Workplace Wisdom

How to Handle Colleagues Who Respond to the Leader and Ignore You

Have you ever worked with someone who seemed like a heat-seeking missile when it came to power, authority, and status? Whether they’re frontline service reps or senior vice presidents, these individuals turn toward their bosses the way flowers turn toward the sun — cultivating that relationship over all others, always trying to derive some tangible benefit from their personal connection with the leader.

Leaders can get attached to these employees because they’re usually very reliable within their particular sphere of competence. And they behave seductively or subserviently toward their leaders and are usually quite public about their loyalty, whether they’ve changed jobs to follow their leader or just talk openly about everything they do for the leader and the leader does for them.

Playing Both the Bully and the Victim

Employees like these try to maintain consistent, almost constant contact with the leader or power center: They feel stronger and more confident that way, and helpless or unsafe if the relationship falters. Unfortunately, they therefore perceive peer-to-peer relationships as posing too much risk and offering too little reward. They see colleagues as competitors and potential threats to the exclusivity of their relationship with the leader.

So they’re relatively poor at teamwork and don’t collaborate naturally with others — in fact, they cooperate only because they have to, not because they’re looking for shared value and growth or what’s best for the organization. They may be willing to seek others’ help to accomplish their own tasks and keep their boss happy, but they will undercut or sell others out to keep themselves looking good. They treat all negotiations as zero-sum, and since they have to be either winning or losing, of course they want the other party to lose.

They also seem to attract and create drama. Sometimes it’s because they’re raising the stakes when something’s going wrong for them; other times, it’s just part of their throwing someone else “under the bus.” They can function well as bullies if a peer doesn’t behave the way they want them to, but they can just as easily play the victim whenever things don’t go their way.

Hold Your Ground and Document the Details

Leaders typically don’t recognize how many organizational problems these folks can create, or else they assume the damage is actually worth it, because these employees are so loyal and perform well consistently in their areas of expertise. So if you have to work with someone like this, don’t expect the leader will help you resolve difficulties that arise.

Instead try to maintain a pleasant, dispassionate, neutral manner toward these leader-focused individuals, and show some personal interest, but take no guff. Be excruciatingly clear and specific, describing potential outcomes as well as any negative consequences of their actions. Document any inappropriate behavior, but don’t get drawn into their drama or tolerate any personal harangues.

Report to the Leader Yourself

Build and maintain your own independent, professional relationship with the leader, and to get the leader to understand what’s going on, share the impacts first, not who triggered them. Describe — and if possible, quantify — the business costs. From time to time, you can also point out to the leader how annoying this person can be, either when things go wrong or when they’re being excessively attention seeking.

If the leader doesn’t want to override, provide discipline to, or detach from an obsequious employee — perhaps because they’ve been a crucial point of success in the past — consider taking the risk of explaining how the leader’s performance or credibility is being diminished by this employee’s behavior.

If none of these approaches work, and this employee is creating barriers or roadblocks for what you actually need to accomplish, then it may be time to look elsewhere. Once these kinds of relationships take hold, they can create an unhealthy dynamic that focuses on the employee’s personal relationship with the leader rather than rational business conduct — and, sadly, you may not be in any position to shift the current reality.

Onward and upward,

LK

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