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Office Politics – Avoid the ‘Slam Dunk’, Protect Your Supervisor, Manager, or Owner

By SueCanyon | September 7, 2007

In management, the slam dunk is a maneuver that will result in a power play whenever there is a conflict between two people, two departments, or two companies.

If you know anything about basketball, you’ve probably heard of the ‘slam dunk’. Put simply, the slam dunk is usually delivered by a tall player who gets above the basket with the ball in hand and pushes it forcefully down through the net.

In management, the slam dunk is a maneuver that will result in a power play whenever there is a conflict between two people, two departments, or two companies. Regardless of your feelings about office politics, if you ignore the offense of the slam dunk, you will end up needing to defend yourself.

How Does It Work?

It works like this: A conflict arises between people of two departments or two companies. Somewhere above them in the management chain is a manager common to both, or the owners of both. The offensive player will complain to his manager, who will complain to his, etc. up the chain.

Once the complaint reaches the common manager, or the owners, the dunk will begin. The common manager will call into his office his subordinate who heads the other leg of the chain, who will call the next, etc. Since the defensive player has not yet spoken to his supervisor, none of the managers in this leg of the chain are aware of the problem, and all must take a defensive posture.

In these cases, the ‘first person with an idea’ principle usually wins out. An example of both the ‘slam dunk’ and the ‘first person with an idea’ principle can be seen everyday between two siblings. One runs to the parent complaining of some offense, “Johnny did THIS to ME!” How often does Johnny get into trouble with the parent whether the offense really happened or not? 

As much as we like to think that we have outgrown that sort of behavior, we see it everyday in business. You can see how the player who said nothing, who did not prepare his management for what might be coming, will get his tail feathers burned. He, and all of his management chain, will be forced into a defensive posture and ultimately the person at the last link of the chain will take the brunt of the dunk.

For example, a disagreement arises between Ken and Jan of two different departments. Let’s say that trusted-and-faithful Ken is certain that he was justified in retrieving his microscope from Jan because he needs it to get a high-priority shipment out.

With his own scope in hand, Ken confidently returns to his work station. He feels justified, so he thinks Jan should also feel that he was right. His thinking is incorrect, and he has just set up his supervisor, Clara, for the slam dunk.

 Slam Dunk Pic

The offended party, instead, believes SHE is right and will explain to her supervisor, Tom, how unjust Ken was. Trusted and faithful Jan has gone to convince Tom, that Ken (from the other department) is unreasonable. Tom is certain that the shipment he has her working on is more important than Clara’s shipment. That is why he borrowed the scope from Clara’s department in the first place. Therefore, Tom will complain to Bill who is the lowest manager common to the two departments.

 Bill will rule one of two ways. Remember, Ken has not yet spoken to Clara. She is the only person not privy to the situation. Bill will either decide which shipment must go out first, or he will respond to the ‘first person with an idea’ principle: the first person to complain must be right.

Often, the squeaky wheel wins. Clara will be pounced upon by Bill, Tom, and Jan. Clara will ‘lose’ because she has no idea what the others are talking about and therefore does not have a prepared response. But, the real loss will be suffered by Ken. By not forewarning Clara of the possibility that a situation may come back to her, he has damaged his ‘trusted and faithful’ status with her, possibly for a long time. Ken unknowingly set up the slam dunk, Jan delivered it. The slam dunk worked in Jan’s favor. She won the microscope… and won points with her supervisor.

Let’s face it, none of you has time for any of this, so always remember to inform your next level up (or down as the case may be) of potential trouble before it comes back to bite you.

Slam Dunk Insurance

If however, Ken had spoken to Clara while Jan spoke to Tom, Clara might have told Ken to return the scope. All the while, Tom is complaining to Bill. While Jan now tries to stop the ball from rolling because her problem has been solved, Tom and Bill are in Clara’s office learning (because Clara is now prepared) that the issue has been resolved and didn’t need Bill’s attention in the first place. You can see how, in this case, it would be Jan who lost the points. In reality, two supervisors who work as closely as Tom and Clara would not elevate a problem like this to Bill.

To avoid the slam dunk, always keep your supervisor, manager, or owner posted when a conflict occurs between yourself and someone from another department or company. Tell her what happened, no matter what the outcome, so she will be optimally prepared if it should come back to her. The supervisors can then work it out among themselves and leave the manager or owners out of it. This permits the manager or owner to work with supervisor Charlie whose department has lost $5,000 this month (Charlie has yet to read these blogs).

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Topics: For Your Employees, Other Mistakes, Pocket Mentor | No Comments »

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