Crucial Conversations QA

What to Do When Someone Undermines Your Role

Dear David,

I am a long-time volunteer and employee for a small, nonprofit organization. Recently, we got a new Executive Director and his management style is very challenging. I am the director of Learning and Education and previously planned all learning events. The new ED has created learning events of his own, but does not consult with me. He publicizes his own events, but not the ones I plan. I have forged partnerships with a number of outside organizations. The ED set up get-acquainted meetings with them, but doesn’t include me. Recently, he invited key volunteer leaders to a visioning retreat led by an outside consultant, and did not include me. When I’ve tried to discuss these omissions with him, he gets terribly defensive and angry. I feel like communication with him has completely broken down. My work has been curtailed. I hesitate now to plan some learning events, as I don’t know what he is planning on his own. What should I do?

Feeling Undermined

Dear Feeling Undermined,

While this may sound like a one-of-a-kind situation, it’s not. In fact, anyone reading this could be next in your shoes. I’ll set the scene: You joined an organization, starting at the very bottom, in this case as a volunteer, and worked your way up into an influential role. Suddenly, you have a new boss and everything changes for the worse. What can you do? I’ll suggest some general approaches.

Look for Organizational Issues

Begin with a broad diagnosis of the situation. While it would be easy to label this problem a “relationship issue,” check for deeper organizational concerns.

Has your organization experienced recent setbacks, or does it face significant risks? I look for financial stability, balanced fundraising streams, an effective board, a clear strategic plan, programs that are aligned and effective, etc. When a board loses or chooses to replace an executive director, it often needs to address problems in one or more of these areas.

Remember that your boss has bosses, too, and this issue might be more about them than you. You can bet the board has given him a set of priorities, and it’s possible they’ve told him not to share these with staff. In other words, this problem might not be personal—or at least not about you.

Understand the ED’s Priorities

You describe the ED as “defensive” and that sounds accurate. What is it that he’s defending? How might he see you as standing between him and his priorities? I don’t have enough information to do more than guess, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Maybe the board has hired him to take the organization in a new direction, and you represent the “old way.”
  • Maybe the board has asked him to take the lead on a set of changes, and this means that you can’t be seen as leading out.
  • Maybe the ED’s background is in learning/education, and it’s a place where he feels comfortable and able to have an impact. He wants to make his own mark there, and not have you share the limelight.

Some of these possibilities aren’t flattering to the ED. I’m not trying to defend him but to understand him. The more you know about his priorities, the better able you’ll be to find Mutual Purpose, or at least avoid getting in his way.

Determine What You Really Want

Ask yourself what you really want long-term for yourself, for the ED, and for the organization. You joined the organization as a volunteer, so you must be committed to its mission. You’ve worked there for a long time, so I’m guessing you have coworkers who are friends. And you like your role as the director of learning/education. Which of these (and other) values are most important to you?

It sounds as if the ED has taken over your learning/education role. Is the organization large enough to have other roles you might enjoy—roles that would let you continue to focus on the mission with colleagues you care for? Or is there another organization that serves a similar mission, and needs your experience in learning/education? Consider your alternatives, so that you’ll have options in case your role needs to change.

Look for Mutual Purpose

From what you’ve shared, my guess is that the ED sees you as standing between him and his purpose—maybe even as a competitor. Ask yourself whether he is right. Does your support for the organization include support for him? Do you disagree with his direction for the organization? Have you raised concerns in a way that could cause him to believe you are not on his side?

If you feel you can support your ED, then you need to find a way to demonstrate your support—to convince him that you have his back. If you can convince him that you are on his side, he will stop treating you as an opponent. But it will likely take more than words.

The most convincing way to show support is to make a sacrifice. The most common sacrifices are time, money, other priorities, and ego. Think about what you would be willing to sacrifice, and what would convince him that you are really on his side.

Influence With Your Ears

Ask the ED for a chance to just listen and learn. Be clear that you are open and supportive. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you see as the organization’s biggest challenges?” “How does the organization need to change over the next year or two?” “How can I best support you?” Use follow-up questions that keep him talking and explaining: “That’s interesting, tell me more.” And “Can you give me an example?” Don’t drill down to answers or even suggestions. Practice your listening skills.

What are you listening for? You want to learn more about his priorities, how he views you and your role, and whether you think there is hope for the working relationship. Be open and take time to consider what you learn in the meeting.

Consider Leaving

I think you should also consider finding a new job. But remember, it’s always easiest to find a job while you still have one. And you’ll want a glowing recommendation from this ED. Don’t burn bridges, don’t lose your temper, and don’t criticize him after the fact. You live in a small, connected world.

I hope some of this is helpful. I wish you the best of luck. Have other readers faced similar challenges? What experiences, insights, and suggestions can you share?


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