Successful Use of a Confrontational Style to Gain Influence*

This is an actual example of a strong, competent young woman in a very male tech organization, being discriminated against by her boss, despite her rapid demonstration of high skills in her sales job.  The boss favored a young man and gave him credit for Chris’s work.

With a change in laws protecting against discrimination, this type of problem may be less likely to arise than at the time it happened, but unfortunately, there are still bosses or others who over-support those like them and deliberately or unconsciously discriminate against anyone “different.”  It isn’t easy to fight for one’s rights without increasing resistance and distance.  Is it possible to demonstrate toughness without making an enemy? See how Chris strategizes in this tough situation.

Chris Hammond told us she was forced to take tough actions because of the intransigence of her boss. Note the way she marshals resources and uses a confrontational style to achieve mutual gains:

When I was a sales trainee, I knew that if I didn’t make the “Computex” Sales Award, my career at Computex would be ended. Although they wouldn’t fire me, I would just be a sales rep, twiddling my thumbs for however long I stayed. You have to make your number s. So there I was, with a manager who had 20 items that he needed to make to achieve his budget by the end of the quarter and who was trying to make sure that I didn’t make the Computex Sales Award. Sales trainees aren’t supposed to make the sales award, and if I did, then he should have promoted me to sales representative. So I asked his secretary what budget number she needed. I wasn’t being devious; I was really trying to support him. I wanted him to succeed because that was the on y way I could succeed. But I had to do it with a power play because he wouldn’t treat me seriously.

I read the numbers and said to myself, “Okay, he can’t make it in these six areas.” As it so happened, I had an account that was going to make the numbers in four of those areas. Then I called up every single open lead on which no one had returned calls, identified the ones that were going to close in a month, and found 15 accounts.

As a sales trainee, that wasn’t what I was paid to do; I was paid to learn. But I was tired of being a sales trainee; I was determined to be a sales rep and make the Computex Sales Award—and be the only sales trainee to do it that year.

Furthermore, my manager had a fair-haired boy, the only sales rep he had personally hired, whom he wanted to make the sales award. My manager reasoned that if I made the sales award and was leaving on July 1 to take a job at corporate headquarters, I should give 50 percent of anything I booked to the sales rep. I told my manager that I didn’t think that was fair unless he was willing to give me 50 percent of all the sales rep’s bookings since I had done a considerable amount of work and could document it on two large banking orders. I was being asked to give the rep a split so that he would make the sales award, and I was getting nothing for it. A key link in my strategy was knowing that exposing my manager would not be advantageous for either the manager or the sales rep.

I went to the district manager and asked whether I would make the sales award if I closed such and such accounts. He said yes. So I said, “That is not what my manager told me: I would have to give 50 percent to the sales representative.” The district manager asked why, and when I answered, he looked at me in total disbelief. I explained that I didn’t think it was fair that the sales rep should make the award on behalf of my efforts, and if that was the case, the company would not get any

of the business I had found. I would leave the company today, take my vacation pay, and go. The district manager said to go back and talk to my manager. What none of them knew was that I already had the bookings in my drawer. I could make good on any deal I worked with them, and I knew what they needed to make their numbers look good to their bosses.

There were two weeks left in the quarter, and my manager was scared now because he wasn’t going to make his numbers. I said to him, “I have a problem. I really want to go back to headquarters, and I need your help. I need to make the sales award. You know that and I know that. I can’t go back to corporate as a turkey who hasn’t succeeded in making the sales award. I believe I’ve put forth the sales effort required to do that. I also believe I should go back as a sales rep. I believe I’ve earned that. I think I can make the budget numbers for you, and I can bring in these two accounts. All that I need from you is the assurance that I will receive the Computex Sales Award if I do it. Otherwise, I’m not going to work another day.”

He looked at me and finally said, “If you get those orders in, you can make the sales award, and yes, if you bring in that business, then you’re more than qualified to be a sales rep.” He never thought I could get the orders. I walked into his office with them two days later.

What motivated me for the most part was realizing that they were not taking me seriously or paying attention to how many accounts were closed as a result of my efforts. I also wanted them to know that I was fully aware of their attempt to use me. That kind of approach is a very strong power play and a high-risk strategy, but if you succeed, you are given much more respect and higher levels of managerial credibility.

Chris followed a high-risk strategy that could have backfired at any of several junctures. In some companies, going over her boss’s head to the district manager would have been seen as inappropriate, insubordinate, and possibly even grounds for dismissal. The sales manager she cornered might have retaliated by refusing to recommend her for promotion to a sales rep or by spreading negative rumors to others in the organization with whom she would be dealing in the future. Further, she might have made a permanent enemy of the sales rep who had been promised credit for her work. These are all the potential costs to take into account before selecting such a strategy.

Nevertheless, when faced with a situation in which she believed there was little left to lose and everything to gain, Chris correctly diagnosed her boss’s most valued currency (his sales quota); stressed the currencies she commanded or could command (sales to customers not yet approached by anyone at Computex, her boss’s reputation with the district manager); and made an exchange that got her what she wanted, helped her boss, and was good for the company. (She was not insensitive to the organizational culture; managers at Computex are valued for playing exactly that kind of “guts ball,” and Chris has continued to do well there.)