The Dangers of Working with Saviors
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree and Rising.
Epiphanies always amaze me, but then, thatâ€™s what an epiphany is supposed to do, right? Surprise, amaze, give you a â€œdoh!â€ moment? Itâ€™s not late-breaking news to see someone cut others down or sabotage their efforts to make themselves look good. Iâ€™ve seen plenty of that in my career as well as elsewhere, but usually when I see it, itâ€™s a deliberate thing. The epiphany is when it happens and youâ€™re not aware of it, when itâ€™s a subtle dynamic operating under the surface and itâ€™s never meant to make one person look bad and the other good but it just happens that way until the pattern is set. No ill-intent meant, nothing consciously intended.
Thereâ€™s a particular dynamic that has played out many times over 5 or 6 years with a particular colleague of mine. Heâ€™s retired now and was much more experienced in our career field, and I respected him from the very first day I was introduced to him. (I still do.) At the time, I was training for a new position and he acted as a mentor before we became â€œequalsâ€ in the new office I was working in. I teamed with him on lots of work projects and on some negotiations, and we always made a formidable team.
And yet, as it was pointed out to me, I was often viewed as a hothead on any negotiations I worked on with him whereas on all other projects, Iâ€™m considered the epitome of calm, cool, and collected. My coworkers like to see me negotiate because Iâ€™m good with strategy and analysis but I donâ€™t generally get rattled, lose my temper, or go into a screaming hissy fit. My bosses love me in an emergency war-time situation because thatâ€™s when my level-headed, letâ€™s-get-it-done-and-done-now shines. My older colleague, on the other hand, was always regarded as the calm-everyone-down peacemaker, extremely cooperative, long-suffering, and much beloved while othersâ€™ ire was directed at me. I always felt I was swimming against the current on projects with him that went awry and I didnâ€™t understand why any of the less successful projects left him unscathed while people were screeching at me. Somehow he always managed to emerge smelling like roses and me likeâ€¦manure.
The person pointing this out remarked that since our guruâ€™s retirement, Iâ€™m consistently less stressed. She asked why I was so stressed in the past over certain issues that my older colleague hadnâ€™t had a problem with at all. She named two negotiations that had been disasters but shouldnâ€™t have been disasters.
Thatâ€™s when the epiphany hit. My colleague had most certainly had a problem with the same issues I was known for battling. I remembered both of these negotiations quite well. In both cases, weâ€™d agreed that our adversary had taken an unfair position and we were willing to walk away from the negotiation or force our adversary to fulfill their existing contractual obligations. We sat at his desk for many hours, working through strategies, planning. He, the more experienced one, urged me to be strong and to fight for what was right.
Hmmm, no problem there. Iâ€™ve never had a problem standing up for my convictions. In a few cases, I might have taken a more cooperative tone early on, since I usually get through my negotiations by cooperating rather than fighting. But weâ€™d settle on our â€œunited frontâ€ to present and Iâ€™d present it, much to the consternation of our adversary. At some point, the negotiation would be contentiousâ€”as many negotiations do when youâ€™re testing the boundariesâ€”but I would hold firm. Then at the last minute, when the adversary would either cave or Iâ€™d walk away, my partner would come back to them with a way of making things work, even when it wasnâ€™t necessarily the best thing for our project, even when it would cost us much more money, even when I was still hanging out there fighting for what weâ€™d agreed to for our united front. The negotiations would end with a major concession from my team and a lot of hostility toward me because my negotiating partner was being so â€œreasonableâ€ and willing to come up with â€œsolutionsâ€ where I was not. Some of those people still have hard feelings toward me because they believe my negotiating position was a ruse and yet, they occasionally â€œdo lunchâ€ with my older colleague who â€œsaved the dayâ€ and frequently talk about what a wonderful negotiator he is.
And thatâ€™s when I realize this dynamic, even though I donâ€™t believe it was ever intentionally manipulative. My colleague was a man of integrity and believed in doing the right thing, with strong opinions on how things should be handled. Counter that need to fight for right with his need to fight for peace at all costs. He hated confrontations and loved being the one to make peace for everyone. Saving the dayâ€”or the negotiation or the situation or the projectâ€”gave him a sense of purpose in his life in a career he otherwise felt left behind in because he hadnâ€™t been promoted in years and was staring down retirement. He loved being a peacemaker so much that he would create a confrontational situation or egg one on so he could fix the problem for everyone and then graciously accept their praise. Bottom line, saving the day made him feel good even when the material results were bad for him (and his team). Not that â€œsavingâ€ is a bad thing, but he was in the wrong career field to give in to such a strong internal need. On the other hand, I did see him walk away from situations and people, many times, when he felt he either couldnâ€™t save them or they werenâ€™t worth saving.
I donâ€™t think he ever meant to make anyone else look bad to make himself look good. He was extremely good at his job and was respected for his work without sabotaging a project. Ironically, his conflicts with other people were almost always the result of trying to save people who didnâ€™t want to be saved in the way he had in mind and his biggest praise was for stepping in to save situations that seemed damned even if they werenâ€™t necessarily.
Looking back through new lenses, I think itâ€™s easy now to see the pattern of unconsciously setting himself up to be the saviorâ€”not just in projects with me but in every project I recall him working on with any colleague. People in my career field still remember him as the one who saved the day on a particular project, but they donâ€™t remember that heâ€™s the one who created the conflict to begin with. They wish heâ€™d come out of retirement, and I suspect that his retirement is rather miserable if he canâ€™t be a hero.