Office politics: Going over the boss’ head

Jun 21st, 2009 | By | Category: Advice, Newsroom Politics

By JOE GRIMM

One meaning for the expression “over my head” is that I didn’t understand something because it was a bit beyond my intellectual reach. To be “in over your head” means essentially the same thing, an allusion to drowning.

In newsroom politics, “going over my head” means that somebody spoke to my supervisor about something I think they should have come to me about. Going to my boss instead of me (or after me) makes me look bad.

It happens when someone goes to the boss’ boss with a beef or issue. No wonder it makes bosses twitchy. Unless your boss has prepared the Big Boss with some CYA action the boss is bound to come back with some uncomfortable questions. It is often good and necessary, though, for journalists to have relationships beyond their immediate supervisor. Advice about mentoring, for example, says that good mentors come from at least one management level above your boss. So, your boss’ boss might be an ideal mentor for you. But how can you forge such a relationship without making your editor feel paranoid?

Confident and secure supervisors are OK with this. It helps if the Big Boss keeps them informed. But there is a lot of insecurity in any business — newsrooms, too — so some news managers feel threatened when they see their direct reports “going over their head.”

Here are some strategies that can help you have relationships like that without all the hassle:

* Develop relationships on the basis of positive or neutral issues. Look for opportunities to develop these relationships and then maintain them. If the only time you “go over the boss’ head” is is when you want to complain about your supervisor, of course he or she will be paranoid. William S, Burroughs said, “Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.” Having a complaining employee would be one of those times. They boss should be paranoid. (It doesn’t do good things for you, either, to always show up with complaints.) Keep the relationship well-rounded. Focus on broader issues. Take advantage of the top boss’ higher vantage point and gain some understanding of the wider world in the newsroom. Tell your boss’ supervisor some of the reasons why you like the place. What you need is a collegial relationship in which all three of you feel comfortable with whichever way the communication flows. It does you no good to harden a 1-2-3 up-the-chain-of-command linear relationship that keeps you at the bottom. If all three of you can approach things as adults, it pulls you up to their level.

* Tell your boss what you’re doing. If you want to go two links up the chain of command with a great idea, tell your immediate supervisors first. If they don’t know what you’re doing, they’re free to fantasize.

* Have professional relationships with people throughout the organization. If your sole orientation is up, up, up, you will look like a climber who will run over anyone who gets in your way. Maintain relationships with your peers and people in other departments. In short, make it a natural part of your image that you can talk with anyone in the organization on virtually any subject related to the enterprise.

A couple more words on going over someone’s head

This does not just happen when someone talks to their boss’ boss. It can be perceived whenever someone talks to a boss. The response might be, “Why did you ask my boss? Why didn’t you just come to me?” (Implication: Don’t you trust me? Are you trying to make me look bad?) Solution: Give a thought as to whether you are going to the right person, the one closest to getting the job done, fixing the problem or responsible for the situation. If you’re not, somebody could feel cut out.

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