The Dangers of Working with Saviors

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree and Rising.

Epiphanies always amaze me, but then, that’s what an epiphany is supposed to do, right? Surprise, amaze, give you a “doh!” moment? It’s not late-breaking news to see someone cut others down or sabotage their efforts to make themselves look good. I’ve seen plenty of that in my career as well as elsewhere, but usually when I see it, it’s a deliberate thing. The epiphany is when it happens and you’re not aware of it, when it’s a subtle dynamic operating under the surface and it’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.

There’s a particular dynamic that has played out many times over 5 or 6 years with a particular colleague of mine. He’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 “equals” 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, I’m considered the epitome of calm, cool, and collected. My coworkers like to see me negotiate because I’m good with strategy and analysis but I don’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 that’s when my level-headed, let’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 others’ ire was directed at me. I always felt I was swimming against the current on projects with him that went awry and I didn’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 like…manure.

The person pointing this out remarked that since our guru’s retirement, I’m consistently less stressed. She asked why I was so stressed in the past over certain issues that my older colleague hadn’t had a problem with at all. She named two negotiations that had been disasters but shouldn’t have been disasters.

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That’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, we’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. I’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 we’d settle on our “united front” to present and I’d present it, much to the consternation of our adversary. At some point, the negotiation would be contentious—as many negotiations do when you’re testing the boundaries—but I would hold firm. Then at the last minute, when the adversary would either cave or I’d walk away, my partner would come back to them with a way of making things work, even when it wasn’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 we’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 “reasonable” and willing to come up with “solutions” 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 “do lunch” with my older colleague who “saved the day” and frequently talk about what a wonderful negotiator he is.

And that’s when I realize this dynamic, even though I don’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 day—or the negotiation or the situation or the project—gave him a sense of purpose in his life in a career he otherwise felt left behind in because he hadn’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 “saving” 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 couldn’t save them or they weren’t worth saving.

I don’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 didn’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 weren’t necessarily.

Looking back through new lenses, I think it’s easy now to see the pattern of unconsciously setting himself up to be the savior—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 don’t remember that he’s the one who created the conflict to begin with. They wish he’d come out of retirement, and I suspect that his retirement is rather miserable if he can’t be a hero.


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