Psychology Today: Here To Help

When Your Boss thinks You're Just Too Good to Let Go


You're a top prospect for a terrific transfer at your company. You're keen to be picked because outside opportunities remain scarce. But a major obstacle looms: your boss. She can't afford to lose a key player from her overworked department. Confronted with tight budgets, she fears she won't be able to fill your job soon.

How you handle her resistance could profoundly affect your chances for advancement now -- and in the future. It's an especially bad idea to burn your bridges during an internal shift. Instead, you should devise an empathetic approach, offering your supervisor plenty of warning and post-transfer assistance.

"Try to find a win-win," suggests Trevor Hale, a 33-year-old public-relations manager for DaimlerChrysler.

Easier said than done, as he discovered.

In summer 2001, Mr. Hale became the front-runner for a spot in the recently opened New York office of the German-U.S. auto maker. He was working at the time for its Chrysler unit in Auburn Hills, Mich. "I had support from the people in Stuttgart," where DaimlerChrysler is based, Mr. Hale remembers. "They were looking out for my career."

A wise tactic.

When you've built bonds with upper management and they can vouch for your prowess, "your boss can't block you because you're highly visible," observes Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a career-counseling network in New York.

Kenneth A. Levy, Mr. Hale's boss, recalls that he "didn't want to lose such a good man." But the Chrysler vice president also knew that vetoing Mr. Hale's coveted move would demoralize the staffer. "I said I can't let him go unless I know I can replace him" with someone equally qualified, Mr. Levy continues. Mr. Hale, for his part, says he was willing to do "whatever it took" to make the transfer work. He delayed his New York relocation by six months. And before he left Michigan in January 2002, he identified promising in-house candidates, brought one of his two successors with him to plant visits and promised to become Chrysler's ambassador to the New York corporate office.

Mr. Hale says he fulfills his pledge to his Chrysler colleagues by "just keeping them in the loop" through regular calls and e-mails. He "is very quick to make sure that we get information that's critical to us," Mr. Levy agrees.Mr. Hale might have alleviated his superior's anxieties faster by touting Mr. Levy's leadership to the top brass, advises Mark Stenberg, chief executive of the Career Center, a New York skills-training facility.

Center students often face "blocking" bosses when they try to take advantage of their new skills by seeking promotions, he reports. Some defuse such opposition by toiling extra hours to help their former

department following a transfer.Powerful human-resources managers also can referee this delicate situation. At Management Recruiters International, a Philadelphia search firm, they are assigned to unsnarl potential transfer conflicts among headquarters executives. The HR officials decide whether an interested staffer may interview for an opening and how much that desired job will pay.

Until MRI adopted its informal mediation process several years ago, "there were yelling and screaming matches" over attempted blocks, says Allen Salikof, MRI's president and chief executive.

"Screaming at each other wasn't very productive," he admits. It caused some hard feelings between a transferred subordinate and his former leader. If all other ploys fail to dislodge your resistant superior, you should resign. Mr. Salikof estimates that more than 20% of candidates that MRI considers for clients are willing to change jobs because a boss prevents an internal move. A manager at a New Jersey financial publisher refused to let research analyst Robyn Polansky take a more interesting position in a different area two years ago. The supervisor said she had yet to prove herself. "I came home and I was just hysterical," remembers Ms. Polansky, now 25 years old. "I really wanted to be successful."

The young woman spent six months trying to accomplish milestones that her boss believed would qualify her for a transfer. "They were things I had already done -- or were impossible to achieve because of their failure to give me authority," Ms. Polansky contends. She finally quit last fall and became an analyst for a New York money-management firm.

But there's a more productive alternative to an angry resignation: Orchestrate your departure and comeback. Before exiting, arrange with the head of your target department to accept you as a new hire.

"You've done an end run with the collusion of a lot of other people in the organization," explain Laurence Stybel and Maryanne Peabody, co-founders of Stybel Peabody & Lincolnshire, a Boston career-management firm. "As long as you line up your ducks in advance, it works."

Upon your return, mend fences with your spurned ex-supervisor -- maybe by buying lunch.

Updated September 29, 2003 7:30 p.m.