Boss Setting You Up to Fail? Ask Madeleine

Business Executive Stepping On ColleagueDear Madeleine,

I am a VP at a global real estate development company. About a year ago there was a big reorganization. One of my peers was made an EVP and is now my boss. As peers we had a friendly, if competitive, relationship.

We did okay together in the new relationship for awhile—until I had some big successes. I feel like that’s when things started going downhill. He has been shutting me out of big decision making meetings regarding projects I am running. He has skipped our last two reviews. I now get news updates from his administrative assistant.

The latest project he assigned me is a failing one and my job is to turn it around. I have had no say in who my team is, or any timelines. I have tried to talk to him but essentially he said, “I am the EVP and this is how I want things done.” It is becoming really clear to me that I am being set up to fail.

I have been considering going to his boss, with whom I have a really good relationship. What do you think?

Pushed Out

Dear Pushed Out,

Wow. It is so stressful when you feel like your boss doesn’t have your back. I am sorry. They say people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses—and it certainly sounds as if that might be true for you!

So here’s the deal. If you are absolutely clear that this is a hostile political situation—your boss has all of the power and your goals are not aligned—read on.

One of the finest thinkers on power and politics in organizations is John Eldred, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Eldred says that any political situation will have two power dynamics: power balance and goal confluence. Power balance describes the degree to which each person of a pair possesses position or personal power. When the power balance is high, power is shared or is relatively equal; and when power balance is low, one person has significantly more power than the other. Goal confluence measures the degree to which each person’s individual goals are in alignment with those of the other person. These two dynamics form a quadrant of contingencies:

  • When power balance and goal confluence are both high, a dynamic of collaboration is created. Relationships are naturally easy to develop and maintain.
  • When power balance is high but goal confluence is low, there is equal footing but each foot is going in a different direction. Negotiation is possible.
  • When power balance is low but goal confluence is high, power is irrelevant because both parties are going in the same direction. Each person can influence the other.
  • The most dangerous quadrant is when power balance and goal confluence are both low. The party without the power feels dominated and oppressed by the other. Because oppression and domination are extremely uncomfortable conditions, the individual who is dominated will respond in one of four ways: they will submit, submerge, engage in open conflict, or sabotage.

So, if you’re certain the last quadrant is where you are living right now, you have four choices.

  1. You can submit: Put your head down, be good, get the job done, and hope for the best.
  2. You can submerge: Act as if you are submitting but start working your relationships with others in the organization, making sure they see the situation and building support for your position. It would also be smart to start looking for a new organization to gift your talent to.
  3. You can engage in open conflict: To pursue this option, you really need to be prepared to leave the organization. The minute you go to your boss’s boss, you are declaring war. That’s okay—but be ready to fight hard and possibly lose. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up your LinkedIn profile and resume first. Yes, it’s possible your boss’s boss may take your side when he sees what a snake your boss is, but I wouldn’t count on it.
  4. You can plot to sabotage: It is hard to move into sabotage territory without compromising your integrity. Plus, in your business, goodness knows how many others you might impact. I think this option is reserved for when you have absolutely no other choice. You aren’t there.

You have already taken the hardest step, which is recognizing you are in an untenable political situation and you have to do something. You always have a choice about how you respond. Stay clear, make a choice, get as much support in your personal life as you possibly can, and take extremely good care of yourself so you can be strong.

Good luck to you.

Love, Madeleine

About the author


Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

4 thoughts on “Boss Setting You Up to Fail? Ask Madeleine

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