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Managing your team? Piece of cake. Managing up? Slightly more complicated. Managing sideways? Diplomatic tightrope act. But you can make an impact with your peers – if your intentions are good and your execution includes understanding and compassion. 

Consider Tom’s conundrum. As vice president of international relations for a small technology company, he was concerned about an ongoing conflict between two employees – an engineer and a builder. In order to ensure clear communication between these two teams, Tom e-mailed the VPs of each group, Jeff and David, to alert them to the problem. “Soon after, I received an e-mail from one of the problem employees saying a whole lot of nothing,” Tom recently told me. “When I looked down the thread, I saw a note from Jeff to his direct report. He had forwarded my e-mail to him with a line that said, ‘Tear em up, bulldog.’” 

Tom was horrified. He’d intentionally taken the matter to Jeff because his direct report wasn’t handling the situation in the first place – and then, instead of resolving the issue like a solid manager, Jeff forwarded it to the guy and even encouraged his unprofessional behavior. “The day was then filled with angry e-mails bouncing back and forth, resulting in a huge loss in productivity,” Tom explained. “I want to talk with Jeff about this, but I don’t know what to say without pissing him off.” 

“Well, what do you want to say to him?” I asked.

“Your e-mail was completely inappropriate, and here’s why!”

“What reaction do you think you’ll get?”

He considered this for a moment then said, “Not a good one.”

“What kind of reaction do you want to get?”

“I want him to start owning responsibility for his job, instead of passing important conversations like this one along to his ‘bulldog,’” Tom vented. “Jeff doesn’t know what he’s doing and has no business in that job. We need someone who understands the position and can answer difficult questions.”

“But he is in the position right now and could really use some mentorship, and you’re in the perfect position to offer ideas,” I encouraged. Ultimately, Tom and Jeff are peers, so Tom has very little say about whether Jeff keeps his job. But just because you’re not someone’s boss doesn’t mean you’re not in a position to lead and guide. It just requires more finesse. Here’s how I suggested he approach Jeff on the topic:

Turn on the compassion. First things first, consider whether you truly believe this person cares about the success of the product/company. If not, it’s a waste of time. But if, like Tom, you believe that your colleague cares, approach the conversation with this understanding in mind: If he does care about the success of the company, then he’s not doing anything “wrong” on purpose.

Tune into your kindergartener. You know how young children ask “why” all the time? It may drive parents crazy, but I wish it was a skill more people retained into adulthood. It’s invaluable. Instead of approaching a conversation like this with plenty of assumptions and all the answers, ask questions in order to understand your colleague’s point of view; doing so will help both of you understand his strategy or philosophy. For example, I suggested that Tom ask Jeff about his thought process when he received Tom’s e-mail and forwarded it on – and then really listen to his response. Once you understand the what and the why, then explore the how. How has your co-worker’s strategy been working? If it hasn’t been working (and your tone is nonjudgmental enough that he will admit it), ask if he has other ideas for what could work better.

Mentor gracefully. Your purpose is to help your colleague see a potential new approach toward reaching the mission – not to tell him what to do or make him feel like he’s incompetent. At some point, he may ask for your thoughts. If he does, provide them in a simple manner, and use the motivational buttons he’s shared in his answers to your questions to achieve success. End the conversation with appreciating him for sharing his thoughts. If he gets mad or feels like you’re overstepping your bounds by approaching him in this manner, go back to step one. If he feels threatened, then he feels judged, which could mean that you’re not approaching the situation with enough understanding and compassion.

If you see that a peer is clearly in over his head, perhaps he (or she) feels it too. We all want to be successful in our jobs, and sometimes we need help from other people. And like Tom, you’re in a position to help!

Offered with Respect, Misti Burmeister, best-selling author, “from Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations