I recently worked with a client, we’ll call her Sharon, who was having a “Chain of Command” issue. One of the Sharon’s employees, who we’ll call Kevin, went over Sharon’s head to discuss a project with Sharon’s boss, Dave. Sharon was the director of this project and Kevin was a project team member. Based on Kevin and Dave’s conversation, Kevin then sent an email to Sharon that was mildly inflammatory. He stated that he would be taking his part of the project in a new direction based on Dave’s feedback. Kevin also stated in the email to Sharon that the new direction that he and Dave agreed upon would make the “product stronger.”

By the time I began working with Sharon, she was frazzled. She was angry with Kevin for circumventing the chain of command, because she felt it exhibited disrespect. It bothered her even more because the two of them had several discussions regarding the direction of this project, and Kevin and seemed to suddenly have “forgotten” those talks. But Sharon was also upset with Dave. If he did indeed say the things that Kevin said he did, Dave totally undermined her authority.

This entire situation boiled down to several levels of miscommunication. It turns out that Kevin exaggerated parts of his conversation with Dave. Dave never told him to take the project in a new direction, and in fact, Dave reiterated the key points that Sharon and Kevin had discussed in the first place.

Sharon’s initial reaction was to rip Dave and Kevin’s heads off, but she took time to cool down, chatted with me, and then asked a variety of questions to figure out what happened. When things get off track in the workplace, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Communication Flow. Who is talking to whom about what and when? Opening the flow of communication rather than making assumptions will prevent destructive conflict.
  2. Recognize Your Ego. People get defensive when their reputation is on the line. Take a step back and ask useful questions to disentangle your ego from the problem.
  3. Gut vs. Strategy. Our initial responses and gut instincts might be correct, but it doesn’t hurt to let some time pass before sending off an edgy email or phone call. In a professional setting, coming up with a well developed response that will resonate with your audience always trumps an emotional reaction.