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Does It Feel Like Your Department Has Been Sidelined?

Author: Nihar Chhaya

Summary: As business needs and relationships at work continuously change, so does the relative influence of certain departments. In this piece, the author offers strategies to follow if you’re getting the sense that your department is being cast aside: 1) Reflect on the root cause of your exclusion; 2) Tie your department’s work to clear business needs; 3) Broaden your perceived value; 4) Keep driving results; 5) Build up those that are coming up after you

If you were to look at the inner workings of any successful company, you would notice an intricate web of departments — marketing, IT, HR, engineering, legal, etc. — in a constant give-and-take with the units they support.

As business priorities change, certain parts of the company inevitably will command influence and visibility while others get sidelined. A product line may have outgrown its appeal to customers, so the leader or employees associated with it are now deemed less important. Or a support function that developed a reputation of being a “blocker” due to holding up execution in the past may be actively avoided by the businesses. And it doesn’t help either that with today’s growing remote workforce, it’s hard to tell whether you are being ostracized intentionally.

Like any social setting, when you work in a department that isn’t invited to the party, you may worry about being left out. How will being excluded affect the motivation and effectiveness of your team, not to mention your own future influence and career growth? Here are five strategies to follow if you’re getting the sense that your department is being cast aside.

Reflect on the root cause of your exclusion.

In my coaching work, I’ve found that not all departments are shunned for the same reasons. And research shows that even though being ostracized at work is unpleasant, it’s not always maliciously intended.

Are you being sidelined because of poor relationships with those in a key position of influence? Or is it just that you’ve been kept out of the loop in a few meetings or recent emails? By doing a bit of investigation and trying your best to assume positive intent in others, you can better prepare a strategy to improve your influence among key teams and colleagues.

Another common reason why some departments get sidelined is because of a damaged reputation within the company, often due to the missteps of a former leader. If you happen to be a new leader of a team that suffers from the sins of your predecessor, it’s critical that you intentionally set out on a rebranding effort, not just passively sit on the sidelines.

Don’t badmouth the former leader but communicate your new vision with the team and other stakeholders with vigor. You may tell them, “Our department is focused on driving the enterprise forward and we are actively learning how to build deeper trust with your team than ever before.” If you don’t control your department’s narrative and work to replace the “old tapes” in their minds, you risk never regaining a seat at the table.

Tie your department’s work to clear business needs.

One way to recapture influence if it’s been lost is to demonstrate how working with your team will yield benefits for the overall business. For many non-market facing departments, this requires proactive development of business acumen and continuous messaging in the language of enterprise value, not just in the dialect of the individual department.

For instance, one of my executive coaching clients was a new VP of HR who inherited a team which the businesses traditionally ignored on strategic issues and only called on them for basic tactical and compliance-tracking needs.

The VP took a two-pronged approach to elevate HR’s strategic value on people issues that would make or break the company in the future. First, she prioritized developing her HR organization’s ability to think, speak, and act in ways that connected their work to business needs. Second, she focused on generating interest and urgency from her peers (the members of the business leadership team) around the issues on which HR could provide crucial strategic value. Urgent initiatives on talent recruitment, development, retention, and succession planning, to name a few, were vital to business performance and competitiveness amidst the currently fickle employee market.

The result of upskilling her organization, while actively managing its brand with internal customers, was a rise in active collaboration, smarter and thoughtful decisions, and a more engaged, motivated HR team.

Broaden your perceived value.

Remember that you are more than just the job title you have or the department in which your office sits. Just because other parts of the company aren’t calling on you as much as they used to doesn’t mean you have to sit around waiting. Take what you know and what you’ve learned, share your stories, and build awareness without expecting anything in return. As people experience your ideas, implicit needs will arise where people feel compelled to seek your counsel.

One of my coaching clients was the VP of corporate strategy and M&A at a Fortune 500 company. When the company was flush with cash and buying up companies to grow fast, he was highly influential. But in recent years with cost cutting and fending off a volatile economy, his department’s activity dramatically diminished.

After a few months of angst about what this meant for his career, he decided to take stock of his expertise in markets and strategy and start a newsletter to share his ideas and advice.

What started out as a side activity turned into a vehicle by which people inside and outside his organization saw him as an expert and influencer. On a personal note, he recaptured a sense of purpose and self-efficacy that kept him motivated during a time of low morale. And his efforts helped him build new alliances with colleagues that would pave the way for future influence and contribution.

Keep driving results (even if it feels like no one is paying attention).

Power within organizations is situational so it’s likely that your department’s lack of influence isn’t permanent. As events take place in your industry and across the markets your company serves, priorities change, making one part of the business that used to have the most visibility fade into the background and others’ stars rise. But when you are in the phase of being underutilized, how you act at that time can either help or hinder your influence later.

A study showed that when people are ostracized at work they tend to act in one of three ways to cope: pro-socially (seeking ways to be more helpful), anti-socially (seeking ways to retaliate or ostracize others), or seeking solitude. Social belonging is one of our highest human needs yet you may respond to this unmet desire in ways that limit your potential influence at work.

For instance, choosing to reciprocally exclude others or retreat into solitude may remove the sting of being sidelined but will likely hold you back from being visible as a leader that people want to support. Conversely, acting in a prosocial manner while keeping focused on the job at hand provides you a sense of agency over your career when overlooked, rather than being a victim. And when you feel most ostracized, it can feel empowering to extend a hand to others who have been left out and explore opportunities for mutually beneficial initiatives.

I often advise leaders to think of themselves as highly valuable assets to the enterprise, not just their job or department. After all, the most sophisticated organizations determine their high-potential players, not just high performers; it’s about the pivotal few that can make an impact across the company and into the future, not just in the current role.

So, if you operate with a mindset of success that transcends your current station, you will attract opportunities to make a difference somehow. And when things change — and they most certainly will — your positive brand as a results and relationship-oriented leader will remain intact.

Build up those that are coming up after you.

In those disappointing times when the door is closed to as you pursue success, it can be empowering to turn around and open the door for someone behind you. No matter who includes you or excludes you, you always can choose to lead others from where you are. And by doing so, you elevate your influence across the next generation of talent.

I coached a newly hired managing director at a global investment firm whose job was to continually source deals, pitch them to the company’s management committee and then execute on the ones they approved. He wanted to be elected partner, which would depend on how many transactions he could bring to fruition. While successfully presenting a record number of deals, he failed to get approval from the committee on most of them. Amidst his worry about whether he still had a shot at advancement in the firm, he decided to expand his definition of success. He asked himself, “If I can’t control deal flow, how can I still lead?”

By thinking like a partner and owner of the firm, he expanded his measure of success from just deals to fostering future talent. So alongside his work developing business, he started an initiative to coach junior associates on key aspects of client interactions that led to better deal sourcing. The result was a clear perception of influence internally, even if his pitches weren’t the right fit for investment.

. . .

As business needs and relationships at work continuously change, so does the relative influence of certain departments, which can feel like being left out of the action. But by following these recommendations during times of inactivity, you can elevate your value and be ready to exert greater influence in the future.



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