10 Oct. 2017 | Comments (0) Share Follow @Conferenceboard
You’re working on a cross-functional initiative that’s critical to your company. Given your position, you’ve assumed you’re in charge, but it seems your counterpart from another team has made the same assumption. And now you’re in the middle of a turf war. How do you determine who has authority? How do you navigate the situation with your boss, your counterpart, and others in the group? And even if you can come to an agreement, how do you make sure it lasts?
What the Experts Say
There are lots of reasons that turf wars can happen, says Jeanne M. Brett, professor of dispute resolution and negotiations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Organizations evolve and change, and sometimes people ends up doing what your group is already doing.” It may also be an intentional power grab. Either way, “these situations can easily become toxic,” Brett warns, because they involve egos, emotions, and people’s sense of identity. If you’re annoyed at your colleague’s desire to call the shots, she’s highly likely to feel the same way about you, adds Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Kellogg and coauthor of the HBR article “Make Your Enemies Your Allies.” “Research shows that taking something away from someone is experienced as far more harmful than putting an additional burden on them,” he explains. But you don’t need to start, or continue, the battle. To navigate the situation thoughtfully, follow these principles.
Check your mindset
Though you may feel frustrated, threatened, even angered by the situation, Brett’s research shows that “anger doesn’t always work” in negotiations like these. Instead, you should go in with “an attitude of innovation” — how can everyone take something satisfying away? “It shouldn’t be that you win and they lose, or the other way around. You may be able to expand the pie.” Uzzi, too, advocates taking a softer approach, even if you were previously raging inside: You should try to project, “I’m open-minded. I’m a team player. We all want what’s best for the organization.” And you need to be patient. “You shouldn’t have it fixed in your mind that this is going to be resolved in one meeting. You’ll likely need a series of meetings to discuss what the issue is, mull the options, propose resolutions, and eventually choose one,” Uzzi says.
Focus on the larger goal
Even if you and your peer are vying for the same leadership position or project, you don’t have to be mortal enemies. And chances are the person isn’t out to get you. “People often don’t want to take away control or power — they just want to introduce a new idea” or have more influence, Uzzi says. They may not even realize they’re stepping into your territory. “Sometimes people are just doing their jobs, and to do them they end up doing something that’s another person’s responsibility,” Brett says. Rather than focusing on the negative dynamic between you two, think about what your common goal is. “Perhaps it’s to do what’s best for the organization or to keep strong relationships with your customers or clients,” Uzzi says. Concentrating on the higher objective will keep you out of the morass of personal jabs.
Do your research
It may be possible that one of you is actually supposed to be in charge and the other person doesn’t know it. Before you take your colleague to task for stepping on your toes, do some research. Ask your boss for clarity, or ask other people on the team if they know about a decision that’s been made that you weren’t privy to. Lack of clarity or even misunderstanding is often at the root of these disputes, Uzzi says. “Perhaps the boss hasn’t given you direction. The new project doesn’t clearly fall into your team’s purview or the other’s,” he says. Brett agrees: “It’s not always crystal clear what should be your responsibility and what should be someone else’s.”
Problem-solve with your counterpart
If your research doesn’t turn up a definitive answer, or you’re not happy with it, you can schedule a time to meet with your rival and discuss how to disentangle the roles and responsibilities. You might say: “I’d like to sit down with you to talk about this situation face-to-face.” If you think that wouldn’t work for them, suggest having someone they respect join the conversation.
Brett points out that while this direct approach is appropriate in most Western cultures, in other areas of the world, such as East Asia, you might want to go to the boss instead: “In a hierarchical culture, that’s the boss’s job. The manager makes the decision and neither one of you will lose face.” In other cultures, you might send someone to ask, “Would you sit down with Sabine to discuss this?” Figure out what’s acceptable and go to the appropriate person to start a conversation.
Negotiate the process
Once you’re talking to your counterpart, don’t dive right into the issues (“Here’s why I should be in charge on this”). Brett says it’s a better idea to negotiate the process first. You might agree on how long you’re going to talk (“Should we spend the next 45 minutes discussing the project and how to move it forward?”) or what criteria you’ll use to solve the problem. The advantage of doing this is that you tackle a smaller problem before moving on to the meatier issues. “It sets a precedent that you can work together,” Brett says. You can also revert to talking about process if your conversation hits a wall. You might say, “We’ve been talking for 30 minutes and we can’t agree on how we got here or what we’re going to do about it. Let’s step back and see if we can approach it in a different way.”
