When your toes are being stepped on: 6 questions to ask before getting defensive

Some days I feel like we are all just a little more sensitive to others stepping into our “turf”. We try hard every day to add value and when someone starts a program like ours, starts meeting with our clients or outright duplicates a process or technology project, we can get our fur up.

Especially in times of stress where some of us feel like our jobs may not be secure, we can become territorial. This happens to the best of us — even the most laid back individuals can find themselves getting protective over their scope or team when being encroached upon.

I had this situation many years ago when I first joined a very large organization. There were so many teams and divisions, that duplicating effort and stepping on toes seemed inevitable. However, I am so committed to efficiency and helping people take pride in their work, that I wanted there to be clear lines of ownership and scope.

During my first week at this company, in a newly created job, I had another individual on the team tell me she was creating the strategy I was hired to create. Now, this is a pretty blatant example of stepping on toes. She knew I was hired to do this activity and I was pretty irritated by her behavior.

I went to my new boss with this information and his response was to tell me that this culture is like that. People compete with one another internally for work all the time and I just needed to accept it and try to create a better strategy to outshine her.

Now, you at home, if you’re playing along, can certainly tell me how wrong that response was. It also won’t shock you to know that I left that culture pretty quickly as that wasn’t for me. It just rubbed against my sense of fairness, kindness, congeniality and efficiency. I mean…why have two people doing exactly the same thing? Seemed like a waste of time and money not to mention the conflict it created on the team that lead to an unhealthy environment.

This example aside, this situation does happen from time to time — sometimes explicitly and sometimes by accident. However it comes about, I find that keeping a few things in mind before charging in with your fists raised to defend your territory can be helpful to minimize conflict and reach a sound conclusion and possible compromise.

When approaching this type of situation, ask yourself the following questions in the order below:

#1 Are you clear on your job?
This may sound a little silly but when someone is moving into your space, ask yourself if that work is really part of your job. Talk to your manager so you are clear that you own the space the other person may be creeping into. There was one time where I thought something was under my direction when really that was my perspective not shared by others. This led to a good conversation about who should own the work. Ultimately, we made the decision together that I should own the effort. But, this circumstance allowed for that dialogue to happen and created clarity on my role, which was a good outcome.

#2 Are they aware of your job?
Another potentially obvious question but, really, I have had this happen more than once in my career. Someone starts executing on a program without any knowledge that you are doing the same or that you have ownership over that type of program. Approaching people with an open mind and kindness first only helps minimize conflict. Give the benefit of the doubt that people may not know you are working on something. Sometimes our work is so close to our face that we think everyone else must know what we are doing. Not so. In certain situations, I have had the other person completely back off and stop what they were doing when they found out my team was handling it.

#3 Who asked them to work on this?
Another key question to ask the person is who asked that they take on the project? I have heard several answers to this question in my day. 1) No one. They thought it was a gap and they had a good idea. If so, then refer to questions #1 and #2. 2) Their manager asked them to do it. Refer to the previous questions and ask question #4. 3) A senior leader asked them to step up and take on the project. Then, definitely proceed to the next question.

#4 Are their goals the same or different from yours?
If the other person appears to be in your lane, ask them what their objective is. It could be they are trying to accomplish something completely different than you. It could be the leader who asked them to tackle this had a good intention or business reason behind the request. It could be, unfortunately, that this person doesn’t have a whole lot on their plate and this was identified as a good opportunity. Perhaps the project is in your remit but you have zero capacity to take it on. Asking about goals helps to determine intent and outcomes, which should drive ownership. If the goals are very similar, then proceed to question #5. If the goals are very different, then still proceed to question #5. The work could be split between the two of you.

#5 Would they partner with you?
If they want to work on this project or have sponsorship of someone in the organization on equal plane as your sponsor, then ask if you can partner. This has been my best tactic in these situations and has always been a good compromise. I personally believe projects, programs, products, whatever your end result, benefit from more than one brain. If there is an opportunity to work together to achieve the same outcome, then propose that. Be clear on roles and responsibilities on the effort so the toe stepping doesn’t continue on a tactical level too.

#6 If nothing else works, can you escalate?
If none of the questions lead to a reasonable conclusion, then you may have to escalate as I did in my pervious role. When leaders create an environment that leads to internal competition, duplication of effort, and, eventually, a toxic situation, it may be time to escalate or even exit. Some people love competition but a lot of us don’t want to compete for our jobs everyday. That is stressful and leads to burnout or resentment.

Stepping on toes will happen in a decent sized organization as we are all human and seize opportunity. Being clear on our roles, others’ roles and the outcomes, will help us figure out where work should be aligned and can also create partnerships that are healthier than competition.

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