Disput Resolution: Respecting Power and Corporate Hierarchies to Resolve Issues

Introduction

Bob worked at a local bank in the EDP Audit department as a computer programmer. His job was to write software to create reports from the bank application systems for the financial auditors.

These application systems processed and maintained information relating to the various products offered by the bank. These included deposit accounts, loans, credit cards, and so on.

His job often required him to ask for information from people in different departments about how they used or stored the information on the application files. The financial auditors would also ask questions of a different nature about this information. They would determine the information needed to review the product data and look for the information on application reports. Auditors used the reports to cross check the application reports.

Often, their questions would intersect with Bob’s questions. When that happened, what should have happened is the manager’s from different departments and Bob should have got the same answers.

However, on one occasion the answers differed. As a result, Bob’s manager, and the financial auditor Bob was working with, questioned the data Bob was providing and his integrity. While there were no direct accusations, both the manager and auditor insisted the auditor had the correct information and demanded that Bob use it even though Bob insisted it was incorrect.

There appeared to be another agenda playing out. However, for Bob his Asperger syndrome (AS) made it difficult to discern what exactly this was. He had to figure out what was happening and bring it to light in order to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Doing so meant interpreting effectively the inter-personal actions and true motives of others.

Names and minor details have been changed to protect client confidentiality. This case study should not be taken as an exact solution to a similar situation in another company. It is only presented as an example of one solution to this type of problem and is for illustrative purposes only.

Case Study

My assignment was to change a report extracted from an application that brought significant revenue to the bank. I was to add a column showing the interest earned to date as stored on the application system files.

The person who oversaw the application system was Mr. Draper, a manager in his department and a bank officer. A former programmer himself, he helped install the application software and convert the data from the old system, so he knew where all of the data was on the files. He was the primary source of information for both the EDP Audit programmers and the financial auditors. Mr. Draper’s boss was a member of the Board of Directors of the bank.

My immediate boss was Mr. Harding, the EDP Auditor. All requests for new software or maintenance to existing software had to go through him. He was the original EDP Audit programmer for the bank many years earlier and he never took one of his programmers with him to meetings to discuss software changes. If a request appeared too complicated to him, he would veto it. He had frequent staff turnover in his department, so his programmers were usually inexperienced. He did not want them contradicting anything that he had previously developed.

The financial auditor requesting the change was Ms. Green. She reported to the Audit Manager, a position equivalent to the EDP Auditor in the financial audit group. The financial audit group and EDP Audit group were under the Senior Auditor, who was a member of the Board of Directors of the bank.

Mr. Draper was in a completely separate department and had no authority over any auditors, but we were required to work with him and his employees during an audit. Mr. Harding, Ms. Green and Mr. Draper met to plan this software change. Mr. Draper told Ms. Green that the interest earned to date was stored in a data field by itself. I reviewed the master file layout and did not see the interest field listed.

Consequently, I called Mr. Draper, who said the interest earned to date was not stored separately. Instead, it was computed, printed separately, added to other balances and stored. I asked Mr. Draper if there was a similar data item to the one Ms. Green requested. Mr. Draper said there was not.

I called Ms. Green to clarify what she wanted. I told her I did not see how I could make the changes she wanted based on my conversation with Mr. Draper and asked her what he had told her. As we talked, I noticed differences in what Mr. Draper told her versus what he told me, which puzzled me. She said Mr. Draper told her the data was on the master file in a field by itself.

At this point, I decided the best course of action was to clear up the misunderstanding by asking questions until I had the full and complete story. I called Mr. Draper back and asked about what Ms. Green told me. Mr. Draper denied telling Ms. Green that the data was available as a separate field and said it was only available in one that was combined with other data. It was more useful to him in this form than as a separate figure.

I called Ms. Green again and told her what Mr. Draper said. She insisted that Mr. Draper told her the data was in a separate field. She also insisted that she absolutely needed to have that field on the report, and that I had to do what was necessary to put it there. Mr. Draper restated testily that he absolutely did not tell Ms. Green that the interest earned was stored separately. He had no further information to offer.

