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Advice | Work Advice: Friction between leaders makes project a time bomb


Reader: I’m wondering how to handle a work project that is about to crash and burn due to interpersonal conflicts between the project leads.

My supervisor, “Pat,” has been leading a large externally-funded project, with the bulk of the work done by a few contractors from outside our organization.

One of these contractors, “Rob,” has been a critical lead for the project and a good work friend. But his relationship with Pat has become combative, with Pat being verbally and emotionally abusive to him.

Rob has shown me some of Pat’s messages in confidence, and they have each privately griped to me about the other.

Rob’s contract is about to expire, and he has made it clear he won’t be returning. He also holds the expertise and know-how to keep some of the custom solutions of the project running.

But as I hear it from him, he’s not planning on any effective documentation or transition plan to keep those things operational once he’s gone. Rob has warned Pat for weeks now about his impending departure but hasn’t received any feedback about it.

Pat has generally been unavailable and incommunicado to everyone for a while now, for various reasons.

A few of us full-time staff have been involved around the edges of this project, and I worry that once Rob leaves, resentment and abuse and extra work will rain down on us. Any thoughts on how to help defuse this potential time bomb?

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Karla: Neither of your leads is being 100 percent professional here. Pat sounds like the clear antagonist — no excuse for abuse or abdicating leadership responsibilities — but Rob’s failure to help set the project up to succeed beyond his tenure amounts to passive sabotage, if not a contract violation.

I understand he might not feel inclined to go above and beyond to make Pat look good, but a “good work friend” won’t knowingly allow you to be collateral damage.

You may have to take the lead on helping Rob help you, however. If he’s not documenting his own work or laying out a transition plan, step up and start asking him the questions Pat should be asking.

You don’t need to master every detail, but you should have a general chart of the major functions of the project, the points of contact, and the basic systems, software, and platforms involved. That way, even when Rob isn’t there to fix his custom work, you’ll have some idea where to start tracking down other people with the skills to reverse-engineer it.

The more colleagues you can pull in to take part in this documentation and transition planning, the better — after all, they’re in the blast zone as well.

Yes, taking over documentation means more work for you in the short term, but you’re going to end up with extra work even if you sit back and do nothing.

Taking ownership of this problem now could mitigate some of the impact when Rob departs and Pat rolls back in like an overdue thunderstorm. And it’s easier to get these answers from Rob now, while he’s still under contract, instead of trying to beg help from him after he’s left.

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One political consideration is whether you will be appreciated or resented for showing initiative and filling the leadership vacuum. Consider looping in Pat on closeout emails and discussions — not because Pat especially deserves goodwill and transparency, but so you can avoid the appearance of conspiring to undermine Pat’s authority.

Unlike Rob, you don’t have the luxury of never having to deal with Pat again, so it’s in your best interest to be a good team player throughout this process. And if a reckoning ever occurs, you’ll have hard evidence of Pat’s lack of responsiveness.

Having the foresight to anticipate problems, the initiative to address them and the integrity to offer everyone a share in the success can look good on your performance review and earn you leadership cred, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

But protecting yourself and others from preventable fallout may be reward enough on its own.

Reader query: Retirees and those planning to retire: How much notice did you give/do you intend to give leading up to retirement, and why? Employers: How much notice do you expect retirees to give you? Let me know at karla.miller@washpost.com



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