Undermining the Boss

There are many lessons to be learned in sailing. First, I always learn something about myself when I’m sailing and secondly, I always learn something about those with whom I’m sailing – sometimes good, sometimes not so good, and sometimes just plain awful. You see the thing is, when you’re on a sailboat, any kind of pretense or falsehood goes out the window pretty quickly, especially in heavy weather: people are who they really are, and sometimes that ain’t pretty.

I try to be an effective skipper (aka leader) when I’m sailing. I take my duties as skipper very seriously. So while I’m there to have some fun, I’m also very much responsible for the lives and safety of my crew. Sailing can be dangerous, people can get hurt.

I’m a tidy skipper. I make certain that lines are coiled properly when not in use, and that things are put away in their standard holding places. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is safety. A person can easily stand on a loose line that is just laying around, get entangled in it and taken overboard pretty fast. (And I hate doing “Man Overboard” drills for real.) A winch laying loose can easily skate across the deck and go overboard or worse, hit someone. (And winches are pretty important.)

A number of years ago I was sailing with some friends of mine. I knew Susan quite well (or so I thought), I knew David professionally and did not know David’s friend at all. Susan had sailed before and thus was the First Mate. David and his friend Doug, had never been sailing before.

When teaching people how to sail, I use the theory of “tell-show-do”: Tell them how to do it, show them how to do it and then let them do it. (This can work well in business too.) So I took the time to walk them around the boat, teaching them the proper terms for everything. Once under sail, I showed them how to ‘come about’ (change the sails from one side of the boat to the other), along with some other fundamentals.

At one point, I put Susan in charge of the helm and went below for a while. Up above they decided to ‘come about’ and I heard Susan say to David and Doug, “Oh don’t worry about coiling the lines, you don’t need to do that, Kathleen’s just fussy.” When I came back up on deck, there were uncoiled lines all over the cockpit and on the deck, winches laying around.

Ah, there it was: Susan had been undermining my authority.

We know this happens in the corporate world all the time. How do you handle it? How do you deal with someone who’s trying to discredit you, or undermine what it is you’re trying to do? It’s a difficult task to be sure.

I’m afraid I didn’t handle this particular situation very well. I took the command and control route. I explained the primary reasons for tidiness on a boat once again: 1) safety, and 2) ease of operation. I also explained that I was the skipper and responsible for the safety of this novice crew and that it was important they follow my direction. Because of their inexperience, they didn’t know the perils.

So tell me: What could I have done differently? How could I have handled this better? What experience have you had with similar situations? How did you handle it?


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