Control your emotions
It’s important to remain calm throughout the discussion. These disputes can feel personal (“Does this person think I’m not up to the task of leading the project?”) but you’re unlikely to get to a resolution if you yell or act irrational. “If you do start to lose it, be honest about it,” Brett recommends. “Say, ‘I thought I could talk about this calmly, but I’m struggling with it. Can we set up a different meeting with so-and-so sitting in?’” Of course, you can’t control how the other person will behave. But if they start to get hot under the collar, don’t react. Let them vent. Brett says you should picture their angry words coming out of their mouth and going right over your shoulder.
If you do decide to involve one or both of your managers, or another third party, proceed carefully. By outsourcing the decision to someone else, you “lose control over the outcome,” Brett says. And you don’t want the higher-ups to think you can’t solve your own problems. Brett advises approaching both of your bosses together and saying something like, “We see pros and cons to one of us or the other taking over the project, but we believe the decision needs input from you, as the broader company perspective.” Make sure to “frame it as looking out for the interests of the larger organization” rather than as needing a referee for your personal squabble. Keep in mind that some managers may not know how to handle the situation. “The more work experience the boss has, the more likely the person is to act as a mediator,” Brett says.
Decide if it’s worth it
If your managers are unwilling or unable to help, and you’re still at a stalemate, you have to decide whether continuing to fight this battle is worth it. Ultimately, what’s best for the organization may not be the same as what’s best for your career. For example, a prolonged turf war is likely to damage your relationship with your counterpart, their group, and possibly your broader reputation. At the same time, you need to make sure that bowing out won’t cause your team to loses resources or credibility, Uzzi says. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of demanding the leadership role, or gracefully ceding it to your counterpart.
Principles to Remember
- Ask your boss and teammates whether you missed some important information about who should be leading.
- Invite the person to discuss the situation in person.
- Stay calm through the discussion.
- Assume negative intentions — there may be lack of clarity around roles.
- Dive right into the issues when you sit down with the other person; negotiate the process first.
- Persist in fighting a battle if it’s not good for the organization.
Case Study #1: Ask for clarity
Crystal Oakman, a program manager in the IT department of a large production company, started working on an enterprise-wide project a few months ago. The project sponsor asked her to lead the effort. “It was an IT software that the entire enterprise uses daily, and so thousands of users were affected. There was a lot of scrutiny by executives,” she explains.
The team had a kickoff call, and Crystal thought it was clear that she’d been given the authority to lead the team. But she didn’t know that, in a previous discussion, a colleague had been given the same authority and was busy developing a plan to roll out the software.
When she tried to push the project forward, she noticed that this colleague seemed to think he was in charge as well, which stymied progress. “I kept meeting resistance,” she recalls. “I can’t tell you the [number] of heated moments where he and I were having conversations that were clearly not in line, but neither of us knew it because we both thought we were leading.”
The issue wasn’t just who was in charge, but how to carry out the project. “I strongly disagreed with some of his strategies,” Crystal says. “When I requested that he include other strategies…he adamantly disagreed. In my head, I was ultimately responsible for the success of the project, and so I held my ground.” They spent hours on the phone debating and neither would concede.
Crystal tried to send out an org chart that made clear who was in charge, but when she ran it by the project sponsor, he discouraged her from sharing it, saying that it would upset the other program manager to see he was reporting to her. “It was then that I realized my manager had wanted me to ‘ghost lead’ without leading, leaving another high-level team member on the project with all the authority and decision making.”
Crystal wasn’t happy with this arrangement, so she told the project sponsor that the effort was going to fail unless they had clearer role descriptions. At that point, she says, “there was no escaping the reality of what was in place.” She finally understood the difference between the role she was going to play and the one she had been “sold,” so she decided to slowly step back from the work, knowing that it wasn’t good for the project — or her — to keep fighting.
Case Study #2: Decide how far to push
Joyeeta Das, the CEO and founder of Gyana, a big-data company based in the UK, used to work at a large technology company. During her six years there, she found herself in many situations where it wasn’t clear if she was in charge of a project or someone else was. “The best way I could deal with [these situations] was by being candid with both my boss and my colleague,” she says.
In one situation, she and another manager were working on highly technical software. When it became clear to her that her colleague thought he was in charge, Joyeeta took her boss out to coffee to casually discuss the situation. She left with some “general tips” on how to handle it, but her manager said “he didn’t want to step in and solve things.”
Her next step was to take her colleague out for a similar chat. She conveyed her respect and explained that she was confused about the roles. But he got “upset very quickly,” she recalls. He didn’t seem to acknowledge her authority or understand her point of view, and she could tell that this conversation had made things worse. So she decided to cede control.
But there were other times when she held her ground, especially when she had data to back her up and she knew that other people in the organization would support her. Knowing when to speak out and when to step out “eventually won me a lot of respect,” she says.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 09/27/2017.