Burning Bridges -- Tactic #2

Originally published 10/28/10

Conventional wisdom tells you to never burn bridges, but can you really go through your career straddling every issue?

I doubt it. I certainly wasn't able to do so, not that I was trying to avoid burning bridges as a goal.

But many people allow themselves to be drawn into political battles, and burn bridges (or another way to think of this is: they damage their relationships) without really thinking things through.

An example might be instructive.

Let's imagine you're on a company's senior staff and an acquisition is being reviewed. You know the CEO is going to ask every person in the room to give their opinion of the proposed deal at the end of the review. A peer in another division is advocating for the deal, and you can tell from the discussion that the CFO is adamantly opposed to it. What do you do?

Chances are, you aren't going to be able to straddle this one -- it would hard to be in favor and opposed to the deal at the same time. You certainly can try to be as inoffensive as possible, perhaps by outlining the good and bad points of both positions before you vote. But the fact of the matter is, you have a good chance of alienating the person you vote against.

Of course there are questions of fact and questions of politics both in play here. The questions of fact might surround the financial projections, the integration plan, and all the other things you've learned to ask questions about in school or on the job. Those things are normally talked about during the review.

The questions of politics aren't typically discussed. They involve things like -- who is more important to my future -- my peer or the CFO. Is my peer the next COO of the company, or is he a lame duck on his way out. Also important is understanding who allies with each party. Is the CEO listening intently to the CFO and nodding, or is he quietly rolling his eyes when a challenge is issued? Which way is my most important political ally leaning? To understand these thing requires careful observation of word, tone and body language.

Once you have the political landscape figured out, then what? You must know what you stand to win and lose based on any position you might take. In our example, if you know the deal is going to to be killed because the CEO is aligned with his financial guy, you might choose to vote in favor of the deal, currying favor with your peer. Anytime you're on the losing side of an issue, you're less likely to burn a bridge than if your vote was the swing vote that put the vote over the top. On the other hand, if you know the CFO is a vindictive grudge holder, you might choose to vote with him anyway. It's all a question of properly reading the situation and forecasting the political implications of your actions.

Of course, I'm assuming in my example that there isn't a clearly correct answer based on the facts of the situation. An acquisition was a good choice for my example, as they tend to reflect opinions about the future, rather than facts. If there is a clear factually correct answer, I would have a tough time not following it, regardless of the political ramifications. But that's just me. I'm sure there are some politicians that would act based on the political reality alone, largely ignoring or discounting the facts.