The back of my new boss's black leather chair faced me as I bounded into his office; a crown of brown hair was all that was visible. My old boss had retired a month earlier, wanting no part of the project to outsource our IT department.
I was young (this was almost two decades ago) and eager to make a positive impression on my new super-visor. I had the project costs that he had requested, and I had worked through lunch to make sure that the report represented my best work. As I approached his desk, I thought I heard snoring. I cleared my throat and his head bobbled. He was asleep. My new boss, friend and golfing partner of the chairman, would spend many an afternoon comfortably napping while I wrote his memos, completed his budgets and prepared his board reports. Forty-eight hours after cashing my retention bonus, I quit.
This week, a former employee called to ask how she could maximize her retention bonus. She had accepted another job, but her boss didn't want her to go, even though she had completed her work. She was frustrated and angry. Earning one's bonus in these situations takes a lot of patience.
IT veteran Sam Greene wrote me recently about ways to retain your sanity and maximize your paycheck when the department is being decimated around you -- good advice for these situations. To paraphrase Sam:
1. Never be confrontational with management. Your supervisor has discretion as to who stays, who goes and who gets paid what. Don't give him a reason to fire you before you get paid.
2. Identify manipulation and then carefully choose how to respond to it. When you're in a sea of dysfunction, you can decide when and where you'll go swimming. Stay in the boat, out of the water, whenever you can.
3. Work carefully to stay off the boss's radar. Keep your head down and get your job done. I usually recommend doing your best work, but in these cases, doing merely good work - no more than what's requested -- can result in higher severance bonuses. Doing your job too well may result in a job offer without any severance or bonus payments.
4. Keep a professional distance from those who are not handling the stress well. During periods of high stress, sometimes people try to manage by swapping "Can you believe" stories that focus on how bad everyone and everything is. Listen if you have to, but don't contribute.
5. Understand what you can influence, and learn to identify and accept what you can't control. I know -- it's easier said than done.
6. Keep your resume updated and always network for possible job opportunities.
7. Find a trusted mentor outside the company. To keep your emotional balance, find someone you trust who will provide you with an honest assessment of your situation and your behavior.
8. Continue to be honest and open with your employees. This will help you understand what's going on and may help you plan for future disruptions as these employees leave.
9. Finally, understand the difference between thriving and surviving. Surviving requires a different approach, one that is quieter and more self-absorbed than I usually advocate. However, in a dysfunctional situation, your most important job is to take care of yourself, stay centered and be prepared for the next opportunity.
Virginia Robbins is a former CIO and is now chief operations officer at North Bay Bancorp in California. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.