The incident occurred in the early days of personal computers and we did not have email, so all of these communications were by phone. While Ms. Green returned her calls promptly, Mr. Draper sometimes required several days and two or three attempts. In all, about three weeks elapsed.

Ms. Green went from calling every few days to calling every day for the status on the change. She finally complained to my boss, Mr. Harding. He asked me what was holding up the change and I gave a synopsis. Mr. Harding verified Ms. Green’s assertion that Mr. Draper said the interest earned was on a separate field and accused me of not doing the job right. This was his normal procedure when someone had difficulty solving a problem. He then gave me several ideas to try out, including checking every interest rate field in the system against the application report and going over the application manuals (I was already doing both). He advised me to put more effort into my work.

Over the next week, I tried all of Mr. Harding’s ideas. I thought they were unlikely to work because I had tried almost all of them already, but I did everything by the numbers just in case I was wrong. None of the ideas did work and I could not think of any way to reconcile the opposing stories of Mr. Draper and Ms. Green.

After reviewing the results of my conversations and research, I concluded that interest earned was not in a separate field on any of the application files. It then dawned on me that Mr. Draper might be deliberately telling Ms. Green and me opposing stories. In other words, there was an inter-personal disagreement being played – and I was caught in the middle.

Lying to Ms. Green meant not having to argue about having the interest amount separated on the file. It was common for the Audit Department to encounter resistance from managers of other departments. We were considered by many to be an unnecessary evil. In fact, we tried to keep inconvenience to a minimum. Some people were hostile, anyway. It is possible that he simply expected us to go away, but neither Ms. Green nor I were inclined to do so. Since I could not get Ms. Green and Mr. Harding to listen to me, I only had one option left. Because it would involve managers at or near Director level, I had to be careful to stick to verifiable facts and not behave in a manner that could appear to be disrespectful or belligerent.

First thing the next morning I went into Mr. Harding’s office and told him that: “I need your help”. He responded positively given that asking him for help was respecting managerial hierarchies and protocol.

I told him that I was getting opposing stories from Mr. Draper and Ms. Green and that I had no clear understanding as to whose information I should believe and, therefore, follow. I explained that I was also concerned that rejecting one person’s request would alienate them and cause friction. My position in the hierarchy meant that I did not have the authority to do this either. I suggested that the four of us meet to resolve all miscommunications. Mr. Harding agreed to set up the meeting.

On the day of the meeting, and before we went in, Mr. Harding told me to let him do the talking so he could show me how things were done. I readily agreed while suppressing a smile given that I believed he was really looking forward to acting as the conciliatory “kingmaker”. Looking back, I may have done him an injustice. I thought he was being condescending, but maybe he was just trying to show me how to be constructive in a meeting with upper management. I think he saw more clearly than I did how much I had to learn about thinking and acting in a professional manner.

At the meeting, he and Ms. Green each gave me a smug glance as Mr. Draper walked in with his assistant and sat down, looking unhappy. I did not overtly react but adopted a respectful “paying attention” position. I believed that I had to let this play out without any input from me as it necessitated staying out of a political situation that revolved around power and status.

Ms. Green asked Mr. Draper about the interest earned field. Mr. Draper said there was not one and explained that he was talking about interest received being in a separate field. She and Mr. Harding pressed for further details and Mr. Draper ended up giving them the same information he gave me. He said that he misunderstood their questions at the earlier meeting. The argument he had been dodging was finally on and he had to tell them that several pieces of data they wanted were not available as separate data fields. Mr. Harding and Ms. Green were visibly dissatisfied about this.

I kept quiet and looked only at my note pad as I took detailed notes. I wrote down the directives with my eyes fixed downward. I did not want to send any implicit message that I believed any party had acted inappropriately or that I was angry with anyone. This was important, I believed, to reduce the possibility of retribution later. If I had looked up my eyes may have suggested otherwise.

After we left the meeting, Mr. Harding said to me, “Just do the best you can” in a tone of disappointment. I said, “You got it” in my most neutral tone. Mr. Draper was forthcoming and honest with his information after that.

Summary

What Mr. Draper did was inconsistent with his past behavior. The company had a culture that encouraged managers to dominate each other in a constant fight for power and influence in order to protect their positions. There was little mutual co-operation, just an exchange of political favors.

