing board and take a fresh look at where you are.  Reassess how you got here in your relationship with this employee.

7 Be the boss, not the buddy 

It is much easier to start being hard-nosed and then ease off and soften up. It is far more difficult to start out soft and harden up. When you first assume your role, there are three steps:

First, move with caution. Slowly get to know people. To set policy and discipline, start with a more formal approach; then when you grow you can move to a more informal approach. 

Second, be friendly, but not a friend. Set a distance between you and the employees. Work is work; personal relationships outside of work don’t weigh in. If you aren’t careful, you will appear to be partisan. 

Third, when talking to people, let work be the topic of conversation. The main purpose is work, over coffee, lunch, etc. Defuse an employee who is trying to become a buddy with you.  Keep driving the conversation back to work.

8 What to do when someone is pirating your work

 This could be with or without malice. Don’t get too paranoid. Five techniques to use when you think someone is pirating your work: 

1. Give out pieces of what you are doing and let others put them together. 

2. Avoid accusations. Without real hard proof and political support, you may lose.

3. Have a discreet discussion with the other person. Give them the chance to clarify.

4. Talk about your work while you are doing it. Work does not speak for itself; you have to speak for it.

Run your own public relations firm: You, Inc. What if your boss is taking credit for your work?  In some cases this is OK because your job is to make your boss look good. Most of the time, their peers see it as your work just because they can easily figure out it isn’t their work.  If possible get a little aggressive with your boss. Ask if it would be necessary for you to attend the meeting to explain your concept or proposal.

9. How to manage antagonistic subordinates 

Often when we arrive on the scene we have a dysfunctional group (which is often why you were hired). These are folks who were passed over for the job you got and they wanted. You have inherited a motley crew of antagonists on day one.  Here are three things to do:

1. Talk to people. Find out who will work with you and who will work against you. Work through their resentment and anger.

2. Work with them, respect them. Help develop a career plan for them. Be a servant-leader.  This often defuses antagonistic subordinates. Hold them accountable for achieving milestones. 

3. Give credit to them. Reward them for successes. It is amazing what a few kind words and a pat on the back will do. Remember, MMFI, or Make Me Feel Important to your subordinates. 

10. Build support networks 

Political skill with competency should be used with respect. Building networks is crucial. You need to extend yourself socially. Two steps: First, give credit to employees for their achievements because it is good politics. Second, seek credit yourself; this amplifies what you have done well.

11. Be informed of organizational changes 

You need to be tapped into the formal system — meetings, memos, announcements, etc. But don’t leave out the informal system. This includes gossip, chance encounters in the hallways, rumors, etc. Tap into the informal system. “Have you heard anything about the re-org?”  Take the straightforward and direct approach. “I have a feeling there will be another layoff, what have you heard?”  And don’t overlook the troops. Ask them and use them as a valuable information source.

12. Protect your turf 

Protect it or lose it. People unable to guard their turf will lose it. Bosses only monitor and ratify your turf.  They will not necessarily protect it. In some organizations managers spend 75 percent of their time protecting their turf. There is a reason for this: with all the re-organizations and mergers and acquisitions, many managers are antsy about their future. Given all these possibilities, you simply can’t protect your turf from all attacks. Resort to Plan B, which is to maintain mobility to move to another management position.

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