No one likes to hear that they are being undermined but sadly this is a game that is often played out in the world.
I recently worked with George and Harry. George had always got along well with Harry (his manager) and they had worked together for many years and through several promotions, most of which Harry acted as a sponsor for George.
The business they worked for was undergoing significant restructure and change which was making everyone nervous. Twelve months earlier the company merged with a larger organisation, which everyone was still adjusting to. Their new chief executive unveiled a strategy that would help them become more prominent in their industry, which both excited and frightened them.
Some saw the new chief executive as pioneering, others as aggressive. This was the landscape that George was now operating in.
Not long after the merger George was promoted to a more senior role which elevated his position, profile and responsibilities. “I was excited and terrified at the same time,” he said.
The team he was now leading consisted of a passionate group of highly skilled people, three of which were previous colleagues. Two of these former colleagues (now reporting to him) were very upset that they didn’t get the appointment. Complaining moved quickly to conspiring together to undermine him. They waged a campaign that would eventually result in George being fired.
His once close professional relationship with his boss Harry became increasingly strained. “It felt like overnight the conversation changed from ‘we are so happy with how you are embracing your new role’, with positive performance reviews, to comments like ‘the executive leadership aren’t sure you are the right person for this role’.
Other comments were in the theme of, “they (senior leadership team) have lost confidence in you”.
“I walked out of the office on the Friday feeling good about work, feeling supported by my boss who told me I was doing well and happy with my role. On the following Monday I walked into an ambush and the dialogue had changed to one where I was now under performing,” George said.
George had a feeling that his two former colleagues were somehow integral to this. However, George dismissed this as paranoia and stress on his part.
The dynamics between Harry and George became increasingly more strained as resentment grew between them. “I thought Harry was acting the way he was due to added pressure he was under. It was only on the day I was fired that I realised how angry he was with me. His words that day were – ‘it cuts me to pieces to hear about all the backstabbing you have been doing behind my back’,” he said.
Sadly the time to talk this through together had passed and George was asked to resign.
It would be another 18 months before Harry would begin to realise the extent of the damage done to George and what he had gone through. He had begun to experience the same attacks. Fortunately for Harry he remembered his last conversation with George (as he defended the accusations against him). He acted quickly, recognising what was happening before it resulted in his demise.
It would take George more than 18 months to find a new role and many years to rebuild his confidence and trust in others.
I asked both George and Harry what advice they would give to their younger selves. I’m sharing below only what was printable.
“Take notice of what is going on around you and trust your instincts. Seek support and advice from someone who is removed from the situation. Celebrate the promotion. Yes, feel for the people who didn’t get the role but don’t overcompensate because you did. I overcompensated for the fact that I got the role over my former colleagues, sort of like survivors guilt that you read about, and tried too hard to make it up to them. They were both seasoned professionals, senior leaders who were highly paid, they needed to step up or move on to another role.
“Talk to the issue quickly. I avoided the ‘elephant’ in the room which was the conversation with my former colleagues about whether they could move beyond their disappointment.
“I stopped trusting myself this resulted in not backing myself, which ended up eating through my confidence.
“Probably my first mistakes was first sharing my insecurity. When things got tense (between Harry and I), I confided in my team and they (the two former colleagues) used this against me. My second mistake was not approaching Harry when I realised he was pulling back and starting to doubt me. A straight conversation would have resolved a lot of the tension. By the time I realised what was happening the void between us was too deep.”
“I’m still angry and upset by the way I was manipulated. When I think back it was so subtle to begin with which made it harder to detect. Small comments like ‘didn’t George update you?’ or ‘I’m sure George meant to..’, you know the sort of thing. I started seeing enemies everywhere with George as the general leading the charge.
“Always question why someone is giving you the information. What’s the motive?
“The obvious thing would have been to sit down with George over a coffee and talk to him. I avoided this, the truth is I didn’t know how and I was also feeling insecure in my role.”
Thank you to George and Harry for allowing me to share their story. Their professional relationship never recovered, however, after many years they were able to find friendship again.
If you find yourself in a similar situation it’s useful to think about the assumptions you are making and how this is affecting your behaviours.
Have the conversations that matter directly with those involved and seek support if feeling overwhelmed.
Pollyanna Lenkic is an author, coach, and speaker who works with leading organisations. She is an expert in building high-performing teams. Her structured approach delivers an uplift of 25% in team performance. To work with Pollyanna go to her website.