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?

Sincerely,
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?

Sincerely,
David

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Headshot

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
read more

10 thoughts on “What to Do When Someone Undermines Your Role”

  1. It sounds like the new ED is out of role to me, or that they don’t understand their new role.

    I would suggest that a discussion be held to help understand the roles of the two people involved. Once this is clarified, everyone will know their role or new roles, and hopefully can learn to stay in those roles.

  2. My guess is that the ED feels threatened by the experienced volunteer. I agree with David’s advice (and George’s comment) that discussion about the roles.

    1. Sorry, didn’t finish my comment! Discussion about the roles would be a good starting point so the volunteer and the ED can understand each other better!

  3. Agree with the previous comments – discussion about the roles. But, quite frankly, I think you better start looking for other employment. Not being included in any sort of “visionary”, “planning” or “getting acquainted” activities is a clear sign that you are either going to be demoted or out the door.

  4. I have been in this situation. It happens. I was very clearly part of the old guard, and seen as standing in the way of their priorities. I also wasn’t helping my situation be digging in my heals around how I wanted to do things (which is easier to see after you’re out of the drama). So…I left. I moved into a related role, in a separate organization. Win for everyone.

  5. David,

    Yes, I have been on both sides of that equation. I was hired to “fix the staff” and told who my staff were. They were not who I was told and it took me about 2 1/2 weeks to figure that out, but I had offended and isolated some of the staff by that time and it took months to fix.

    On the other hand, I had a coworker who was brought in from the outside and felt he had more to teach us than learn from us. He then got promoted to be my supervisor, and subsequently my manager. He had never taken time to learn how we did business in a holistic way. I had worked through the ranks and had achieved my position by learning how the company did business. I was pegged as the go-to person until he became my manager and insisted I get all my information from him rather than the customers and those who were in operations. He made it his mission to “fix” me in a very harsh and unproductive way. I failed on many projects because of lack of information that he felt I didn’t need to know. Then I got my first negative review ever in my over 50 life.

    So, as I said, I’ve seen both sides.

  6. Thanks for your ideas and examples. I agree that role conflicts are fundamental to this problem. The questioner may want to approach the role discussion directly by setting up a discussion to discuss what her role has been in the past, and how her role (or the ED’s) might change going forward. The key will be to create safety and to be open to change, because it does sound as if the ED intends to take over a lot of her past role.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.