Thursday, May 31, 2007
There's a great book waiting to be written about how to handle working in a setting where 'leapfrog' is rewarded, when you're the one being leaped.
Organizationally, leapfrog is when someone goes over her supervisor's head to get what he wants. When the organization makes a practice – even if only sporadically – of rewarding leapfrog, it will instantly turn too much of its energy inward on political maneuvering, and lose focus on dealing with the outside world.
(Before the inevitable flaming, I'll draw a distinction between leapfrogging and appealing. Appealing is open; the person whose decision is being appealed gets a turn to speak; the person making the appeal carries the burden of proof; the decision is based on the merits of the case. Leapfrogging is secretive, the person being leaped often doesn't know it happened until after the fact, the burden of proof is random or nonexistent, and the decision is based on heaven knows what. I have no problem with an appeal process, properly understood, but a huge problem with leapfrogging.)
Although there can be a short-term temptation to reward the occasional leapfrog, the long-term damage is terrible.
The temptation comes from a few factors. First, and most obviously, it makes an obviously-angry person go away for a little while. This shouldn't matter, but sometimes it does. Of course, it creates another angry person very quickly, and a whole extra bunch of angry people over time as folks discover that anger gets rewarded.
Second, sometimes the leaper makes a compelling (immediate) case. This is especially true when the person in the middle has some known shortcomings or blind spots that seem to be relevant in a given instance. Everybody is wrong sometimes, regardless of level. Heaven knows I've made a few decisions that, looking back, make me wince. It happens. A higher-up who isn't taking the long view, who is focusing only on what's right in front of him, will be tempted to 'fix' the immediate problem.
Finally, some people live in terror of the dreaded “he knew about it and didn't do anything!” By doing something, even if it's ill-advised and destructive, you can look decisive. George W. Bush is a terrible decider, but he's decisive. Gotta give him that. In the immortal line from Animal House, “There's a time for thinking and a time for acting. And this is no time for thinking!”
But if the leaper gets rewarded, the leaped (lept?) is immediately rendered irrelevant. And the irony is that what might, at first, look like a blow for the little guy – I beat my boss! -- actually works to concentrate power more centrally, in the office of an even bigger boss. Because a boss who makes decisions on a whim can change them on a whim. Replacing a process model – as slow and frustrating as it is – with a patron/client model only empowers the boss.
All of that said, it's still hard to know how to function as the leaped/lept. You can try to out-leap the leapers, but that diverts energy from what needs to be done and implicitly endorses what they're doing. You can try to ignore it, but when the higher-ups change the play, they change the play. You can try to talk the higher-ups out of it, but in my experience, self-awareness is a rare thing; very few people are capable of moving from abstract recognition to actual behavior change. Or you can try to pretend that whatever the final result was was what you intended all along, but that comes at the cost of both credibility and self-respect.
Is there an elegant strategy I'm missing? Other than the Hobson's choice of either rolling over or quitting, is there a better way to manage a situation in which leapfrogging is rewarded?
Why do people leapfrog? Is it merely because it's a way to get what they want? I'd say no. I think people leapfrog because they don't trust the person who would be the immediate go-to person to listen to them and to act on their behalf. This is not to say that the person would not listen to them or act on their behalf, but there is a perception that they wouldn't. To me, that is the problem that the leaped person has to address - the perception that they will not listen to others, that they will not act on behalf of others whose claims have merit.
Now, in my experience, this perception does not only result from one kind of leadership style. The person who seems indecisive and like he wants to make everybody happy all of the time can be leaped because he's seen as ineffective and the person who seems like she is a blowhard who only cares about her own perspective can be leaped because she doesn't care about any ideas but her own.
So how does one resolve this? Well, I'd say what I'd do (though again, i'm no expert) is that I would court the usual suspects who leapfrog. Invite them for meetings about things that are pretty minor, take their opinions into account, and make decisions that they will see came out of their input. EARN THEIR TRUST. Then, when it comes to the big-deal things that normally they'd go over your head about, they'll me more likely to think that you might be the better go-to person. Will this work? Who knows. But it's the way I'd go.
I'd have to agree with Anonymous that your (my) immediate boss has to have a firm strategy of bouncing all such items back to the appropriate level, unless of course they are complaints about *you* and then, they should be duty bound to investigate all sides before taking any action.
They escalate because the person above isn't as familiar with the situation, so they have a chance to decide which facts to reveal, so they can selectively omit/lie as they choose without getting caught. As well, the boss's boss has less time to deal with the issue (more responsibilities) and is thus more likely to make a decision just to get rid of them.
After that, I agree that the problem is at the boss's level, and a chat with him or her is apropos, as in any work concern.
And another staff officer jumped right over that other staff officer's back,
A third staff officer jumped right over two other staff officers' backs,
And a fourth staff officer jumped right over all the other staff officers' backs.
They were only playing leapfrog,
They were only playing leapfrog,
They were only playing leapfrog,
When one staff officer jumped right over another staff officer's back.
-- Oh What A Lovely War
Seriously, I think there's a difference between the one-off or occasional leaper (getting a particular hobby horse along) and leaping which is about a stronger connection between the leaper and the one leapt to. It's like the difference between drunk conference sex and an affair. I think the leaped-over has to take a gut-check on it. If it's a one-off you can give a "I really don't agree with this but I'll go along if you both think it's a great idea, but I'm unhappy about the way this has come about and I hope it won't happen again". If the leap is more like an organizational affair, where say both leaper and leapt-to share a personality-based organizational style that seems impeded by your process orientation, things get much more difficult.
I agree with dr crazy that you just need to make an effort to stay close to people who leapfrog, so you get more information about where and when the leaps are coming. Easier said than done, especially when some kind of personal antipathy (or disconnect)between leaper and leaped is usually a factor in the leap.
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