Nate works as a manufacturing manager in a major company that makes truck steering systems. To do his job, he regularly collaborates across the organization, whether it’s with purchasing or quality or engineering. One of his biggest frustrations is when things don’t go well with his counterpart from another department. It’s never clear how to resolve the problem or who has the final word on a disagreement. “Whenever I ask my boss to intervene on my behalf, back me up, and help me get what I need,” Nate says, “his first, second, and third response is almost always, ‘Work things out at your own level.’”
That response has become one of the mantras of the collaboration revolution. “Work things out at your level” effectively pushes as much communication, decision-making, and cooperative action as far down the chain of command as possible. When it works well, everything runs more smoothly and swiftly: information exchange, decision-making, planning, resource sharing, and execution. It also reduces unnecessary problems and waste.
When people don’t work things out at their own level and get in the habit of going over people’s heads, to the boss or the boss’ boss, trust and confidence within work relationships suffer, along with the work itself. Getting things done indirectly through the boss is not the best way to make your expectations clear and make a solid plan. Poor planning leads to further delays, mistakes, and more resentment.
So what is Nate’s gripe with “work it out at your own level”? “The problem,” says Nate, “is I don’t have the authority I need to work things out at my level. We don’t always have the same agenda. We have competing priorities and limited resources, not to mention egos.”
The Authority Conundrum
Nate is grappling with what I call “the authority conundrum.” The goal is to empower collaboration throughout the organization as far down the chain of command as possible. But when there’s a problem and you’re left to work things out at your own level, by definition nobody has the power of rank to resolve things swiftly and efficiently. And the conundrum emerges even when you are dealing with people in diagonal roles—up or down. One person might have a higher rank, but no one has direct authority, which complicates the relationship even more.
So to Nate’s point, when you have conflicting agendas, priorities, resource needs, and egos, you get into power struggles. That’s why so many people in Nate’s position “escalate the matter,” which is corporate-speak for going over each other’s heads.
The fact is that despite the collaboration revolution, with its flatter organizations and self-managed project teams, there is always somebody in charge who is making decisions. Choices are considered up and down the chain of command. At your own level, there will always be conflicts that can’t be worked out.
What can you do? There are three logical possibilities:
1. You can escalate every conflict and try to get your boss to intervene on your behalf, which might mean further escalation to your boss’ boss—which may or may not produce a resolution.
2. You can resist escalations and remain frozen in conflicts at your own level.
3. You can try to collaborate as if you have all the authority you need—ignore the proper lines of authority, sidestep or end-run the chain of command, and assume or presume what the boss’ answer would be to the problem.
“Proceed until apprehended. That was our strategy,” says Chris, a former executive in a federal agency. She was describing how her team dealt with the many unclear lines of authority in its working relationships with people in other offices, agencies, and departments. “We’d get an interagency request, or we’d have some initiative we were keen to pursue that required participation by another office,” she says. “Nobody had the authority. It was like the Wild West.”
How did that work out? “Sometimes it was fine, if all the people involved were on the same page,” says Chris. “But too often we were just moving ahead blindly until it would come back to bite us. We’d all buy in to somebody’s great idea and invest time and energy and budget dollars. Then it would turn out there was no support at higher levels. So the whole thing would get scratched. Or we’d decline a request, and then be overruled by the bosses and end up getting a late start. Or we’d disagree about something and fight it out until one or the other prevailed—or not.”
Too many people find themselves, in effect, proceeding until apprehended, leading to the kinds of real business problems and costs that Chris describes. That’s often the net effect of “work things out at your own level.”
Meantime, most people in the workplace need a lot more guidance than they get when it comes to managing their sideways and diagonal working relationships. But they feel they are discouraged from going to their managers for that guidance until things are already going wrong. Or they sidestep authority and go in the wrong direction until it comes back to bite them.
The ad hoc, unstructured, as-needed communication typical of the collaboration revolution often breeds unnecessary problems that get out of control—leading to delays, errors, squandered resources, and plenty of relationship damage.
What’s the go-to person to do?
The Answer Is Alignment!
How you align yourself in terms of decision-making and support—and with whom—is critical. If you don’t have the power yourself, go get the power from your boss. Go over your own head before anyone else can. Does that mean you have to check with your boss every time you make a move? And do your people need to check with you every time before they make a move? Only if you don’t already know the answer. If you don’t know, then you’d better check. You should already know the answer. You don’t speak for your boss, but 9 times out of 10, you should already know what your boss would say. The same is true for your direct reports.
Can you say the same about you and your boss and your chain of command? Are you so aligned with your boss and your boss’ boss that you might as well speak for them because you already know what they would say?
- Align by going vertical before going sideways (or diagonal).
- Align up by going over your own head to your boss, at every step, through regular structured dialogue.
- Align down through structured dialogue with your direct reports so they understand their marching orders and have the authority to make the necessary choices to get their work done.
- Once you are anchored up and down, you can go sideways—and diagonal.
- Be known as a great meeting citizen.
- Put structure and substance into more of your unstructured communication.
- Schedule regular one-on-ones with your regular interrupters and with those you interrupt on a regular basis.
- When you are managing diagonally down, stay aligned with that person’s direct boss. When you are managing diagonally up, stay aligned with your boss.
- Lead from wherever you are: up, down, sideways, and diagonal.
- Whether or not you are in command, take charge. If you want to take charge of anyone any time, you must communicate with rhyme and reason.
Bruce Tulgan is the best-selling author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” and the CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done,” is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers on July 21, 2020, from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.