The corporate space intrigues me. I spent many years observing its dynamics and being trained into its construct.

It plays out in a surprisingly predictable way.

One of the phenomenon that was particularly interesting was the way people were deliberately manoeuvred out of the way.

This is called “The Ox-Bow Effect”.

The thing is if you don’t know this move, you might find yourself played out without understanding why – sort of like being on the Titanic instead of on the life boat!

Let me explain.

The executive space is not as authentic as one would like it to be. It’s more of a dog-eat-dog environment. Values like authenticity and openness are absent (too a large degree). It’s a space where tactics and strategy are much more valued and respected.

And the purpose of all this stuff?

To remain superiorly in control!

So, it works like this: When your boss’s boss wants your boss out the way, she invokes the “Ox-Bow Effect” strategy.

Now, if you did geography at school, you probably learnt about the dynamics of a meandering river. It twists and turns until eventually the turn becomes so pronounced that it breaks through and leaves a bow-shaped pool that scientists call an ox-bow lake.

What’s the connection?

Again when your boss’s boss wants to get rid of your boss, he will deliberately and with intent cuts your boss out and comes directly to you.

This is a pronounced tactic as, between executives, protocol is sacred. Breaking protocol is a death sentence.

You know that going over the head of your boss to his boss is a career-deadening move! It will cut you off and leave you out in the cold. Similarly, the boss’s boss going over your boss’s head and coming directly to you is a deliberate move to disempower your boss and leave her/him out in the tundra!

The only time your boss’s boss will come directly to you is because he has a hidden agenda: intentionally wanting to disempower your boss. It is a deliberate act to anger and disturb her.

By the way, there are two possible reasons why this might happen:

  • Your boss is becoming too big for his boots and going over his head could be a tactic to whip him back into line or,
  • Your boss is deliberately being worked out the system.

In most cases the latter applies.

If you don’t pick up on this signal, you might fail to position yourself appropriately. You might inadvertently cling to your boss and leave yourself firmly on the ‘Titanic’. This will leave you vulnerable and when boss leaves (and she will!) you run the risk of being chucked out with her!

When you pick up the ox-bow construct you can position yourself more to your advantage. It is clever to position yourself in a neutral space. Entering the fracas is inadvisable. You need to take your cue from your boss’s boss as he will guide you into the next step. In contrast, being over-reactive and dumping your boss will brand you as disloyal and weak. Play this smartly and your career might take a surprising turn for the better,

The executive space is a game. Knowing the plays can take you to the next level much quicker. Positioning yourself strategically for the next opportunity will give you an edge on the other players. By not being aware of the game, you might find yourself blindly floundering around and wondering why you aren’t making the progress you are expecting.

It might be valuable to note that, in my view, this game-play is despicable and dishonest. Principle-based leadership does not include this type of tactical manoeuvring. Unfortunately, at this stage of corporate evolution, there is this game and one has to learn to play by the rules. You cannot play cricket when everyone else is playing soccer. But, all you need to do is to learn to kick the ball instead of throwing it. You don’t have to become the best goal scorer! In other words, you don’t have to trash your own values and become like ‘them’ to be in the game!