Consequently, conflicts often resulted which created a lot of animosity and tension in many departments where the managers did not set a better example by acting more collegiately to remove the pressure lower down. Ms. Green would routinely use implied threats to get what she wanted from people. I believed that Mr. Draper had reacted to this and had used me as a detour to avoid confronting her or having to deal with her directly. Using me as a go-between meant I could, possibly, be blamed for any misunderstandings.

I chose the most honest solution I could think of. One that respected management hierarchies and authority and offered the best prospect of keeping me out of a conflict, which could have been highly damaging personally: get everyone in the same meeting and get all of the stories and requirements out first-hand into the open.

By doing this there was less possibility of the three of them projecting any blame onto me by targeting me as a scapegoat, something that could, possibly, have been used as a reason to fire me. Fortunately, Ms. Green and Mr. Harding only wanted to get the job done and not target any individual.

Mr. Harding was what I would call a toxic boss. His management style was to bully, belittle and insult his employees and this had a detrimental effect on other people going down the hierarchy by making them overly protective and on edge.

He also belittled me behind my back to the financial audit staff. We were in a different location from them, so it took awhile for this news to get back to me. I suspect that, over time, the manager of the financial audit group pressured his staff not to work with our group any more than necessary. While Mr. Harding was using mainframe software to extract application data for audits, the financial audit manager pushed for a different approach. He wanted the financial auditors to create their own reports on the fly using data downloaded to desktop computers and eliminate the EDP Audit programming staff. He fought Mr. Harding over that issue for over ten years.

I had increasing problems working with the financial auditors as the years passed and staff turnover brought in new people. Eventually, only a few of them would work with me. Maybe it was the backbiting or maybe I insulted some people without knowing it. I will never know for sure.

I did feel a sense of satisfaction because Mr. Draper had to admit, even if indirectly, that he gave Mr. Harding and Ms. Green the wrong information. He reluctantly conceded I was right. However, I felt that they had treated me disrespectfully and had questioned my integrity and, consequently, I derived a certain satisfaction in Mr. Draper’s obvious discomfort.

However, this attitude was unprofessional and not justified in a business context. It can also be counterproductive and damaging going forward. Showing any smugness when proven right can invite retribution later. Not overtly showing that you have “won” is as important as confronting the issue in the first place. This is something I have learned not to do and to guard against.

In a toxic company with a toxic manager, it can be extremely to resolve conflicts constructively, especially for someone with AS. However, by respecting hierarchies, power bases and following set procedures, people with AS in this type of environment can navigate through the prevailing politics are and stay out of conflict situations.

Every employee, especially those with AS, must be constantly receptive of appearances and any hidden meanings and agendas being played out. Within most organizations, there will inevitably be days where conflicts will occur that can lead to angry exchanges. Manipulations and hidden agendas are part of this, so exercise care with whom you associate and what you say to everyone.

Approach and work constructively with others to resolve issues by getting everything out in the open via honest and effective communication. Be aware of sensitivities and, as in this case study, refer the matter higher up for senior managers to resolve. Stick to documented facts and do not let emotions and opinions cloud the issues.

Find a way to start things off in the proper direction. Document everything and publish as much of it as you need to get the job done by circulating your conclusions and position openly. Afterwards, never be seen to hold any residual grudge against anyone; let bygones be bygones and always seek to work positively with people on a non-personal basis. In other words, be the “big” person.

A person with AS may have lower emotional maturity in relation to cognitive abilities, but your coworkers will not understand that. Consequently, it is all too easy to overreact to both positive and negative emotions, making you seem less professional than the people around you. Learning to control any feelings of anger, fear, frustration, smugness, joy.

If you do this, but the corporate culture still makes this difficult or penalizes you, consider moving to another organization. Such a culture is not one in which someone with AS is ever likely to feel entirely comfortable or able to achieve their full potential.

It is also important to leave the issues behind in the workplace once the working day is over. After work do something to get rid of residual anxiety from the day’s conflicts. Retain a wider perspective on things by doing something relaxing and non-work related such as going to the movies. Always make an effort to personally let things go.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome