Q: I've been asked to do a project for a senior executive. The problem is that there are three people above me who are all trying to influence my deliverable. I feel like a pawn that they're trying to use for their purposes. What do I do?
-- DeAnn, 31, manager, communications
A: Navigating dynamics like these is a skill you'll need to be effective in almost any organization.
First of all, it's very possible that people are trying to manipulate you for their own benefit.
The good thing is, since you're aware of it, you're far less likely to be an unwitting victim.
Moreover, you will be better able to manage the situation to your own advantage.
Let's talk about how this all plays out and what you need to know.
As your first step, reflect on the motivations of the three "influencers."
It'll be revealing to understand why the project you've been asked to do is so interesting to them.
Also consider what success looks like to the executive who requested the project. If you're not sure about what they really want, go back and ask the right questions to be able to guide your work.
While you're at it, look at the levels of competition among the four of them.
These will likely be more subtle, unspoken dynamics, but these insights will help you avoid pitfalls in your interactions.
Is your boss one of the three? If so, they should be looking out for you, and hopefully they are.
However, trust your intuition if you feel like they are also treating you like a pawn in their own power struggle.
On the other hand, if your boss is completely outside this situation, you need to change that. Let them know what's going on and get their recommendations on how to handle it.
One of the most difficult aspects of your situation is that each of them is trying to co-opt you, and often there's an aspect of secrecy that creates a lot of awkwardness.
You can try pulling back the curtains by sharing each stakeholder's feedback.
For example, if Person B tells you to provide much more detail, you might note that Person A said that the executive strongly prefers a high-level overview.
Or you can ask each of them for opinions on specific aspects that they're more knowledgeable about. They'll feel validated but not be tripping over one another.
Transparency comes with some risks. They may feel like you're sharing information inappropriately. You'll need to be respectful and positive in your communications, and even then there may be some blowback.
Also reserve the right to thank people for their adviceand leave it at that.
If they aren't your boss and you weren't directed to work with them, you can pick and choose from what they suggest.
This isn't always obvious, especially if they are higher up in the organization than you are.
In the end, you were chosen to do this project.
The executive sponsor had a reason for this, so you should have confidence in your own abilities, which in turn will discourage people who might want to intimidate or dominate.