Am I being undermined at work?
December 28, 2013 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Something upsetting happened at work that makes me feel totally undermined, but I'm not sure how to handle it. Can I get some help from the office politics gurus of MeFi?

Leaving the details vague for anonymity, but the situation is like this. We are a small company, somewhat entrepeneurial in nature. I am a mid-level professional who was basically given carte blanche to develop the company's entry into a new market area. Everyone was eager to jump into this new area, but nobody had been focused on doing it yet, so it didn't start to happen until I came on board. After a year of hard work I started to make significant headway and had a well-developed strategic plan (developed in close concert with my direct managers and coworkers involved with the project.)

All of a sudden, I find out that somebody much higher up than me in the company has embarked on the initial stages of a project that is pretty much 100% opposed to my project. Meaning, if his project goes forward, mine cannot, they are that opposed to each other. The nature of our work means they cannot coexist. And in my opinion (based on my immersion in the area, vs his basic lack of knowledge of it), his project is just all wrong and won't work AT ALL, and also stands to damage our company's reputation. But at this point, it is not clear if his project is ever actually going to go anywhere. This guy is REALLY high up, and I have no contact with him (never seen or even emailed him in my entire time here, but everyone defers to him.)

I bring all this up with my managers and they completely brush off my concerns and even sort of accuse me of being disloyal. I explain that I feel like I actually cannot do my job if the other project goes forward, and they tell me to calm down and not to worry.

So what am I supposed to do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You continue to do your job and hope for the best. It's either going to work out or it isn't, and if the person you suspect is trying to undermine you is that senior, it won't take too long for you to find out. The only thing you can do is act in good faith and be professional about whatever shakes out in the future.
posted by xingcat at 3:28 PM on December 28, 2013 [20 favorites]

You brought it up with your higher-ups, and they said to not worry about it. So really, all you can do now is not worry about it. For what it's worth in my experience very senior people (even ones otherwise good at their job) come up with crazy projects all the time that everyone "on the ground" knows won't go anywhere.

You're a year out front of this other person, and I think you should proceed as usual.
posted by jess at 3:35 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I believe that from your vantage point, the two projects can not co-exist. However, you simply can't know what senior leadership has in mind. You just don't know. For this reason, part of adapting to life in company/corporate culture is to learn to be ok with ambiguity. I can not tell you how many times I've had to course-correct or abandon a project after pouring a lot of effort & resources into something, simply because senior leadership had lost it's appetite for The Thing so enthusiastically supported previously. It happens.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:47 PM on December 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

Agree. Even in small companies, people high up the food chain can get disconnected from reality. It sounds like nobody wants to contradict the guy, which only adds to the problem. I would keep doing what you're doing, but also make sure you are networking outside the company, keeping your skills up to date, etc.. Just in case.
posted by rpfields at 3:47 PM on December 28, 2013

Your resume is current and you are applying for positions elsewhere, right? And you're not complaining to other people in your industry about any of your bosses? Ever?

I say that, because this may be no big deal. But if it is, you want to be ahead of the "failure" curve in your search. You do not want to be let go and caught off guard by that. Sure, his project is probably not going to get off the ground, but if it does, you will be redundant, immediately, and in the worst way.

So while we don't know enough about your particular office to say with any certainty whether this guy has any shot at moving his plan through the machinery, he has much more pull than you if her wants to use it. If he wants to make it look like you're raining on his parade or making his job (even just his side project) harder, he is in a position to do that, even if you are ahead, and have demonstrable likelihood of success. Is he guaranteed to play that card? Nope. But he's also not guaranteed to take the high road and back down.

So keep working toward finding better and more lucrative work. Practice describing this experience in ways that do not cast anybody else at the company in a negative light. You never know who went to college with this guy, or whatever.
posted by bilabial at 3:52 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wanted to add, as well, that this situation not a reflection on you, or the company's opinion of you or your work. Try to avoid complaining or asking for too much reassurance. Both would be understandable, but if your bosses are themselves confused and annoyed about the situation, you could come across as a pain.
posted by rpfields at 3:54 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

But at this point, it is not clear if his project is ever actually going to go anywhere.

Out of sight, out of mind. You don't interact with the guy, worry about it when that project's resource demands eliminate (not affect, since you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater if some of your people have to work on his thing) your project's goal(s). Focus on your thing, start making headway and getting positive returns on your work.
posted by rhizome at 4:39 PM on December 28, 2013

It sounds like you've expressed your concerns as far up the chain as you can go, unless you want to reach out to this super high-up person and try to set a meeting -- that might be way outside of protocol though. So I think probably the answer is for you to keep doing your job and hope his idea doesn't go anywhere. I am sure everyone gives his idea consideration because of his rank, but they must know he is not an expert and your team has poured a year of research and work into your plan. I imagine his approach may not happen and anything done to stop it is happening so far above you that neither you nor your superiors are privy to it. I think you just keep doing your job as best you can, offer helpful/constructive/direct input when asked and act as if your plan is still a go until told otherwise. If updating your resume and seeing what else is out there will make you feel better in the mean time, go for it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:40 PM on December 28, 2013

I would try to reframe this in your mind and think of ways to turn this situation into one that might have a positive outcome for both you, the higher-up, and the company.

Because you've never met or interacted with this high up person, chances are they're completely unaware of your project. They could just want to get the ball rolling themselves with no malicious intent to undermine you.

I'm not sure what exactly the best way is to go about this, but I might consider trying to get your manager to make some kind of introduction to the higher-up, especially if they have met/interacted with them previously. Perhaps having the manager frame it as that they have had a team working on this for a year, and that the work might be a valuable asset to the higher-up's work. Try to get your foot in the door by providing help on their project.

Once you're part of that team, perhaps the higher-up see the light that your approach is best, or at least you could help steer the project in ways that could minimize the harm to the company. If it all works out then you have made a positive impression on a higher-up and helped the company. (Though if it doesn't work out, try not to be the scapegoat when the project fails).

If none of this works (say your direct manager shuts you down, or the higher-up isn't interested), then keep your head down and just do your own thing and keep getting paid. The previous advice about keeping the resume current and applying elsewhere is good too.
posted by cali59 at 5:17 PM on December 28, 2013

I'm going to differ from some of what's been said here and say that you should trust your instincts. If you feel that you're being undermined but can't put your finger on exactly how or why, there's a good chance that it's happening in some way. The fact that some of your higher-ups accused you of being disloyal for intelligently making connections and inquiring about the future of your project is a sign of a dysfunctional workplace.

I would update your resume and start asking around about other opportunities. In the meantime, I would also try to see if there are any ways to move your strategic plan to *something* tangible -- even if it's posting documentation, press releases, holding a planning meeting with people outside of your company -- because if this project is indeed doomed, you're not going to have anything to show for it except your own strategic plan.

One last thing - despite what I said above, try not to stress mentally about this situation. Most of it is out of your control and the best thing for you will be to focus on the things you CAN control, i.e. updating resume, researching more functional workplaces, putting yourself out there. Best of luck.
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf at 5:58 PM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think everyone above has good advice. This higher-up probably did not set out with his project to undermine you; I think it's more likely that he heard something from a colleague about this being a hot new market or saw an opportunity to put a feather in his cap by being the person to swoop in and develop the strategy. It's unfortunate that it may undermine your project, but based on what you said here I don't think you specifically are being undermined, if that makes sense.

I would just continue with my work until someone tells me to stop. You might also figure out how you can plant stakes with your project. Are there any steps you can begin executing on or get your managers to begin executing on that puts your company on the path toward your plan?
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 7:51 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting scenario. I'm genuinely curious, what did you expect your managers and leadership chain to do? I mean, people just can't go up to a senior vice president or whomever and be like "Oh your idea is shit; you can't do it. It's gonna hurt the company." I mean, no one can do that to a senior leader except the CEO, and _sometimes_ their manager.

From the company's perspective you have someone very senior, doing their job, who gets paid a lot and is presumably worth a lot to the company; they are in charge of programs and they're working on a program. Then you have someone much more junior, working on something different, and leadership probably has a limited view of it, or any view at all. They are, rightly or wrongly, worth much less to the company.

I don't think you're being undermined, I think someone senior is working on something that *may* interfere with your project. None of this requires malevolence - indeed, I prsume you've worked with senior leaders before, have you seen how self-orientated they are and how little visibility they have of things outside their purview? Additionally, leadership may have a very different perspective on your respective projects, and additionally there could be hundreds of other reasons this person is working on their project. It's even possible someone wants them to fail.

I can understand your frustration and anxiety about this; but in the corporate world some things are out of your direct control. You just have to work to make your project succeed, build up a convincing case for its excellence (regardless of derailment factors), ensure it has visibility with your direct line of management, and will make you look good regardless of anything.

Additionally - and this applies to both your projects - my experience in the corporate world is that so many projects never go ahead, or implementation gets fucked up, for a zillion different reasons.

Barring any reason not to, I would trust your managers.
posted by smoke at 8:52 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You say "small company" but also that you've never seen him. So, obviously not *that* small.

I'd like to think that if I were in your shoes, I would work my nerve up and contact this senior manager. Ask to meet. Tell him you've been working in this area for a year. Maybe you can meet to discuss strategies. Maybe you can team up and work together.

Maybe he has someone lower-level doing most of the work for him? Maybe he'll be interested to hear your ideas?

Or, maybe not. But then at least you tried.

Sounds frustrating! Good luck.
posted by sarah_pdx at 11:29 PM on December 28, 2013

Companies make mistakes. (See Microsoft Silverlight for an example.)

Work isn't a democracy. It's not fair. The evil prosper sometimes. The stupid are promoted to get them out of the way. Non-productive dingbats are overpaid while good producers and problem solvers languish in relative poverty. It's why people start new companies.

Unrelated projects are part of the noise; you have to ignore them and focus on your objective. If you are a leader, you set objectives. If you are a functionary, someone else sets your objective. Either way, you know what you have to do and about your only two choices are to do it well, or not do it well.

Your gut is useful. If you feel vulnerable and/or you think your personal reputation will be negatively affected if push comes to shove, there's no better time to leave than when things are on the upswing. Beats the hell out of leaving when the world has turned to crap.

Internal 'bake-offs' are a fact of life. Mutually exclusive goals have to be resolved eventually. You may lose. Or the big guy may. Someone earning the company a buck has an advantage. Sounds like you are closer to the mark and farther down the road in that respect.

Office politics suck. Everyone navigates conflict differently. It's part of all collective careers (as in when you are a member of a team/group versus a lone eagle.) I like to think of it as Darwinian. Could be that you are breakfast for some stealthy lion.
posted by FauxScot at 4:52 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

The only way a higher-up would ever bother deliberately undermining a lowly underling is if they see that lowly underling as a clear and present threat to their own position. So unless you're actually far enough up the greasy pole for that to be the case, this is more likely to be a case of pointy-haired obliviousness than anything specifically malicious.

The higher-up will be doing something he thinks will make his peers and his boss believe he is acting in the best interests of the company. What the lowly underlings think about it will be of no concern to him at all; neither will the objective truth about what actually is in the best interests of the company.

So if you're going to keep working there (and jumping ship is of course a perfectly reasonable option) you need to play the long game. If the higher-up's project goes ahead, consider your own work not cancelled nor wasted, merely shelved. If his project succeeds, then he probably was acting in the best interests of the company. If it crashes and burns, it will be time to dust yours off and get it moving again.

Whether or not to jump ship really comes down to a judgement call on your part about which project is actually likely to end up successful.
posted by flabdablet at 6:08 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

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